Charity Begins at Home
This is the time of the year when many of us have spent a great deal of money on summer vacations. Therefore, it is appropriate to think about how much we give charitably to those less fortunate than we are.
Charity is highly emotive, and it is an absolutely crucial element of all religions. In Judaism the term most commonly used for charity is Tsedakah. The word derives from the biblical word Tsedek, which means “doing the right thing.”
In early societies, which did not have the sort of social welfare many do today, charity as an obligation of the “haves” was the foundation of a just society.
The contract or covenant of the community meant a reciprocal obligation. Each person had to think about taking care of the needy in whatever way possible, whether material or emotional. If one could not provide physically, one could at least offer kindness and support. Looking at Deuteronomy, chapters 23 and 24, we see that the main form of charity was lending money or objects to the poor. Helping them become self-sufficient was the highest form of charity. This is why lending for interest was forbidden in biblical society, because it usually led to even greater indebtedness and dependency.
If someone fell into debt or on hard times, there were no such things as debtors’ prisons. One could work off one’s debt by going into servitude for up to six years. Then, on leaving, they had to receive enough financial support to become self-sufficient. In addition, the indentured slave had to be given the same living conditions (even the same kind of pillow) as his or her master. “Whoever takes on a servant, acquires a master,” says the Talmud. In Deuteronomy, there are related laws about sensitivity and consideration towards the poor and disadvantaged.
Religious obligation and national obligation were combined. This was of course the ideal — and it seems from the complaints of the prophets, it was too often neglected. The Torah might strike many as dated and archaic. But even today, we still are far, far from being able to fulfill most of its most basic moral requirements.
In ancient times, nations and cultures clashed just as brutally as they do today, and the fittest (either morally, culturally, or physically) survived. In a world of “dog eat dog,” it is surprising that Judaism opened up its charitable institutions to strangers, aliens, and even competitors.
As the Talmud in Gitin 61a says, “We must support the pagan poor, visit their sick in the same way we visit the sick of Israel, and we bury their dead the way we bury Israel’s dead, all in order to ensure good relations with other people.” Yet naturally enough, there were priorities when conflicting demands and limited resources made choices inevitable. Hence the other Talmudic principle: “As between a Jew and a non-Jew, a Jew takes priority; rich and poor, the poor comes first; the poor of the world and the poor of your city, the poor of your city come first.” (Bava Metziah, 71a)
The issue of how much we have to give is much more complicated now. The tithes as applied in an agricultural society were of produce or rights to gather. Over time, commercial societies introduced monetary tithes. But these were no longer of biblical authority. And as societies became more complex and taxation became universal, issues of deductibility, and how much one is obliged to give, became more complex.
An important issue nowadays is whether we ought to give to non-Jewish charities or not. The argument against goes that as Jews we are so few, and our resources are dwarfed by the wealth of nations. Who can the Jews turn to other than themselves and a small number of supporters? Yet Israel sends human resources to every tragedy it is allowed.
An increasing amount of charitable assistance nowadays comes from super wealthy individuals, who give away billions. Even so, in the US and Britain (even Israel) there is growing concern that a new generation of wealthy youngsters no longer feels any sense of obligation to Jewish causes, often due to assimilation.
This is why I believe we must prioritize Jewish causes. Our needs come first, just as any state gives priority to its own citizens.
Yet it is not that simple. Sure, I would never give my money to any charity or NGO with a record of antisemitism or a political or religious bias against Judaism. But still, if I were approached to support a specific needy family, no matter what background, I would contribute. I believe that spending time working among the disadvantaged of other countries and cultures is an important experience and rite of passage. We cannot isolate ourselves, for own good, let alone anyone else’s, and I believe a Jew with a range of experiences and contacts outside of Judaism has a very important contribution to make to the sanity of Jewish life itself.
Despite our need to prioritize, I believe we should give to non-Jewish causes too. As I quoted above, “We must support the pagan poor … to ensure good relations with other people.”
But there is another issue I want to raise: caveat emptor. Many charities are dishonest, incompetent, or corrupt. There are now websites that give details of how much charities receive and how much actually goes to the people they claim to be helping — sometimes less than 50%. You can go to GiveWell, CharityWatch, and Charity Navigator for the facts. We have all read about corrupt charities (even headed by past presidents) raising money for Haitian victims, where the money never gets there.
I know of charities that raise money for institutions (in Israel and elsewhere), which in fact devote almost all their money to employing family members at above average rates. We know that even within our own communities, there are many who raise money ostensibly for charitable foundations, when in fact it means self-enrichment, not to mention tax evasion.
Sadly, in many people’s minds, the law is there to be flouted.
There is giving. And there is giving responsibly and legally. Just as one needs to be both committed to one’s family, group, and people, so too one must be humanitarian. Just as important as giving, is giving and knowing that it will be used honestly with full disclosure. Throwing money away is not an obligation. And disguising personal enrichment and other monkey business as charity is deception and dishonesty. Charity is doing the right thing.
Rabbi Jeremy Rosen received his rabbinic ordination from Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem. He currently lives in the USA, where he writes, teaches, lectures, and serves as rabbi of a small community in New York.