The Particularities of Giving: Reflections on Tzedakah

Two weeks ago I had the great privilege of representing the Jewish tradition at the annual dinner of the Niagara Foundation, alongside Bishop Demetrius of the Chicago Greek Orthodox Church and Imam Abdul Malik Mujahid, chairman of the Parliament of World Religions. We were asked to give short remarks about charity in each of our traditions. My speech is below.

The Particularities of Giving: Reflections on Tzedakah
Rabbi Josh Feigelson
Niagara Foundation Dinner
January 28, 2010

I must begin tonight by thanking the Niagara Foundation for the honor of speaking to you. When I was approached a few months ago about this opportunity, Hakan told me about the Foundation and about the dinner. He explained that the custom is to have a figure from Christianity, Islam, and Judaism speak. And he told me that Bishop Demetrius would be speaking, that Imam Abdul would be speaking – both of whom bear significant titles, and then he asked if I would represent Judaism. I must confess to feeling a bit hutzpadik, a bit presumptuous, in attempting to represent what John Goodman, in the movie The Big Lebowski, colorfully referred to as “Three thousand years of beautiful tradition from Moses to Sandy Koufax.” But I will do my best.

There’s an old Jewish story that goes something like this: A rabbi was distressed at the lack of generosity among his congregants. So he prayed that the rich should give more charity to the poor.

“And has your prayer been answered?” asked his wife.

“Half of it was,” replied the rabbi. “The poor are willing to accept.”

Judaism of course mandates charity, between 10 and 20 percent of one’s annual income. But, significantly, the term we employ for our practice is not charity, based as it is in the Latin caritas, meaning love or affection. Our term is rather tzedakah, rooted in the word tzedek, which connotes righteousness or justice. To give in Jewish tradition is not an act of grace on the part of the giver to demonstrate love of one’s fellow – though we refer to our brethren as acheinu, our brothers. Rather giving tzedakah is fundamentally a fulfillment of a divine commandment, a mitzvah, to redress the inequities inherent in an unredeemed world.

In my short time with you tonight, I want to focus on one particularly modern aspect of tzedakah-giving, namely how we approach the question of tzedakah for Jewish causes, and tzedakah to support our non-Jewish neighbors.

Exodus 22:25 states: “If you lend money to one of my people among you who is needy, do not be like a moneylender; charge him no interest.”

R. Joseph learnt: “If you lend money to any of my people that are poor with you:” [this teaches, if the choice lies between] a Jew and a non-Jew, a Jew has preference; the poor or the rich the poor takes precedence; your poor [i.e. your relatives] and the [general] poor of your town, your poor come first; the poor of your city and the poor of another town the poor of your own town have prior rights. (Babylonian Talmud Bava Metzia 71a)

In this Talmudic text, the fifth century Babylonian sage Rav Yosef responds to a basic question: In a world of finite resources and infinite need, how do we prioritize our giving? Is it on the basis of relationship? Geography? Need? His response is that relationship comes first: at the center of his philanthropic universe are one’s own relatives, and next one’s kinsmen. After this comes need: the poor take precedence over the rich. And finally geography: the poor of one’s own town come before the poor of another town.

The conditions of the modern world pose some major challenges to this construction. First, the lines between Jew and non-Jew are not as solid as they once were. Through emancipation, access to the full rights of citizenship, and through intermarriage, Jews have become more a part of the rest of the world than we were in Rav Yosef’s day – by an order of magnitude.

Second, technology has made the world smaller, and the distinctions between one’s own community and the needy far away are not so easy to maintain. As the past two weeks have shown, we feel a connection and a moral obligation to the people of Haiti, just as we felt towards the victims of the tsunami, or the earthquakes in Iran and Turkey. We feel this connection because we live among people from these countries, because we can see their suffering in our living rooms. So technology has reshaped our conception of the world, and with it the framework of our tzedakah.

Third, in the modern period, and particularly in this country, Jews have achieved success unimaginable in previous generations. Thus it is not only the categories of Rav Yosef’s calculus that become fuzzier, but the moral impulse behind them as well. Simply put, Jews today feel a greater sense of obligation to the rest of the world, a duty to take care of the world’s poor, sick, and hungry, and not just the Jewish poor, sick and hungry. Indeed, the moral impulse many Jews have to be of service to all of humanity can come the expense of their own community.

This point is well illustrated by a story from my own experience. Some years ago I was teaching a group of American high schoolers on a trip in Israel. We had a discussion about tzedakah, and I asked them what percentage of their giving they felt should go to Jewish causes, and what percentage to general community organizations. To my amazement, 24 out of 25 students said they would give nearly all their tzedakah to non-Jewish institutions. I had been prepared to advocate for the importance of giving to non-Jewish causes, but instead I had to argue about the importance of giving to one’s own community.

I remember telling those high schoolers that our tzedakah represents our identity and our priorities in financial terms. If that is true, then many Jews today surely see themselves as citizens of secular America, whose first allegiance is to the community at large. As the Jewish philanthropist Michael Steinhardt observed in 2003, “Today Jews hurry to donate to universities, museums, and hospitals. But,” he continued, “when it comes to vitalizing our own people, we fall short. Of the amounts Jews give philanthropically,” Steinhardt said, “only 20% goes to Jewish causes, whereas the post-World War II figure was 50%.” Tzedakah here both reflects and contributes to an erosion of a particularistic, distinctive Jewish identity, a trend which concerns those of us who want to see the Jewish people survive and thrive in the future.

A second Talmudic text helps to shed light on the dilemma:

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, for the sake of peace. (Babylonian Talmud Gittin 61a)

This is a beautiful sentiment: When people are acutely helpless – either financially, physically, or existentially – Rav Yosef’s distinctions don’t apply. But the passage turns on the question of how we read the words “for the sake of peace.” Does the Talmud mean that blurring the distinctions is a way to bring about peace? Or does it mean that, in order to preserve the peace, in order not to raise the ire of those who would do us harm, we give to Jew and non-Jew alike? In other words, is this an aspiration for the world, or is this a concession to reality?

We saw this dynamic at play in the last two weeks. You may have read or watched reports from Haiti on the Israeli military hospital that was treating earthquake victims. As the reporter on CNN put it, the Israeli hospital was like “another world” compared to the makeshift hospital she had visited earlier. According to the Forward newspaper, “In less than a week in Haiti, 250 Israeli doctors, nurses and rescue workers not only saved numerous lives of people trapped and wounded,” but, the newspaper continued, “they did more for their country’s image than marketing experts have in years.”

Our tzedakah to the non-Jewish poor and sick and dead is for the sake of peace. And as the Forward’s analysis shows, those words of the Talmud, “for the sake of peace,” reflect both our optimism and our realism.

All humans are created b’tzelem elohim, in God’s image, and therefore deserve our help and support. But the nature of Jewish life is to wrestle with differentiation. In our encounter with the Holy One at Sinai, God charges us to “be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” As we understand it, that involves maintaining our own particular calendar, speaking our own particular language, reading our own particular texts, living on our own particular land. But as Jewish history and thought have shown, it also involves engaging the world, living according to another’s calendar, speaking another’s language, reading another’s texts, living in another’s land.

So it is with our tzedakah. The questions never cease, and life would not be as interesting if they did. To be a member of the people of Israel is, as the angel said to Jacob, to wrestle with God and with men, and to prove able. That is our condition, a condition that gives rise to endless discussion and unending conversation.

Thank you for joining me in that conversation tonight.

Rabbi Josh Feigelson is Campus Rabbi and Senior Director for Educational Initiatives at Fiedler Hillel, Northwestern University. Reprinted with permission.