A. In a recent column, we pointed out that Jewish law forbids buying stolen merchandise. We quoted Maimonides who wrote: "For if he can't find anyone to buy, he won't steal." (1)
You correctly point out that a similar principle applies to laundering the proceeds of illegal activity. Whether the criminal activity is theft or some illegal form of commerce such as the drug trade, the perpetrators can safely enjoy their ill-gotten gain only if they have a safe place to stash it. So from that point of view, accepting the money should be equally forbidden. On the other hand, there is a difference between an object which is itself actually stolen and money which is in itself neutral but whose source was some illegal activity.
The Talmud teaches:
The rabbis taught: It is forbidden to accept deposits from women, slaves and children. If [despite the prohibition] he did accept from a woman, he should return it to her. If she died, he should return it to her husband. (2)
This law relates to a suspicious deposit. At the time of the Talmud, men were in most cases in charge of the family finances; a woman would have little reason to make a deposit with a stranger. Slaves did not own property at all. Due to this suspicion, it is forbidden to take the deposit. The Talmudic commentator Rashbam gives an explanation reminiscent of that of Maimonides regarding stolen objects:
It is forbidden to aid transgressors. And if he doesn't accept from them, they will return [the objects] from wherever they stole them from.
The emphasis is on the material help the deposit makes to enabling the theft.
In a similar vein, Maimonides rules:
People who are presumed thieves, and all of their money is presumed stolen because their livelihood is theft, like tax farmers and bandits, it is forbidden to benefit from them, because there is a presumption that their work is stolen. And it is forbidden [even] to change money from their box, because it is all presumed stolen. (3)
At the strict legal level, there is still a difference between the actual stolen money and money that is the proceeds from transgression. The distance from the transgression in this case is greater, and the sources above do not demonstrate that there is a specific legal prohibition on accepting deposits which are suspected to be the proceeds of wrongdoing.
However, we do see that Jewish law recognizes the concept of tainted money and the problem of abetting wrongdoing. The strict money-laundering laws that have been passed in recent years are in the spirit of the laws we have just discussed, and in any specific case where accepting the money is a substantive aid to wrongdoing it would be forbidden.
SOURCES: (1) Maimonides' Code Laws of Theft 5:1. (2) Babylonian Talmud Bava Batra 51b (3) Maimonides' Code, Laws of Lost and Stolen Objects 5:9