The Jewish Ethicist: Where Credit is Due
Should I give recognition to a modest man who did a great deed?
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
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.
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