Thursday, November 04, 2021

Is Gambling Philanthropy Good or Bad?

Gershon Distenfeld (Poker News)
I have to admit I’m conflicted. Orthodox Jewish philanthropist, Gershon Distenfeld, sent me an article about his donation of $204,000 to Tzedaka. One may wonder why I am conflicted. It’s obviously not because he gave so much money to Tzedaka. It is how he got that money in the first place. He got it by winning the World Series of Poker (WSOP). While there is certainly nothing illegal about winning at the game of poker, Judaism is not all that happy about gambling.  

The Gemara (Mishna – Sanhedrin 24b) tells us that people who are Mesachek B’Kuvia (throw dice) are Pasul L’Eidus –  not valid witnesses and are not allowed to testify in court. This does not necessarily mean that gambling is Halachilcly forbidden. But needless to say, it is not considered a praiseworthy activity and for those who do – it can have negative consequences for their status in Judaism.

According to one opinion in the Gemara it might even be considered a version of G’zeila – robbery - since the losing party does not give up their money willingly. And surely would not have gambled knowing they’d lose. The gambler expects to win! 

In any case, the Gemara also tells us that if gambling is their sole source of income, it contributes nothing to the world and people like this are not worthy of testifying in court. This is obviously not the case with Gershon. Nonetheless, to  give unqualified praise to donating all of his prize money to Tzedaka is something I have some difficulty with. 

That said, it does not take away from Gershon’s magnanimity. It’s not like he only gave a portion of his winnigs away. He gave ALL of it away to Tzedakos that need it and will surely use that money for good. Money they would otherwise not have. 

Here’s the thing, though. Gambling can become addictive. Addictions are usually an expression of an obsessive-compulsive disorder. Gambling can do great damage to people so addicted. And to their families. Just like any other addiction. Drug and alcohol abuse may be more common than compulsive gambling, but it is no less devastating. Gamblers can easily gamble away every penny they own. They might then borrow  money from anyone they can to support their addiction.  In some cases they might put up their homes as collateral and end up losing them. 

When those sources dry up they may end up borrowing from ‘questionable’ lenders that have ‘interesting’ ways of getting their ‘loans’ paid back. People with a gambling addiction have been known to end up in the hospital having been subjected to those ‘interesting’ ways.  A gambling addiction  - like any other addiction - has been known to break up marriages and alienate the gambler from their children and the rest of their family. Needless to say Jews – even Orthodox Jews - are not immune. The last thing they need is incentives to gamble.                                                                                                

Is it not logical to assume that when an Orthodox Jew with a gambling addiction sees another Orthodox Jew winning a world class tournament in a game like poker, they might say, ‘If an Orthodox Jew like Gershon can do it – and the world praises him for it – why not me?’

This is where the problem lies for me. It is difficult to praise someone that won a lot of money at a game of poker – even if he gives all of it away to people that really need it. That is why I am conflicted. Gershon is financially well off. To him losing at poker would not have put him in the dire straits people with lesser means might be put in.

I’m very happy that because of Gershon’s unselfish attitude - the money he won will all be put to good use. But at what price?  Not sure how to answer that.