On Jewish Giving

starThe debate over ‘Jewish giving’ will just never go away.

My first introduction was nearly ten years ago, when a visit to Australia from past JFN president Mark Charendoff was the genesis of what is now the Australian Jewish Funders (AJF) – either a younger sibling or long-lost cousin of JFN. Mark was speaking to a group of the larger Jewish charitable families in Melbourne, and someone asked ‘that question’: “how much of JFN members’ giving is Jewish”? He deftly evaded the question with what has become the standard response – that wherever members give, it’s done as an expression of their Jewishness.

The question as to whether all giving is (by definition) a Jewish act, or whether it is a function of the cause one gives to seems like the classical Talmudic distinction of gavra vs cheftza (subject vs object). To get to the bottom of this, let’s first fix the subject and vary the object.

Is there such a thing as ‘Jewish driving’? Anyone who has driven around some part of Brooklyn or Israel can affirm that this is so. While it would be wrong to say that any driving done by a Jew is ‘Jewish driving’, it is certainly the case that elements of Jewish culture (chutzpah, self-entitlement) have in some way influenced driving habits (and not in a positive way).

How about ‘Jewish eating’? Well, there is Jewish food, which exists independently of Kosher food. There are many laws, directives and customs in the Torah that govern what we eat (or don’t eat), when we eat (or don’t eat), and how we eat (blessings, mindfulness, ritual meals and so on). Food is a pervasive part of Jewish culture and is bound to so many Holydays. For someone who follows all the relevant laws and customs, you could indeed say that whenever he or she eats, it’s an act of ‘Jewish eating’. But in the main, we again say that Jewish eating is a function of what or how one eats, rather than an intrinsic property of the person eating.

The second part of the analysis is to fix the object, and vary the subject. There is such a thing as Christian giving, Muslim giving and even Universal giving. But is there associated with any of those groups an ongoing debate as to, for example, whether whenever a Christian gives, it is an expression of his or her Christianity? I doubt it. Further, charitable giving in other religions and cultures are often based on the values expressed in the Torah – helping and protecting the vulnerable, tithing, making the world a better place etc. Surely it’s absurd to say that all giving by anyone is ‘Jewish giving’!

Now consider the hypothetical case of three friends who each decide to donate a million dollars to cancer research. Their reasons may be very different. One may have a ‘relationship’ with cancer – either they lost a relative to the disease or are themselves in a high-risk category, and as a result have chosen either to fight the disease through charitable means as a way of making up for the loss, or as a way of trying to save themselves. One may give to medical research as one part of a ‘balanced portfolio’ of their foundation’s giving. One may have been personally insulted by a ‘rival’ (medical) charity and decided to give to this cause as a crude form of revenge. One may be Jewish, one Christian, and one an atheist.

While the result – a gift of a million dollars to cancer research – is the same, the motivation to give is different for everyone, no matter what their religion, background or culture, and often very complex and driven by a variety of factors.

Yet for some reason, we have an ongoing binary debate as to the nature of our giving as Jews. On one hand, there are those who give good reasons why as Jews, we should donate to (or not ignore, or prioritize) Jewish causes. On the other hand, there are those who provide what is effectively a Jewish-flavoured rationalization for giving no matter what the cause.

In true Talmudic fashion, we must say “you are both right” or “these and these are the words of the Living God”. Both these views have support within classical Jewish texts and values. More importantly, however, the debate in this form represents an overly simplistic and polarising view of Jewish giving.

Anyone who asks themselves – genuinely and honestly – why they give to a particular cause will come up with a multitude of answers. As human beings we are the sum of influences from parents, environment, friends and much more. All of these influences form the basis for the giving decisions we make. And every decision to give often includes a decision not to give (to a different cause).

So if you give to a particular cause because you can’t bear to say ‘no’ to an organization your parents supported for 30 years, or because you want to impress your non-Jewish friends and climb a social ladder, or because starving African children pull at your heartstrings more than starving Jewish children, or because the president gave to your pet cause, then that’s just fine. It may not be what someone decides is ‘best practice giving’, but it’s an expression of how you truly feel.

If these giving decisions cause cognitive dissonance or rationalizations to others over your choices, then there are plenty of ways deal with that. But remember that the first step is to always be honest with yourself.

David Werdiger is a director of Australian Jewish Funders, a past director and current committee member of JewishCare, a technology entrepreneur, and a writer and public speaker. You can connect with David on LinkedInFacebookTwitter, or Google+.