Judaism and Philanthropy

[Reprinted with permission from Sh’ma Now, a curated monthly conversation on Jewish Sensibilities. These articles, examining the differences between philanthropy and tzedakah, originally appeared in October 2001.]

By Elliot N. Dorff

Jeremy Burton raises some critical questions for contemporary Jewish philanthropists and Jewish organizations. The very existence of Jewish educational and religious institutions and the viability of Jewish life depends on how people with money respond to his questions.

When we look to Jewish sources to give us guidance, though, we are immediately faced with guidance, critical methodological problems. Classical, medieval, and even early modern Jewish sources address Jewish communities that were much more isolated and cohesive than is now the case. Until 1945, the majority of the world’s Jews lived in countries where Jewish law governed their day-to-day actions, enforced ultimately by the government. That, obviously, is no longer the case. Therefore, when Mr. Burton asks whether we will “allow” funders to ask the questions he raises, it is not clear to me what he means. In countries with freedom of religion, funders clearly can and will make their own decisions. The more important question to ask is: If funders look to the Jewish tradition for guidance, what will it tell them?

As soon as we ask that question, though, we realize that we must apply Jewish law to a completely new setting. Today, governments take care of some educational and social welfare tasks that were formerly supported by philanthropists alone. That means that a straightforward application of biblical and rabbinic procedures for giving charity will not work; instead we must analyze the deep theological and moral commitments of the Jewish tradition and apply them afresh to modern circumstances. (For one attempt to do that, see my booklet, “You Shall Strengthen Them:” A Rabbinic Letter on the Poor, New York: Rabbinical Assembly and United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, 1999).

With such an analysis in mind, who should be the recipients of our philanthropy? Jewish sources answer that question in concentric circles. First we must assure our own life and health, then that of our family, then the local Jewish community, then the global Jewish community, and then the non-Jewish poor or sick. In our own time, when we are strongly enmeshed in America, this order may seem parochial and even mean. Still, we are a very small people, constituting only 2 percent of the population of North America and one-quarter of 1 percent of the population of the world. We desperately need Jews with money to donate to Jewish causes in significant amounts.

For what purposes should donated money be spent? As I interpret Jewish sources, the order of priority is this: redeeming captives (with women first); medical care for the sick among the poor; building and maintaining synagogues and Jewish educational institutions; food and then clothing and housing for the poor (again, with women first); dowries and other necessities for indigent brides and then grooms; and finally whatever is necessary to sustain a poor person’s dignity. In our day when most Jews who sought redemption from the former Soviet Union, Ethiopia, and Arab lands have been redeemed, and when Medicaid provides medical care for the indigent, this list of priorities would have us concentrate our philanthropic dollars on building and maintaining synagogues, schools, camps, youth groups, and other Jewish religious and educational institutions. It would then have us support Jewish social service institutions like Jewish Family Service. This talmudic list clearly does not contemplate the modern reality of the State of Israel, whose institutions of Jewish education and welfare clearly would come next. Only then would the classical pecking order suggest that we contribute to educational, cultural, and social service agencies of and for the larger community. Again, this list of priorities may seem parochial today, but, on the other hand, in a country with a separation of church and state, only Jews will support Jewish religious and educational institutions. Jewish philanthropists should therefore concentrate their philanthropic dollars on Jewish causes if Jews and Judaism are to survive.

Elliot N. Dorff a Sh‘ma Contributing Editor, is Rector and Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles.