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
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
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.
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
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
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).
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