Creating a Tzedakah Standard

by Don Abramson

Larry Moses aptly describes the biblical commandment to do justice, tzedek. His essay also examines the rabbinic interpretation that tzedakah be directed to those who cannot meet their basic human needs, within the context of a model of concentric circles of giving. In response to Moses’ suggestion, I will explore the model of concentric circles as a way of creating a workable tzedakah standard.

While there are a wide range of interpretations of what tzedakah is, there is common agreement that the purpose of tzedakah is to benefit others and, specifically, to correct the injustices that deny people the fulfillment of their basic needs. We all share in this obligation to our Covenental Partner to help correct those injustices and, in so doing, strengthen our ties both to that Partner and to each other.

Debating the definition of tzedakah is not merely an intellectual exercise, but also an activity that has real-world implications for how we treat and care for people in greatest need, people who generally have the least power to advocate for themselves. According to a 2007 study by Indiana University for, only 31 percent of charitable donations benefit the economically disadvantaged. Donors often seem either to confuse charitable giving with tzedakah or to lose sight of the importance of helping the disadvantaged. Furthermore, because there is no distinction between tzedakah and non-tzedakah contributions with respect to a tax deduction, donors might conflate any nonprofit donation with tzedakah. It is easy for the focus on tzedakah to get lost. Deliberately identifying what is and is not tzedakah can protect its claim for support.

The concentric circles model – that we give higher priority to those within our closest circle and lesser priority as we move outward – determines the connection between an individual and his or her community. The rabbis have recognized this concept of priorities throughout the ages. The concentric circles rule, while certainly not unique to Judaism, derives from an age-old wisdom about decision making that was grounded in very difficult realities of allocation. We know that we need to start with ourselves in allocating scarce resources and next help those with whom we have the closest connections. We must respond to the tension between the biblical centrifugal force demanding justice for those on the fringes of society and the rabbinic centripetal force around the giver.

The myriad concentric circles surrounding each individual serve as building blocks upon which communities are constructed and through which they confer benefits on their members, engendering quasi-contracts of obligation. A contribution to support a community institution is certainly philanthropy; it not only helps society but oftentimes is necessary for a community to thrive. Yet even under the most expansive interpretation of basic human needs – cultural, religious, health, welfare, and educational – to the extent that a contribution does not help to meet those needs, it is not tzedakah.

How should one approach giving to tzedakah and community when both are crucially important and resources are limited? As it is, Americans give at most 2 percent to 3 percent of their income to charity and there is little evidence to suggest that Jews contribute a lot more than average Americans, irrespective of aspirational tithing standards. While providing more generously to both is the ideal, a workable – rather than theoretical — standard for tzedakah would help encourage generosity. Daniel Nevins suggests “graduated expectations of giving based upon financial capacity.” In addition to using the familiar Form 1040 as a model of form, he suggests reclaiming ancient categories of giving as models of substance. My own suggestion is somewhat simpler: In addition to non-tzedakah communal obligations, one should give 10 percent of discretionary income or 1 percent of net worth to tzedakah, whichever is greater.

Another answer might lie in Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’s idea of “the felt necessities of the times.” In a period of communal threat, community should come first; in a time of greater financial disparity between the rich and poor – and especially one of increasing poverty levels – the balance should be tilted toward tzedakah.

Don Abramson is a past chair of the American Jewish World Service, where he has served as a longtime board member. He is seeking to create a workable tzedakah standard.

Reprinted with permission from the October 2011 issue of the journal Sh’ma, as part of a larger conversation about philanthropy and tzedakah.