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The Jewish Ethicist: Where Credit is Due

The Jewish Ethicist: Where Credit is Due

Should I give recognition to a modest man who did a great deed?

by

Q.A man in our town went to great lengths to mobilize his own resources and those of others in the community to help a distressed and needy person. Is it proper to publicize his acts by reporting them to the news media?

A. In general, Judaism looks favorably on giving recognition and honor to those who perform good deeds. Most simply, this is an appropriate way of showing our gratitude and admiration. Beyond this, most people value recognition, so providing it serves as an incentive for people to devote their energies to acts of generosity.

The great Medieval sage Rabbi Shlomo Adret (known as Rashba) writes that it is appropriate to record a donor's name on a synagogue. "And this is the way of the sages and elders, in order to provide a reward for those who do a mitzvah. And this is the way of the Torah, which records and publicizes mitzvah doers." (1) Rabbi Adret is pointing out that Scripture itself records the deeds of our great forebears. While the Torah writes that Moses was the meekest of all people on the face of the earth, (Numbers 12:3), the Torah's own account insured that Moses is also one of the most famous people who ever lived on the face of the earth!

Continuing with the theme of incentives, Rabbi Adret cites a Midrash, which states: "If Reuben would have known that the Torah would write 'And Reuben heard and saved [Joseph] from their hand' (Genesis 37:21), he would have carried him on his shoulders! And if Aaron had known that the Torah would write 'Behold, he is coming forth to meet you [Moses], and when he sees you his heart will be glad,' (Exodus 4:14) he would have come forth to greet him with dances and tambourines! (2) Note that the Midrash doesn't hint that people are motivated to help others because they seek recognition; but it does tell us that people act with much greater enthusiasm when they know their efforts will be appreciated and acknowledged.

Yet at times people have good reasons for doing good deeds in secret. This could be out of modesty or shame, or perhaps because they have personal or even professional reasons to shun publicity. Perhaps they are afraid to be seen as publicity seekers. After all, you will know that this man never sought media attention, but others may think that he himself notified the newspapers, or asked you to do so; they may even think that he only did a good deed in order to get publicity. The result would be shame, rather than honor.

Recognizing this potential for a boomerang effect, the Talmud tells a story of the Jewish leader and scholar, Rabbi Yehudah the Prince, who publicly complimented a student on his beautiful manuscript of a sacred text. The student demurred that the writing was not his, but rather that of another scribe. Rabbi Yehudah told him "Decease from slander!" (3)

Overall, I think there is little likelihood that harm would come as a result of your turning to the news media. The acts were not done in true secrecy, so the person is not totally shying away from attention, and in any case chances are that if the hero declines to cooperate with reporters that they would in any case drop the story.

A good approach would be to start with people close to the hero, such as his wife, and ask if they think he would be averse to publicizing his story. Or raise the topic with him in an oblique way. (If you ask him outright if he wants media attention he will almost certainly say no.) If you do decide to go forward, insist that the reporter commit himself to going forward with the story only if the subject is in agreement. I don't believe that it is wise to rely on commitments like these from reporters in the case of important and controversial stories like whistle-blowing cases, but in a feel-good story like this I don't think you need to worry that a reporter would insist on publishing the story without good will from all sides.

SOURCES: (1) Responsa Rashba I:581. (2) Leviticus Rabbah on Leviticus 25:35 (3) Babylonian Talmud Bava Batra 164b

IMPORTANT NOTE:

There were many fascinating responses to the recent article on cheating the insurance company to obtain a life-saving medication. A number of readers wrote that drug companies often give substantial discounts to patients needing life-saving treatment not covered by insurance and beyond their means. Therefore, they strongly recommend that someone in this tragic situation should turn first to the manufacturer of the drug to see if some compromise can be arranged.

Send your queries about ethics in the workplace to jewishethicist@aish.com

To sponsor a column of the Jewish Ethicist, please click here.

The Jewish Ethicist presents some general principles of Jewish law. For specific questions and direct application, please consult a qualified Rabbi.

The Jewish Ethicist is a joint project of Aish.com and the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem. To find out more about business ethics and Jewish values for the workplace, visit the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem at www.besr.org.

Published: May 27, 2006


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Visitor Comments: 4

(4) Deby Goodman, July 6, 2006 12:00 AM

What about the recipient?

There is another person who would be affected by this proposed publicity. How would the "distressed and needy person" react to having their situation publicized? It may be that they would prefer others not to know that they had been in such need. Perhaps your coorespondent should also check with the recipient of the largess before exposing their need to the community. While poverty, disease, etc are not shameful, many people feel great shame in the situation of being dependent on others.

(3) Alek Kirstein, May 31, 2006 12:00 AM

Credit is only His

Do we deserve any credit? Aren't Hashem's Mitzvot the greatest credit of all? By doing them we become part of the Divine credit. If so, what good can public opinion bring the one who seeks credit from Hashem? Those who take good feelings from opinions are apt to be severly disappointed. Hashem's credit is infinite and untouchable by opinion. I just assume a Tzadik would have all the Divine credit he can handle and would shun the thought that possibly even one out of 100,000 unaffiliated folk may feel opposed to his actions, and give rise to conflict. The opinions belong only to Hashem, the Tzaddik, and the one/s being served.

Also, is "public credit" ever a good motivator for true good will? Torah study is much better at this.

(2) Anonymous, May 28, 2006 12:00 AM

Fall-out from publicisizing a good deed

Consider the negative consequences of the publicity: friends and strangers alike could continue to bring unwanted attention to the man who may feel less likely to step forward in the future, to avoid the publicity; though some may feel moved to emulate him, many others may feel that "he did it,now I don't have to (whew!)" Then there are the positive consequences: putting a face on a situation that needs everyone's attention and help; showing that the problem is not overwhelming, that something can be done besides sitting back and clucking sadly. Equally compelling scenarios. Bottom line, the wishes of the man should be honored and respected (after all, he had every opportunity himself to "go public" if he'd felt it would help his project). "Word of mouth" can't be controlled, though; and perhaps word of mouth would ultimately have the greatest positive impact, which is what I'm sure the writer of the question desires.

Personally, I feel good deeds should be anonymous, to avoid using another's misfortune to make one "look good". But this seems to be an issue of a greater good, so careful attention should be given to achieving the same end through alternative means.

(1) Perry Potash, May 28, 2006 12:00 AM

Giving credit where credit is due

Yes I believe ther should be credit where credit is due, Iam writing a story about my Pop-Pop a great war hero that saved thousands from the Gas chambers and camps, Iam looking for survival stories of anyone who knew him or any families that were helped by Him.
His name is Avrom Potash He was a rabbi and is burried in Israel, He Heard God, and was a saint on Earth as well as is a Saint / Rabbi in Heaven, and I would like to Honor Him and his good works. Any help would be greatly apreciated.
Love Perry.

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