Embracing the notion that religion can provide a road map to effective charitable giving, I joined a group of mostly middle-aged Washington professionals recently at a synagogue to study the Judaic idea of fixing the planet through just acts.
The concept is called tikkun olam, which means, “repairing the world.” A major emphasis of tikkun olam is tzedakah, the performance of just action, including charitable giving.
Religious causes receive most of the charitable donations in the United States, so it is not surprising that some prospective philanthropists are reviewing the tenets of religion as a guide to giving.
The class I joined was offered through a nonprofit group unaffiliated with the temple.
For eight sessions we studied the idea that rightful conduct was a key path to improving the world.
Various motives brought us together. Some of the people in the class seemed moved to enroll because of the ill health of their parents. Nearly everyone, due to the demands of modern existence, felt too insulated from making a difference in personally alleviating societal problems.
We began by trying to identify the rips in the world’s fabric that need repairing, including homelessness, crime, racism and poverty. This proved a useful exercise for at least three reasons. First, when traditional Jewish ethical commands were raised, their performance could be tied to the mitigation of particular problems. Second, each participant could consider a large set of areas potentially worthy of philanthropic effort. And third, focusing on the chain of causation that produced these problems set the stage for engaging in intervention efforts that were more likely to achieve success.
Redeeming Today’s Captives
While all the class members were Jewish, we came from different backgrounds of observance. As a result, sometimes the class agreed on the best way to address a need, but other times opinions differed.
For instance, in recent years, there has been a turning away from many of the traditional principles of Jewish philanthropy. Rather than focusing first (but not exclusively) on Jewish needs, particularly those close to home, modern tikkun olam places a greater emphasis on societal problems and the needy of all backgrounds anywhere in the world.
So when a traditionally Jewish charitable obligation such as redeeming captives was applied to current conditions, almost everyone in the class (including the teacher) believed that Amnesty International was more worthy for Jews to support than was an organization that donated religious materials to Jews imprisoned in the United States to foster their rehabilitation and reduce the likelihood that their children would embark on a criminal path.
Class opinion was more divided on collective action. Modern tikkun olam, relying on the prophets, emphasizes rebuking the society at large for its moral failings. Some class members were strong supporters of advocacy groups as a method of changing society. Others were more interested in assisting causes that emphasized directly improving the lives of individuals. Despite differences in approach, it is clear that many of today’s Jews, often consciously, support very different charitable causes than those that historically received tzedakah. Backing causes such as civil rights or environmentalism requires being part of large, collective actions.
In Jewish law, charitable giving is a moral imperative. Too great a desire for acquisition of property will remove people from both the world around them and from God. The Talmud describes tzedakah as “equal to all the other commandments combined.” But if the class members were representative, many Jews today are largely ignorant of the original principles of tzedakah, since their philanthropic giving often supports organizations based on very different models.
For example, in Biblical times, farmers were required to leave crops standing in the corners of their fields for the poor, as well as any crop that fell in the course of harvesting. This arrangement provided for the needy, but it also necessitated the able-bodied poor to engage in the harvesting of the corners and the gathering of the fallen crops.
Similarly, in the hierarchy of giving made famous by the Medieval Jewish philosopher Maimonides, rehabilitation—by lending money to the poor, taking them into partnership, or providing employment—was placed highest. These actions caused no one to lose self-respect. (Although many in the class thought Maimonides was expressing a view that was strikingly similar to the notion that giving a person a fish will have an impact for only a day while teaching someone to fish provides the means for the recipient to benefit for a lifetime, the teacher explained that the fishing metaphor is entirely a Christian concept.)
More Than Checks
Yet many of today’s Jews seem to no longer espouse this outlook. Once, every Jewish community had a free loan society. People beginning to feel financial stress could obtain interest-free loans to avert a likely future of public assistance. The repaid loans would then be made available to others in need. Despite their obvious benefits, today, most Jewish communities lack these institutions, providing a window of opportunity for prospective Jewish donors so inclined. Official funds in general, were once standard in Jewish philanthropy, since they mediated between donor and recipient, yet built community and interdependence. The most noble of these organizations, burial societies, provided service to individuals without the expectation (or even the possibility) of reciprocation.
Tzedakah’s connection to just acts means that donors should consider charitable contributions that further ethical mitzvot; acts of loving kindness. In addition to free loan societies and redeeming captives, these acts include visiting the sick, promoting peace and harmony, furthering Torah study, clothing the naked, and feeding the hungry. Accordingly, homes for the aged, Jewish social services agencies, and Jewish day schools would be prime examples of institutions to support through tzedakah. In today’s world, however, philanthropy often seems to be as much about furthering the ego or agenda of the donor as helping the individual receiving charity, or is directed to the fashionable causes of the day.
Although tzedakah traditionally demands 10–20 percent of the after-tax income of the contributor, it also means that writing a check alone is insufficient. Acts of justice must also be performed to satisfy the moral obligation. Repairing the world fosters repairing the soul, and vice versa in a virtuous circle. In fact, becoming directly involved in addressing societal problems will make a donor’s choice of charitable organizations more informed, better directed, and more likely to produce results.
Those who took the course emerged with a renewed commitment to improve society through their charitable donations and their actions. Perhaps some of them also began to appreciate the wisdom of the traditional approach to tzedakah.
Frederick S. Ansell is an attorney in Washington, D.C.