Rosh Hashanah is well behind us. But the other new year draws near and with it the last-minute impulse to donate to charity. Over the next few weeks I'd like to look at some of the sites on the Jewish Highway where you can pick up a good background in charity and perhaps, even leave some tzedakah behind.
Actually, charity really isn't a very good translation of the word tzedakah. According to Albert Vorspan, tzedakah "literally means 'righteousness.' Tzedakah is not an act of condescension from one person to another who is in a lower social and economic status. Tzedakah is the fulfillment of an obligation to a fellow-being with equal status." The essay
is at www.geocities.com/enchantedforest/7077/tzedakah.html
In a very interesting overview of "The Economics of Tzedakah" — http://swfs.org/ 58_GBG_erh.htm — Rabbi Gary M. Bretton-Garanatoor of New York's Stephen Wise Free Synagogue looks at the example set by Abraham. "We know little of Abraham's early life, and one might wonder why Abraham was singled out to become G-d's partner in the Covenant. We learn from the text that, 'Vayach'shveha lo tzedaka' — G-d considered Abraham on account of his righteousness." (Gen. 15:6)
Throughout the Torah, tzedakah, acts of righteousness, are tied to the Hebrew term Mishpat — legal justice, so that we learn that doing what is right and just is a legal obligation."
One of the most thought-provoking articles that I came across didn't address the giving of tzedakah but the taking of it. In "When Good Money Comes from Bad People" — www.jtsa.edu/news/jtsmag/6.3/forum.shtml — three professionals look at Jewish sources to help grapple with the ethics of accepting donations from morally questionable sources. What would you do?
Roger David Carasso asks a couple of other difficult questions in "Directed Tzedakah: A Torah Look into Where Tzedakah Should Be Given" — http://shlk.com/244 As he explains, "In the Sh'ma, we are directed to love Ha'Shem with all our might and all our possessions. Giving the right amount of charity means nothing or is even harmful if we do not direct it well. When the poor are not properly supported, they risk death; when Jewish Education is not properly supported, it also risks death. It also shows a lack of respect to property when money is given away so whimsically." Caruso then examines what the Torah says about tzedakah, how much, and to whom.
The Just-Tzedakah Web site — http://just-tzedakah.org/guidelines/introduction.html — also has a detailed look at giving from a Jewish point of view. While the theoretical halachic minimum for giving is about $2, this only applies to someone who is living in poverty him or herself. The site suggests that most people contribute of 10 to 20 percent of that year's net income. Other tzedakah recommendations from the site: Calculate your obligation with care; don't brag; avoid delay; give cheerfully and with compassion.
Take a look at Arthur Kurzweil's "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime: The Treatment of Beggars According to Jewish
Tradition" — www.ajritz.com/jew/brother.htm Kurzweil says that although "the organized Jewish community has gotten the mitzvah of giving tzedakah down to a virtual science," he himself has always been confused and inconsistent in his treatment of beggars. He poses 15 questions such as "What if they are all fakes or frauds?" "Shouldn't these beggars be supported by official agencies?" and "Should I buy them a cup of coffee because they'll probably spend it on booze anyway?" Kurzweil, who is not a rabbi but a well-known Jewish genealogist, obviously spent a great deal of effort sifting through traditional sources, which clearly demand compassion for the needy.
Finally, kudos to the Solomon Schechter Day School of Greater Boston. Its students have created an informative and colorful series of Web pages about the halachot of tzedakah — www.ssdsboston.org/tzedakah/zdk00.htm But what I really love about these pages is that the students have not only included quotes from our sages but have also shared their own thoughts on giving and loving-kindness. Kol hakavod!
Next time, we'll continue our look at tzedakah and the Internet with suggestions about how to decide whom to help.