Contemporary American Reform Responsa

146. Memorializing a Known Criminal

QUESTION: A man has approached the synagogue with the wish to provide a fund. Through it he would like to remember his deceased brother, who died in prison as a convicted felon. Is it permissible to place a plaque bearing this name or to name a fund after him? (F. S., Chicago, IL)

ANSWER: The entire matter of memorial plaques has a dual history. On one hand we have wished from the Talmudic time onward to encourage gifts, yet we have tried to to discourage boasts about such donations. The medieval Spanish scholar Solomon ben Adret (Responsa #582) stated that it would be appropriate to list the name of the donor for two reasons and the Shulhan Arukh (Yoreh Deah 249.13) agreed:

a. in order to recall the specific wishes of the donor so that the funds would not be diverted to another use;

b to encourage other donors through the good example of that individual.

The question of donations from people of doubtful reputation or those having a criminal record has also arisen a number of times. It was always felt that such gifts should be accepted, especially as it is a mitzvah to support a synagogue and it would be a sin to hinder its performance. There were objections to sacrifices of criminals, but these were not transferred to the synagogue (Toldot Adam V'Havah, Havah 23.1; Shulhan Arukh Orah Hayim 153.21 and commentaries). However, there was an equally strong feeling that such individuals of dubious reputation should not be honored; marit ayin and the honor of the synagogue are involved here.

It is, therefore, clear that although there is a strong tradition for memorializing the deceased through plaques, we should not mention a convicted felon by name. We might affix a plaque which read, "Given by in memory of his dear brother," without the specific name. We should not go further than this.

June 1983

If needed, please consult Abbreviations used in CCAR Responsa.