The Education Ministry’s summer camps for first- and second-graders generated much controversy last month because they were partly sponsored by the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (IFCJ), known in Israel as the Keren Leyedidut. The IFCJ, which is run by Orthodox Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein and financially supported by Evangelical Christians, raises over $100 million each year toward educational, health, security and other welfare projects, primarily in Israel. While Eckstein’s efforts have earned him positions within the Joint Distribution Committee and the Jewish Agency, his organization has been shunned by several prominent religious Zionist and haredi rabbis who oppose receiving charity from Evangelicals for a combination of halachic and sociological reasons.
The Talmud generally looked askance at Jews receiving donations from idol-worshipers, even as it permitted it under some circumstances. Regarding religious institutions, the Mishna asserts that while anyone could voluntarily pledge money toward sacrifices, the basic financial upkeep of the Temple could only be supported by Jews. There were similar restrictions on building the walls of Jerusalem. The Talmud explains that an outright ban was applied during the beginning of a building process when dependence on foreign support might allow for outside intervention to slow down or stop an essential project.
At later stages, foreign donations would be accepted as long as they were not distinct or discernible objects that would provide glory to others through our religious edifice.
Yet synagogues, which do not share the same prominence or holiness as the Temple, may receive financial support from anyone.
Regarding support for individuals in need, charity from idol-worshipers was decried as a “desecration of God’s name,” at least when done publicly. This was deemed problematic because it was seen as a denigrating act of dependency, or as reflecting badly on the Jewish community that could not or did not provide for its own. Additionally, allowing idol-worshipers to perform acts of kindness could increase their merits and political rewards, thereby extending the duration of their reign and the Jewish exile.
Be that as it may, the Talmud does allow accepting such charity privately, and when there are no other options, even publicly. The Talmud further adds that to the chagrin of some colleagues, many sages would accept charity from non-Jewish rulers if rejecting that money would cause great insult.
Over the centuries, additional dispensations were suggested in situations when decisors believed that the perceived problems could be averted. Some contended that the prohibition of receiving foreign donations only applied to charity collectors who represented the community, but not to individuals in need.
Similarly Rabbi Abraham Kook asserted that the prohibition was only meant for money going to the larger masses, but not for individual cases. Others believed that it was only problematic if the money was intended directly for Jews, but not if it was a general extension of care to all people in need. One scholar asserted that the prohibition applied only to non-Jews intending to receive physical and spiritual reward for fulfilling commandments; accepting a general act of kindness, however, was entirely fine. Rabbi Haim Ben-Attar limited the restrictions to non-Jewish governments or rulers, but not to individual donors.
Whatever the rationale given, it is clear that in various situations, Jews did frequently accept donations from non-Jews. Rabbi Yehiel Michel Epstein offered an explanation for this phenomenon toward the beginning of the 20th century in Lithuania. In addition to noting the dire financial straits of Jews, he broadly asserted that this prohibition did not apply to cases of non-Jews who were not idol-worshipers.
Contemporary figures like rabbis Avraham Shapiro and Shlomo Aviner, who oppose receiving support from the IFCJ, argue that all of these dispensations were offered in times when Jews were economically desperate, as opposed to today, when we have a thriving state. They contend that Evangelical belief remains within the category of avoda zara (idol worship) and that we must fear over-dependence on foreign financial support, whether for soup kitchens or for military arms. They further claim that we must fear potential missionary activities from Evangelicals, whose support for Israel stems from their religious beliefs.
Other prominent scholars, including rabbis Eliezer Melamed, Nachum Eliezer Rabinovitz and David Stav, have countered that a prominent strand of historical sources assert that contemporary Christians do not fall within the category of “idol-worshipers” with whom we are prohibited to engage in financial relations of different sorts. The money, which helps overcome major gaps in the welfare system, is channeled through Israeli organizations, and there is no evidence of missionizing stemming from this philanthropy. The theological basis for Evangelical Zionism is no reason simply to reject its support, just as we accept military support from foreign governments even if they have their own political agendas. Indeed, many have used the same types of halachic arguments to justify accepting well over $100 billion of American aid over the past 66 years, recognizing that the political, theological and economic changes that have resulted from Zionism must also impact how we treat foreign allies, political and religious alike.
While we must always remain cautious of hidden agendas behind foreign backing, we must also prevent ourselves from showing ingratitude for the genuine support of non-Jews whose help should not be taken for granted. Under this perspective, we should only have two words for our Evangelical supporters: Thank you!
The author teaches at Yeshivat Hakotel, directs the Tikvah Overseas Seminars, and is a junior research fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute. Facebook.com/RabbiShlomoBrody.