Our Golden Calf: When Tzedakah Is Not Righteous

The incident of the Golden Calf challenges us to consider how we respond to tzedakah that comes from questionable sources.

Commentary on Parashat Ki Tisa, Exodus 30:11 - 34:35

Few principles are as valued or as central to Judaism as that of tzedakah, which translated literally means “righteousness” but is usually understood as the Jewish word for “charity.” And in the Torah portion Ki Tissa, the conceptual framework of giving and receiving takes center stage.

Ki Tissa is best recognized for containing one of the most infamous events of the Jewish people’s wanderings in Sinai: the construction of the Golden Calf. We might recall that even as Moses ascends Mount Sinai in anticipation of receiving the Ten Commandments from God, the people Israel, in a swirl of panic and fear over Moses’ absence, devote their energies to constructing an idol made out of gold.

Idols vs. God

The construction of an idol is, of course, diametrically opposed to faith and service to the God of Israel, who is One, who is non-corporeal, and who, while being very much a part of human existence, also transcends the material realm. Indeed, an ongoing theme of Israel’s Exodus from Egypt is that Israel’s departure from the land of bondage is an ethical as well as physical journey.

Egypt under the pharaohs was the very model of the profound immorality of placing the accumulation of wealth over and above the value of human life. In embracing the covenant of the God of Israel, the Jewish people was leaving behind a world based upon the primacy of accumulating wealth, and setting forth on a journey towards a society based on justice, truth and peace, a society in which the value of all human life was an essential moral aim.

In the case of the Golden Calf, Israel’s sin of idolatry seems so glaring and obvious. But like ancient Egypt, we too live in a world in which the accumulation of wealth is often given primacy over the value of human life. At the same time, social action and charitable giving are ways in which the Jewish and other communities attempt to deal with the ills and injustices of society.

Maimonides, arguably the greatest Jewish thinker in the last one thousand years, devoted quite a bit of energy delineating the different levels of tzedakah. He rated anonymous giving, given out of free will, to be the highest level of charity. Just as the ancient Sages argued that it was more ethical to serve God out of love than fear, so too tzedakah given out of love and genuine concern for and service to others is a higher form of giving than charity given out of amoral interests.

What are we to do, then, when tzedakah is given for immoral reasons, and how are we to respond when charitable resources are derived from unethical and criminal pursuits?

Gangsters & Israel

I am reminded of two such instances, taking place in the throes of the creation of the State of Israel. As is now more widely-known, several Jewish gangsters contributed money, weapons and smuggling expertise on behalf of Israel’s struggle for independence.

One such gentleman, Jake “Greasy Thumb” Guzik, was Al Capone’s accountant; another was Bugsy Siegel, a mob enforcer, and founder of the Las Vegas gambling industry. Some argue that when facing a basic existential crisis like the Jewish people did after the Holocaust, our community had no choice but to accept aid from any source. But what about today?

We in the social action community and indeed in the Jewish community as a whole must ask and challenge ourselves to think critically about when the ends justifies the means — and they don’t. In recent years, our community has increasingly had to ask whether financial resources gained from unethical activities should be accepted, or even applied specifically to social action concerns.

Ivan Boesky, Michael Milken and Marc Rich, are well-known for their less than pure ways of accumulating wealth, but each also achieved notoriety for their seeming devotion to tzedakah. (Marc Rich, for example, did business and grew wealthy in part from his dealings with regimes such as Iran, Iraq and apartheid-era South Africa — and yet he also gave millions of dollars to Israel and other causes.)

READ: Pardon of Jewish Philanthropist Raises Questions About Ethics of Giving (2001)


Although this dilemma is not new, I fear that our community has yet to truly deal with this challenge. There are no hard and fast rules to these moral questions. But if we are not thoughtful about what we construct, and if we ignore the sources of our largesse, we too, like our ancestors in the wilderness of Sinai, may find ourselves building an idol made of gold rather than truly serving God and caring for humanity at large.

Provided by SocialAction.com, an online Jewish magazine dedicated to pursuing justice, building community, and repairing the world.


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