All Charitable Giving is a Jewish Act

tzedakah boxI am perplexed when I hear Jewish professionals shaking their heads when they hear of a Jewish donor who has given to the local symphony, an African aid organization, or a university instead of to a “traditional” Jewish cause.

by Rabbi Rebecca W. Sirbu

Do you remember getting ready to go to Hebrew school and checking to make sure you had money to give to tzedaka? I remember the ritual of passing around the tezedaka box and hearing each clink, clink, as our loose change hit the bottom of that blue and white can. I remember asking the teacher how many trees in Israel we would be able to buy with our change, or how many poor children we would be able to feed. Learning that Jews help others and give back is a central theme in Jewish education.

Of course, this is not surprising. Jews have been dedicated to taking care of others and giving back to society at large since we were admonished in the Torah to take care of the poor, the widow and the orphan. Deuteronomy (15:7-8) teaches: “If, however, there is a needy person among you … do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman. Rather you must open your hand and lend him sufficient for whatever he needs.” The Jewish community has done an amazing job educating Jews about their need to give to charity. Every Jewish child, regardless of denomination, in every Jewish educational setting learns about the need to give tzedaka.

It is not surprising then that according to the National Study of American Jewish Giving, Jews as a group have one of the higher levels of giving of any group in the United States, and that this giving goes to both the organized Jewish community and to other causes.

As a rabbi, I am extremely proud that Jews give to both Jewish and non-Jewish causes. Regardless of where the charitable gift is given, the act of giving itself is a Jewish act. The Talmud in Gittin 61 states: “Our Rabbis taught: We sustain the non-Jewish poor with the Jewish poor, visit the non-Jewish sick with the Jewish sick, and bury the non-Jewish dead with the Jewish dead to create peace in the community.” Giving should not just be limited to giving to the Jewish community. The phrase “to create peace in the community” probably meant, at the time it was written, that Jews should take care of non-Jews in order to have good relations with the larger sometime hostile gentile community. However, with today’s interconnected world, creating “peace in the community” can literally mean world peace. Working to help everyone in the world to be fed, healthy, and honorably buried will in actuality cut down on war and strife between people. By giving in a larger sense, we can really fulfill the prophet’s vision that “they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” (Isaiah 2:3-4)

So I am perplexed when I hear Jewish professionals shaking their heads when they hear of a Jewish donor who has given to the local symphony, an African aid organization, or a university instead of to a “traditional” Jewish cause. Yes, I understand that a local synagogue, federation or JCC would like to be the recipient of a large gift from a Jewish donor. But we often forget that the act of giving itself is a Jewish act, it is part and parcel of that person living out their Jewish identity and should be recognized as such. After all, we taught them how important it is to give in our synagogues and schools.

So let us celebrate Jewish giving and not make distinctions between those giving to Jewish and non-Jewish causes. In fact making this distinction has a very real negative effect. It creates yet another line between “us – the good Jews” and “them – the bad Jews.” It pushes people, especially younger people away. The Talmud in Baba Bathra 9a teaches: “Charity is equal in importance to all other commandments combined.” The text states “charity,” meaning all charity – not just charity to the Jewish community. “It is equal to … all the other commandments combined” means giving is more important than going to shul on Shabbat and studying Torah. In our surveys of Jewish life, if we measured commitment to Judaism by how much tzedaka people give, then a much higher percentage of Jews would be seen as living active Jewish lives.

In the case of charitable giving, “we” the leaders of the Jewish community have had astonishing success teaching a core Jewish value which people take to heart and act on. Let us continue to teach this fundamental Jewish value and celebrate all charitable giving.

Rabbi Rebecca W. Sirbu is the Director of Rabbis Without Borders at CLAL – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership where she works to nurture and develop a network of rabbis with a shared vision to make Jewish wisdom available to anyone looking to enrich his or her life. 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.