Jewish giving: Then and now

By RACHEL SABATH BEIT-HALACHMI
September 4, 2013 10:47

Rethinking Jewish life.

4 minute read.



Illustrative photo

homeless religious man 311. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)

What is an ideal Jewish society? One in which giving is unnecessary? In which giving comes naturally? If a society is truly ideal, then tzedaka (righteous giving) should be unnecessary because there shall be no needy: “There shall be no needy among you...” (Deuteronomy 15:1) But not even Deuteronomy – with its endless directives preparing the Israelites to enter the Promised Land – really believes in such a perfect society: “If, however, there is a needy person among you, one of your kinsmen in any of your settlements in the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman. Rather, you must open your hand and you shall surely lend him sufficient for whatever he needs... For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land...” (Deut. 15:4-11).

An ideal society, then, is one in which giving is so communally regulated that levels of giving always respond fully to the needs of the poor. The reality of human selfishness is balanced by an embrace of the absolute value of giving. Isn’t this kind of sacred balance the definition of Jewish community? Given the inescapable nature of human need, God demands a meta-human response.

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But what if that organic giving doesn’t happen anymore? Is it possible to have a strong Jewish community in which the vast majority does not “open” their hands in generous ways? According to the National Study of American Jewish Giving – released this week – there are significant numbers of American Jews whose financial giving and motivations for giving are very different from their parents’. Among the findings are insights that should get lots of communal attention if we want to preserve Jewish communal life and values.

Many won’t be surprised to learn that younger, less-connected Jews give significantly less to Jewish causes. But why they don’t give and what it means demands careful study.

And if anyone wants to try to change these realities they will have to understand what it will mean to connect the younger generation to the larger fabric of Jewish communal life in ways that are responsive to who they really are and what really matters to them.

But the Talmud can also give us some insights into why one resists giving as well as the mechanisms to overcome those resistances. One foundational talmudic text asks about the meaning of the biblical phrase that says one should give “sufficient for his needs.”

But what if the needy person resists using resources they might use? Or what if they are too humiliated to accept aid? The Talmud (Baba Metzia 31b) gives examples that help us understand the complexity of giving: “Rather, you must open your hand and lend him sufficient for whatever he needs” (Deut. 15:8).

“I know this only of one [a poor man] who has nothing and does not wish to maintain himself [at your expense; i.e. he does not want to accept charity]. [Concerning this situation] Scripture says, you shall surely lend him sufficient for whatever he needs.

From what source do I know it [that I should provide him a loan] if he possesses his own [financial resources] but does not want to maintain himself [at his own cost]? Torah teaches, ‘you shall surely lend him.’” In other words, regardless of what we might feel, we must give or lend regardless of our judgment; there is something about our judgment of another person’s struggle that must be overcome in order for the hand to open.

The sages knew that human nature and human suspicion and our own judgments of others nearly always prevent giving and lending alike.

Another talmudic text makes the radical argument that each person ultimately defines his own needs, and they cannot be defined by others. A wealthy person who has suddenly become impoverished may indeed have different needs than a more humble person who has become accustomed to living more simply.

An extreme talmudic example is the image of Hillel the Elder who himself ran like a “slave” for miles on behalf of a formerly wealthy person who was used to such service in order to fulfill his needs (Ketubot 67b).

This kind of hyperbole helps highlight both the basic values and the extent to which – in our zeal to do the right thing without understanding the limits – we are sometimes led toward absurdity. This is a good example of the relevance and importance of the talmudic argument: While we must be careful not to fail in our duty to attend to the weak and the needy, neither can we be blinded by cynicism or assumptions as we do so.

It’s a terribly difficult task, but one that a sacred community can aspire to do together.

As we prepare now to be judged ourselves in these High Holy Days, we are also reminded to be very careful about how we judge the Jewishness and Jewish giving of another. All we can do is strive to build the kind of community that will inspire their sacred commitment.

■ The writer is the national director of recruitment and admissions and President’s Scholar of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and teaches for the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America.


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