A Tale of Two Philanthropists

by Dr. Michael S. Berger

With Simchat Torah earlier this week, the run of Tishrei holidays with their unique themes, tastes and rituals have come to an end, but not without giving us yet another opportunity – through Parshat Breishit (Genesis) – to reflect on our work and roles in building and supporting Jewish communal life.

The Bible’s first two chapters provide an account – or, more accurately, accounts – of the creation of Adam and Eve, featuring two very different views of what it means to be human. In a famous 1965 essay entitled “The Lonely Man of Faith,” the 20th century thinker Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik analyzed the differences between the first two chapters of Genesis, formulating the distinction in the terms “Adam I” and “Adam II.” In the opening chapter of the Bible, the first human couple was created at the end of the week and given the charge to “master the world and dominate it” (1:28). According to Soloveitchik, “Adam I” is a restless personality who sees the world as an endless toolbox of raw materials with which to create new things. He studies the world carefully, trying to understand its workings in order to tackle problems and improve the status quo. Driven by the question “how?”, Adam I is the scientist who tirelessly seeks to uncover the world’s natural processes and apply them in new ways, thus extending creation by human means. Created together, Adam and Eve are the first entrepreneurial couple, pragmatically collaborating to achieve their individual ends.

Chapter 2 of Genesis, on the other hand, gives us a very different picture of humanity. Created alone in the Garden of Eden, “Adam II” is situated in the Garden and charged “to tend it and guard it.” His role is conservative rather than creative, requiring him to do his utmost to preserve the ideal reality in which he finds himself. Interestingly, it is this work – the work of maintenance – that leads him to ask the “why?” of existence, to understand his role in the cosmos and find it wanting. According to Soloveitchik, Eve appears in this scenario as a response to Adam’s deep sense of loneliness, not as a collaborator but as a companion. It is out of this complementarity – Adam’s sense that he is not whole without Eve – that marriage and genuine community is born.

I found this distinction extremely helpful several years ago when I was teaching a course on the values of Jewish giving as part of local Federation’s Endowment Committee and The Jewish Federations of North America Family Philanthropy Initiative. Anticipating the largest transfer of wealth in American Jewish history, the designers of the course hoped to have two or more generations of philanthropic families study Jewish texts together and become more conscious of – and articulate about – the values that animate their giving. The sources of the curriculum were excellent, but I found that the participants did not all see or perform their philanthropy in the same way.

Some participants in the course looked back at their philanthropy and realized that generally they were content to be Adam II, “maintaining the garden” of this institution or that program or organization. They found it fulfilling to play a supportive role to that which was already providing a valuable resource; often, they made regular significant gifts or were invited to join a pre-existent community such as a committee or board of directors. However, a few families – some that had spearheaded the founding of new institutions or had taken existing institutions to an entirely new level – saw themselves as “Adam I,” seeing a void in the Jewish landscape that needed filling or a reality that demanded major improvement. They wanted to create a new reality, and did.

Overall, the group found the categories of “Adam I-” and “Adam II-philanthropy” to be extremely helpful in understanding their own giving. Almost everyone could point to giving they had done that fit into each category. In our discussion, some felt that their decision to be an Adam II philanthropist was driven by the exigencies of work or family, while others admitted that, more than anything, their personalities determined what type of philanthropy they exercise. All agreed that in the life of a single communal institution, there were times that called for the Adam I type of philanthropy – careful study of the current “how” and bold creativity to propose new ways of achieving results or addressing problems – while other times demanded Adam II support. Both donors and the causes they served needed to be sufficiently self-aware what type of philanthropy was required at a particular time in the institution’s or program’s history.

Admittedly, popular American culture tends to venerate the Adam I philanthropists. Basing themselves on the fast-changing worlds of business or technology, some donors seek a “Big Idea” to change the reality we know in a lasting and positive way. More power to them. But Jewish tradition acknowledges the equal importance of Adam II, the role played by those who tend the garden to preserve its lushness and fruitfulness. Though less flashy and headline-grabbing, the quiet support of regular, reliable donors has helped buoy Jewish communities and institutions for centuries. Indeed, as with Adam and Eve, that’s where genuine community is frequently found.

For Soloveitchik, by including both accounts of Adam and Eve’s creation in Genesis, the Torah lets us know that both Adam I and Adam II live within each of us, and both are part of our very humanity. Jewish communities – like the world as a whole – need both.

Dr. Michael S. Berger is a Program Officer at The AVI CHAI Foundation.