The Guide for the Perplexed Donor: Tzedakah as Jewish Identity

by Noam Zion

“We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give.” – Anonymous

Bombarded by requests for help from worthy causes, how does a philanthropist choose? The answer resides not only in the nature of the cause and the effectiveness of the organization, but also in answering certain questions: Who are you as a giver? What is your reason for giving? And, what is your vision? Beyond personal biography and a rigorous process of due diligence, a donor may be enriched by understanding the collective cultural and religious roots of giving in the Western world. But how do we set priorities among all the truly valuable projects? Effective, professional giving is essential, but it must be translated into a value language in order to explain it – especially, to explain one’s philanthropic vision – to others, including our children and grandchildren. Giving of one’s self and one’s resources generates a story, a narrative of who I am, what kind of Jew I wish to be, what my community values are, and what image of self or of God I would like to make visible in the world by my actions.

“Jewish giving” may be defined by its narrative drama and motivation. For example, the American Jewish World Service expands on what Jewish giving means by defining it as one’s calling to give rather than by who receives the funds. So, I am acting as a Jew when I advocate for humanity as Abraham served “the way of God,” teaching “tzedakah and legal justice” (Genesis 18:17-18) and pleading for the exoneration of the wicked city of Sodom. Tzedakah thus becomes an expression of Jewish identity.

When giving privately to a needy person, tzedakah is not much different than Christian charity (a word that means love, like the Hebrew word chesed). It reflects one’s personal compassion and a desire to share, as at the seder: “May all who are hungry come and eat.” But tzedakah is also credited to the individual donor to redeem him or her from death or sin: “Tzedakah saves from death.” (Proverbs 10: 2) Thus, God will have compassion on the donor as well as on the destitute.

What is truly innovative in Jewish giving, though, is rabbinic “taking.” Tzedakah is an obligatory and progressive municipal tax outlined during the rabbinic period. The only pre-20th-century example of a welfare state, it is rooted in a vision of justice but not equality, of maintenance but not economic rehabilitation. Jews committed to such an ideal not only assess their level of self-taxation according to their income, but also play a citizen’s role in supporting their government’s social welfare “rights.” More radically, if one believes in tzedakah as a system of communal progressive taxation, one might fight against the privatization of philanthropy. Should the government exempt charitable contributions from taxation? Today, if someone donates $1 million, the government exempts the donor from the tax at whatever is the donor’s tax rate or bracket. Thus, the government gives donors the right to allocate a large proportion of their tax to a recipient of their choice – not usually the poor, but universities, opera houses, and churches/synagogues – that take the lion’s share of “charitable” contributions. Is the government wasting money that it could reap from taxes to use for welfare needs?

Julius Rosenwald, founder of the Sears, Roebuck and Company, rejected the idea of government welfare and charity to the destitute. But he gave millions of dollars in challenge or matching grants to African-American communities in the American South. He supported public schools in an era when Southern states did not support adequately what were then segregated “colored” schools with municipal and state taxes. Rosenfeld wanted “to cure the things that seem to be wrong” rather than simply “helping the underdog.” He wanted to “try to do the thing that will aid groups and masses rather than individuals.”(1)

This third kind of tzedakah is about rehabilitation rather than maintenance. Rosenwald’s generosity and Maimonides’s highest form of tzedakah maximize the support of self-help.

A fourth route for tzedakah is not so named in any classical Jewish source. It is best called by its Greek name, philanthropia, or euergia. Like the Greeks and Greco-Roman Jews, and most North American philanthropists today spend the greatest part of their contributions on the cultural institutions of their own cities. In the Second Temple, one set of gates was called the Gate of Nicanor, donated by wealthy overseas Jews who, like all good Greeks, wanted their donation named – thus intertwining their personal glory with that of the city. Today, donating to any Jewish school, institution, or yeshiva is not necessarily helping to maintain the physical survival or economic flowering of human beings. Rather, the gift helps the cultural survival and flourishing of what makes us human – our minds and our souls, our civilizations and our values.

As a donor, who would you be? Would you become a compassionate one, an advocate for social justice, a social entrepreneur empowering the needy, or the philanthropist cultivating a higher civilization? By revisiting the greatest classic narratives of giving, one may find guidance for the “perplexed” Jewish donor.

(1) Cited in Daniel Boorstin, “From Charity to Philanthropy” in The Decline of Radicalism: Reflections on America Today (1963) reprinted in Bremner, America’s Voluntary Spirit, 136

Noam Zion, a senior faculty member of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, is the author of three books on home-centered Judaism: A Different Night: The Family Participation Haggadah (1997), with David Dishon; A Day Apart: Shabbat at Home (2004); and, with his son, Mishael Zion, A Night to Remember: The Haggadah of Contemporary Voices (2007). Zion is completing a comprehensive trilogy on Narratives of Giving: Tzedakah, Christian Charity and Greek Philanthropy.

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