tzedakah box 88.
(photo credit: )
Harbingers of the holiday season, legions of emissaries come knocking on our
door this time of year. If they come while I’m digging in the garden, the men in
long frocks and longer beards usually skip our house. If they knock when I’m
inside, I let my spouse take care of them. Repelled by these jet-setting beggars
and discomforted by my repulsion, I am pressed by these men to consider again:
what is charity?
Tzedaka is a central doctrine of my parents’ faith. Sacred
status was ascribed to the JNF Blue Box: We dropped coins in gratitude for good
tidings and in hope when news was not so good. My father donated substantial
chunks of his income to the United Israel Appeal.
Every year a childhood
friend of his arrived from Mea She’arim and they would spend the morning
chatting in Hungarian, culminating always with a cash handover. I don’t
my father gave much to Diaspora causes; his heart and checkbook faced
Going forth from my birthplace and my parents’ home, I
ascended into adulthood when I deposited my first paycheck. But the
having founded a new household came only when I signed my first tzedaka
Jewish custom requires giving between a fifth and a 10th of our earnings
charity; investigating possible destinations for my checks was more
than any shopping trip in Manhattan.
Charity, I believed, should
the recipient with tools to fend for herself. In addition, a donation
have a multiplier effect, reversing a wrong and creating the opportunity
right: an instrument of social change. Within this framework, two issues
me particularly: protection of Israel’s threatened environment and
education for women. I gave generously, as my parents had done.
before my wedding, I signed several farewell checks to cherished
My bridegroom followed the rule requiring charitable
used to alleviate poverty or support men’s Torah learning, neither of
compatible with my style of giving. He also adhered to the view
deduction of living expenses from the tithed income. Even though I
family income, I acceded to new destinations for our money according to
principles. But I took comfort that with two mouths to feed and two
to maintain, the size of donations to institutions I considered
would be smaller than those I used to make to my pet projects.
fine views on charity serves me well when I am confronted by
Maimonides and the Ashkenazi Moshe Isserles instruct
that if the
poor ask for help, we must not send them away empty-handed. The reason
as not to inflict shame on them. But the rabbis do not require more than
minimal handout: a dried fig, for example.
In aggregate, however,
individual mercies become a social menace. In the era of the (admittedly
welfare state, what do we accomplish by handing out coins to a beggar?
the rabbis’ reasoning, it would be much better to prevent the beggar’s
offering counseling, job training and regular meals, rather than
token as you pass.
Even more problematic are institutions that
communities with lifestyles incompatible with the modern world.
Israel, the structure of haredi society is premised on handouts.
these arrangements have a venerable history in the haluka system, their
promoting the cycle of dependence and poverty is insidious. As early as I
imbibed the centrality of giving, I learned that every human has the
the duty of self-sufficiency.
Anyone relying regularly on charity
be embraced by a professional to develop a life plan that encourages
Today, it is the handouts, not the poverty, that
become the source of shame.
But Yehiel Epstein, the 19thcentury
codifier and author of the Aruch Hashulhan, expresses a profound rebuke
charitable philosophy. He explains that we do not only give charity to
the lives of the poor, but because of our natural Jewish compassion.
refusing the plea of the man before me, he implies, I diminish myself.
how do I relate to the legions of emissaries from Israel who come
before the holidays? Who are they, and are they truly needy? Why are
America collecting and not at home earning a living? Are they so
the begging business that it has become a profession? I cannot collude
destructive mass movement despite its compassionate origins: We are
Maimonides’s Middle Ages nor Isserles’s preindustrial Europe.
deny the plea of the emissary, but neither do I respond to his knock at
door. My spouse, the legalist, can determine if the man in the long
frock is in
fact collecting for the alleviation of poverty, or for male Torah
something else. After making the determination, my spouse then
obligatory dried figs. Veiled behind the kitchen door, I am busily
sending forth the checks.The
writer is a Washington tax