Although inherently skeptical of religion, I have always firmly associated it
with charitable giving. Growing up with Ned Flanders, I have always known
Christianity to be a charitable faith. Conversations with friends have illustrated
to me the generosity embedded in Islam. And I am now familiar with Tzedakah;
the Jewish obligation of charitable giving.
Tzedakah is the ‘religious obligation to do what is right and just’. This
means that it’s an observance – something that must be done – rather than
a voluntary ‘charitable act’. Money given as Tzedakah is regarded as God’s
money; it never belonged to anyone, but was entrusted to us by God so we
could distribute it to those who deserve it. To be told that a portion of my
hard earned cash is not, and never was mine, does seem unfair. On the other
hand, this principle is similar to the taxes that come out of our paychecks, and
ultimately benefit us. Perhaps charitable giving would do the same; less crime,
less homelessness and a strong sense of wellbeing.
However, giving to the homeless is one of the lower forms of Tzedakah. The
Mishneh Torah states the first of the Eight Levels of Giving as giving a loan, grant,
partnership or job to someone in need, provided it results in the receiver’s self-
reliance. “Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day; Give him a fishing rod and he’ll
eat forever”. It’s a perceptive way of giving charitably, and deservedly heading
the list. Second on the list is donating to a person or public fund which will use
the money for Tzedakah, followed by giving anonymously to a known recipient,
giving publicly to an unknown recipient, giving after being asked, giving before
being asked, giving after being asked, and giving willingly but inadequately.
Lastly, and least admirably on the list, is ‘giving unwillingly’, or out of pity.
Admittedly, charity is better when it’s given with good will. However, I feel a
sense of pity every time someone seeking charity approaches me. I contemplate
the less fortunate, and I find myself trying, as futile as it seems, to empathise with
their situation in some way. This makes me grateful for what I have, and this
better of understanding makes me more willing to give charitably. Giving out of
pity is by no means an inferior form of charity in my opinion. In some ways, this
pity is their only item to trade with; they tender the service of relieving our guilt
for being more fortunate than others. Perhaps this is why it is inferior; charity
should never involve ‘trade’ or ‘service’.
It’s easy to get tangled in the specifics of Tzedakah. Many Jews practice ‘ma’aser
kesafim’, and give 10% of their income to a charity, as their act of Tzedakah.
As with all my research so far, there are things I admire and things I question
about Tzedakah, but I realize that it’s core message is the righteous (and forward
thinking) act of charitable giving.