Your talmudic advice column

Your talmudic advice column

Tzvee Zahavy of Teaneck has worked as professor of Jewish studies, religious studies, advanced Talmud, halacha, Jewish law codes, and Jewish liturgy, at major U.S. research universities and seminaries. He has published numerous articles and books about Judaism and Jewish life. He received his Ph.D. from Brown University and his rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University. Go to for details.

Dear Rabbi,

I am the head administrator at a major Jewish nonprofit in New Jersey. One of our biggest donors has been charged with a crime. We want to remove his name from our building now. Do we need to wait and see if he is convicted or exonerated? It could be years and we do not want to suffer embarrassment in the interim.

Disheartened in New Jersey

Dear Disheartened,

You do not need to wait. But you may not need to disown your disgraced donor, even when he (or she) is convicted and sent to prison. Check with your New Jersey colleagues in the nonprofit sector about the local customs in this muddy swamp. It seems obvious that where big money is involved, creative solutions abound.

For instance, I can recall several years back, when a big-named donor of a New Jersey Jewish school was sent to prison. It was true that as a result, his name was removed from the school. But resourcefully, the school put up his mother’s name as the replacement. And the family continued supporting its cause.

Be aware that this issue has another related side, now in the news in a major way, that affects many charitable recipient organizations, Jewish and not.

It’s not clear where this will lead, but cultural institutions have stopped taking donations from a prominent Jewish family, the Sacklers, and its foundations.

The Sacklers founded and are major owners of Purdue Pharma, the notorious maker of OxyContin, the opioid drug that is most visibly involved in the addiction crisis that has beset our nation. The company has played a major role in the opioid epidemic that killed more than 200,000 Americans over the last 20 years. In March, company officials settled a lawsuit brought by the state of Oklahoma, agreeing to pay $270 million to avoid going to trial in state court.

More large settlements now are expected with other states and a with a consolidated collection of 1,600 individual lawsuits.

The family is the 19th richest in the United States; in 2016 its wealth was listed at $13 billion. The Sacklers have a long record of philanthropy to scientific, medical, educational, and arts institutions, mainly in the U.S. and the U.K. But museums and cultural institutions around the world now have stopped accepting donations from the Sacklers.

This brings to mind the story of another Jewish family involved in pushing addictive substances. The prominent New York Jewish philanthropic Tisch family suffered no social or philanthropic rebuffs that I can recall over the years for its ownership stake in Lorillard, makers of Newport cigarettes. The Tisch family ostensibly divested its holdings of that company in 2008.

The Tisches had bought the company 40 years earlier, when Laurence Tisch and Preston Robert Tisch took advantage of the expanding public health concerns over the dangers of smoking. The brothers bought the cigarette company at a bargain basement price and made a fortune over the next decades.

The Times reported in 2008, “Public health experts say Lorillard’s Newports, which rank near the top in smoking-machine tests of nicotine yield, may be among the unhealthiest varieties of cigarettes.”

Now, why do I so vividly recall this particular sad saga? It’s personal. My mother smoked those Newports for decades. When I was in high school, she used to send me out on Friday mornings to do some Shabbes shopping for her — to buy a challah, some gefilte fish, a jar of horseradish, and a pack of Newports. She smoked those cigarettes right up to her death in 2000, which was caused by emphysema, heart disease, and vascular disease, the multiple horrible illnesses that her Newports inflicted on her.

Annually, cigarette smoking kills 7 million people worldwide; 480,000 of them are in the United States. These numbers have been comparable for the past 50 years.

Owning a company that purveyed death has had little effect on the reputation of the Tisch family. To this day, New York University’s undergraduate performing, cinematic, and media arts school is named the NYU Tisch School of the Arts. And children happily visit the Tisch Children’s Zoo at 65th Street in Central Park. And many other places of art and recreation bear their name.

There are many variations on stories like these, but the common thread that runs through them is that philanthropy all too often serves as the reputation-laundering mechanism for people who made fortunes out of the suffering of others. And no doubt it can serve as a guilt-assuaging mechanism as well.

Accordingly, my advice ought to be that yes, you should take down the names of those who engaged in disreputable conduct from all of our educational, social, cultural, recreational, and other institutions. No matter what the cost, we should never allow the purveyors of evil to use philanthropy to buy themselves eminence.

Yet we know that is not how the world works. Consider the case of the Nobel prizes. There is no greater eminence that a person can receive than one of those prizes for accomplishments in the arts or sciences.

Who was Mr. Nobel? He was the inventor of dynamite and a manufacturer of cannons and armaments. His fortunes derived from war, death, and destruction. According to the Nobel committee, he made no attempt to hide that he wanted to cleanse his reputation through philanthropy. His biographers say that he bequeathed his fortune to institute the Nobel prizes after he read a draft obituary that condemned him for profiting from the sales of arms.

I’m sure it wasn’t just a come-to-charity moment at the end of his life that motivated this tycoon. Nobel knew how the world works, and he devised a plan to make his name synonymous with positive academic and cultural achievements.

Tellingly, I cannot recall ever reading of a recipient who refused the Nobel prize because its monies derived from war.

And it’s not just charity work that can redeem a person’s repute from the stains of sin. It’s at the core of the world’s religions. It’s what religions do.

At the ancient Israelite Temple in Jerusalem priests accepted sacrifices from sinners every day — sin-offerings and guilt-offerings, consisting of a bullock, a goat, a lamb, doves, or fine flour, depending on the offender’s status.

And I recall with some awe being a child and listening to the announcements of the pledges at the Yom Kippur appeal at the Park East Synagogue, where my father was rabbi. After my dad’s inspiring Yom Kippur sermon, the shammos would go around the shul. Members would tell him their pledges and he would report them aloud. For instance, he would call out “Mr. Weil pledges $5,000” as he announced the amount he was told by the donor on the spot. In the back of the synagogue a non-Jewish man sat with a pencil and paper and wrote down each pledge so no one would dispute it later. And the understanding was, as the prayers assured, that these acts of charity “mitigated the evil of the decree” of Yom Kippur.

It was a simpler time decades ago. Today we have the instantaneous internet to inform us all about the wrongdoings of our tycoons, from purveying instruments of death and suffering, to the various forms of illegal sexual improprieties and offensive harassing behaviors.

Would Mr. Nobel be able to establish his prize program today? Perhaps not, if a group started to circulate opposition on the internet under the hashtag #@nononobel. Or perhaps yes, since it’s utterly critical to the balance of the universe that the fortunes of evil-doers be directed back to do good for humanity.

My advice then is to mitigate your embarrassment the best you can. Perhaps remove the donor’s name from your building.

But common sense, and all that I know of the dynamics of religion and culture, tells me that you should continue to accept funds for doing the deeds of decency, no matter what their source is.

Dear Rabbi Zahavy,

I have celebrated Passover with a seder for many years. Every year I leave the table with the same question: Who wrote the Haggadah? Nobody has ever given me a good answer to this. Can you help? 

Puzzled about Passover in Paramus

Dear Puzzled,

It is correct and sanctioned to say historically, critically, and theologically that many people over many epochs wrote parts of the Haggadah.

Okay then, you may say to me, show me how that works. Explain to me who wrote the various composite texts and when did they write them.

And concisely that is what the Polychrome Historical Haggadah sets out to do — in a brilliant way — by color coding the layers of the text from the Biblical, rabbinic (Mishnaic and Talmudic), geonic, medieval, modern and contemporary periods — each in its own color. Biblical verses are black. Mishnah passages are red. And so on — until contemporary texts (that some people add) like the Hatikvah, appropriately are printed in Israeli-flag blue. And this marvelous work provides critical notes to show the sources of the distinctive literary strata of the Haggadah and includes a brilliant English translation.

In 2017 I reformatted and reissued the Polychrome Historical Haggadah. It was originally published in 1974, the work of Rabbi Jacob Freedman of Springfield, Massachusetts. It is like a seven-hued rainbow.

So here is the answer to who wrote it. The Haggadah evolved organically over millennia. It is the output of many authors, mostly anonymous, assembled by many editors and used throughout history by nearly all Jews, every year.

Seeing the different sources of the Haggadah in vibrant colors makes vivid the point that Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik always taught, that the Haggadah is not simply the retelling of a story.

It’s an occasion of Talmud Torah, studying Torah in the rabbinic manner. When you finish at the end of the seder, you haven’t told the story of the Exodus in a narrative way. You’ve told it in a kind of midrashic pastiche. The color highlighting shows you the alternating cadences of the work. It’s like an opera with different arias. The Haggadah is the libretto.

You can order the book from Amazon. There’s still plenty of time to get it for your seder this year. I wish you and all our readers a happy and kosher Passover.

The Dear Rabbi Zahavy column offers mindful advice based on Talmudic reasoning and wisdom. The author aspires to be equally open and meaningful to all the varieties and denominations of Judaism. You can find the column here usually on the first Friday of the month. Please mail your questions to the Jewish Standard or email them to

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