Talmud this Shabbat: Tainted Money, Practical Good and Trying to be Pure in an Impure World

Let me pose an explosive hypothetical. I do so to try to think slowly and deliberately about an issue that, understandably, triggers a powerful, immediate and intuitive response.

Suppose that in his will, Jeffrey Epstein had left five million dollars for Temple Emanuel. No strings attached. No request to name anything. Just a gift of five million dollars for the shul to use as it sees fit. Let’s also assume that while what he did was unspeakably evil and monstrous, this money did not come from rape or from child abuse. This money came from his work as a financier—a financier who was also a serial rapist and a serial child abuser.

Or, a related hypo: Jeffrey Epstein had left 500 million dollars to CJP. No strings. No naming. Just spend it on some transformational idea as the leadership of CJP sees fit.

Should we take this gift?

Most of us would likely have a feeling of overwhelming nausea and revulsion at the very idea of taking the money. It evokes the observation of Jonathan Haidt that nobody would ever wear Hitler’s sweater.

On the one hand, to paraphrase Mark Twain, the problem with tainted money is that there taint enough of it.

What do our sources tell us about how to think about weighing tainted origins with the good that this money would do? What is off, morally and practically, with the argument that if this monster is dead, and his money could do good, why not take it and do good with it?

While this issue is strictly hypothetical for us, it is of real concern for many universities and other causes near and far to which Epstein contributed. Heads are rolling from how this issue was handled—or mishandled, depending on how you see it.

What does how you see this issue—incapable of nuance, this is Hitler’s sweater, or he is a monster, but I can disconnect his evil from the good his money could do—say about you?

Shabbat shalom,