Tzedakah and Philanthropy: Rethinking American Jewish Giving

by Larry Moses

In contemporary human rights studies, a distinction is often made between the “cosmopolitan” and “communitarian” frameworks. The former places a premium on responding to the immediacy of suffering wherever it occurs, and the latter focuses upon the systemic changes needed to eradicate such suffering. This tension might be thought of as the difference between the emergency room and the research department of a medical center. One stops the bleeding; the other strives to cure the disease.

This spectrum of activism may be a useful prism for looking at the fundamental differences between tzedakah in its classical formulation and Jewish philanthropy as it has emerged in American life.

Tzedakah, derived from the biblical mandate, “Tzedek, tzedek, tirdof” (“Justice, justice, you shall pursue”), literally means “righteousness” or “justice.” It constitutes an incumbent obligation. Situated squarely in the realm of being commanded, tzedakah is an act the donor has a duty to perform and the recipient has a right to receive.

The rabbis defined tzedakah in painstaking detail. Generally, tzedakah is directed to the poor, the hungry, and others who cannot meet their basic human needs. The prime consideration in giving tzedakah is to uphold the dignity and self-esteem of the recipient, and the priorities for giving are ordered in concentric circles, starting from the most personal and proximate. The highest giving priority is to tend to one’s immediate family, then to one’s extended family, one’s community, other communities, one’s country, and the world. Tradition stipulates that giving 10 percent of one’s income “minimally” fulfills the command to perform acts of tzedakah; 20 percent is better. All are commanded to give, even those who are supported by tzedakah themselves. Maimonides, the foremost medieval Jewish philosopher, posed the idea of eight rungs on the ladder of tzedakah – from giving grudgingly, the lowest rung; to lending a person funds, a higher rung; to teaching a person how to be self-sufficient, the highest rung. But even if one performs acts of tzedakah grudgingly, one is nevertheless obligated to give. As the late Yale University legal scholar Robert M. Cover taught, giving out of a sense of obligation, as opposed to voluntary giving, is “the closest thing there is to a Jewish definition of completion as a person…” Of course, the two are not mutually exclusive.

The Babylonian Talmud teaches that non-Jews are also to benefit from tzedakah “for the sake of the paths of peace.” (Gittin 61a) The esteemed Orthodox Torah scholar Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik framed the tension between giving to Jews and non-Jews as follows: “We believe we are the bearers of a double charismatic load, that of the dignity of man, and that of the sanctity of the covenantal community.”

The ancient Greek word “philanthropy” means “the love of humankind.” It typically describes a voluntary or private act to achieve a public good. American philanthropy took root in the late 19th century and, increasing regulation notwithstanding, its independent foundations remain fundamentally non-democratic; they are usually chartered for the sole purpose of carrying out the personal philanthropic goals of the donor.

The hallmark of American Jewish philanthropy has been the “federal” idea, exemplified by Jewish federations and community foundations. In more recent decades, independent Jewish foundations have emerged as a new force in Jewish philanthropy. The juxtaposition of Jewish communal philanthropy (centralized federation giving) and independent philanthropy has created a new landscape for giving. And, of course, many Jews give abundantly to more civic and universal causes as well.

While centralized giving in Jewish life loosely evokes the spirit of tzedakah, contemporary Jewish giving mainly consists of voluntary acts motivated by personal priorities in amounts largely determined by the donor. This is in sharp contrast to the ancient idea of tzedakah in its classical form. However, the two forms of tzedakah converge in their emphasis on the priority of local giving.

The interplay between tzedakah in its traditional formulation and Jewish philanthropy as it is practiced today prompts a rethinking of American Jewish giving and the imposing of a set of important questions:

  • How can the Jewish community strengthen its local, centralized, consensus-driven system of giving in an age of individualism, mobility, fragmentation, acculturation, and globalization?
  • How can Jewish communal culture more strongly embrace and value the giving of time, service, and forms of “giving” other than gifts of money?
  • How do we prioritize the needs of Jews and non-Jews in our giving?
  • Can American Jewish philanthropy reclaim the idea of giving funds, time, and service as a matter of obligation rather than as a matter of personal discretion and virtue? If so, what would the concentric circles of giving look like in the world of the contemporary Jew?
  • To whom are independent Jewish foundations accountable, and how might they more strategically align themselves with each other and with the larger Jewish communal structure?

These are questions we must face in forging the future. Tzedakah teaches us what is required to be fully human. Philanthropy teaches us what is possible in recognizing God’s image in the world around us and in repairing that world. New thinking and strong leadership will be required for today’s American Jewish community to learn to honor such a noble heritage and to fulfill such promising possibilities.

Larry S. Moses is past president of the Wexner Foundation, which he has served since 1987. As of October 1, 2011, Moses assumed a new role as philanthropic adviser to the Wexner family.

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