by Rabbi Sharon Brous
First, my favorite tzedakah story. Newlyweds in their 20s were struggling, literally, to keep the lights on. One day, the husband came home from work, glowing. ‘Honey,’ he said, ‘I have wonderful news! I got a $1000 bonus. Which tzedakah should we give our $100?’ ‘Are you out of your mind?’ the wife responded. ‘We are in no position to give tzedakah! One day, yes, but now we need every penny.’ ‘Let’s try that again, OK,’ he said. ‘Honey, I have wonderful news! I got a $900 bonus!’ Decades later, this couple became philanthropic leaders, paving the way for a thriving Jewish communal landscape.
Second, a few years ago someone in our community came to tell me that, having lost her job, she had made the decision to forego dinner twice a month so that she could make the suggested $18 contribution to participate in our Torah study sessions. I told her that, under the circumstances, surely she should come to the classes for free – I cared both about her physical and spiritual health, and she would learn better on a full stomach. She was crushed. When I pushed, she said she had been in class months earlier when I taught Rambam’s argument (Hilkhot Matanot Aniyim 7:5) that everybody must give something, even those who are recipients of tzedakah themselves. In all the upheaval of the past year, if I was to exempt her from paying, I’d only be stripping her of her remaining dignity.
Third, a couple of Berkeley psychologists recently studied the social dynamics at 4-way intersections. When two cars arrive simultaneously, who is more likely to let the other car proceed first? They found clear indications that those driving more expensive cars, presumably those with greater wealth, were more likely to aggressively pull into the intersection. The consistency of the findings led them to conclude that people of privilege were less likely to feel either empathy or a shared sense communal obligation. Sound right?
Just three verses after the promise, in Deuteronomy, that there will be no poor (15:4), we learn that when there are poor, we have a direct, distinct, and uncompromising obligation to support them (15:7). We are taught, as Jews, always to dream of and aspire to the full realization of human dignity. And at the same time, we are called to live in and work to transform the here and now. We are taught that we manifest holiness through concrete action, and we are taught to give not only as an expression of love, but also as an act of sacred, shared responsibility.
Last year, a study from The Chronicle of Philanthropy found that “the nation’s generosity divide is vast,” finding that low income families and communities donate a much larger percentage of their discretionary income than the wealthy do, giving away percentage-wise twice as much those making significantly more money. In other words, the more we have, the less we are likely to give. Now, Connected to Give demonstrates, as expected, that Jews are disproportionately generous givers, with a number of significant mega-donors and philanthropists who put their money where their hearts are. Their tzedakah has built hospitals, theaters, universities and synagogues. But we also find that, as in the rest of the population, Jews at lower annual income levels distinguish themselves for the frequency and amount of their charitable giving. This means that the giving curve in the Jewish world, oddly, is U-shaped – generous gifts come from the poor and a select few of the very rich.
This is both something to marvel at and something to rebel against. To realize the world of Deuteronomy 15:4 – the world in which there are no poor, in which our schools and medical centers, our spiritual and intellectual centers, our sacred communities and justice organizations are funded – will require more than contributions at the top and bottom income levels. It will require a full communal effort, the likes of which we have not yet seen. For this to happen, we’d have to remember the lesson of that young couple – that tzedakah is not an option or a lifestyle flourish, but a sacred obligation. We’d need to recognize, like my community member did, that at the heart of the conversation on tzedakah is the value of human dignity – both for the giver and the recipient. And we’d have to practice shifting consciousness toward empathy, even (especially) when we, ourselves, are the ones driving the nice cars. Given what our people have already achieved in the world, this seems to me less a pipe-dream than an operating manual. I pray that this year will be the year we shift course.
Rabbi Sharon Brous is the founding Rabbi at Ikar, a Los Angeles based progressive, egalitarian Jewish community with a mission “to reanimate Jewish life through soulful religious and spiritual practice that is rooted in a deep commitment to social justice.” This essay was commissioned to accompany the September 3, 2013 release of Connected to Give, the first in a series of reports published by Jumpstart on the first-ever nationwide study of the charitable behaviors and motivations of American Jews.