Thursday, February 3, 2011

Giving; Generosity, Glory, Guilt, Perpetuating inequality?

Giving; Generosity, Glory, Guilt, Perpetuating inequality?

On a Friday afternoon, in the mid 80’s,
a man approached me on 7th Avenue
in Manhattan,
“Can you help me?” he asked.
I thought he was looking for directions.
He had intense dark eyes, he continued.
I AM homeless, I eat out of garbage can, and I have not eaten anything today.
I was a teenager, this was New York with homeless people everywhere. I handed him some change.
“I will say a brachah” (Hebrew for blessing made before eating food)
“I will not carry the food I buy in the street on the Sabbath”
Whoa, I thought, this guy is Jewish just like me, and he is hungry and I am giving him a bit of change?
I reached into my pocket and gave him all my change.
Then I realized that I had someone else’s dollars bills in my see-through white shirt pocket.
“I have more money on me, but it is not mine”, I said.
His intense dark eyes are looking at me.
He says, “I hope you are not lying.
You are not lying. Nothing is anyone’s it all belongs to God.”
“I hope you God finds you a home”, I offered lamely.
“I have a home, God earth!”

This story cuts to the essence of some of the dilemmas related to giving. While charity begins at home and within communities[1] it must not stop there. Being kind only to our own is not seen as Kosher[2]We sustain the poor of the idol worshipers with the poor of Israel[3]. Questions can also be asked about attitudes about giving, and the results for recipients.  

Motives for Teruma (contribution)
And they will take to me, a contribution, from each man whose heart is moved in generosity, you shall take my contribution[4]. This particular case of giving was to contribute to the construction of a temporary temple for the Israelites in the desert.

In this case, giving must be done willingly and it should not be forced[5]. “Not even coercion with words, a person was not to be pressured to give more than their heart moved them to contribute”[6]. It is suggested that it was the generosity of the heart, rather than the physical building that brought God’s presence into the tabernacle[7].

In other situations, the community did force people to give to the poor[8]. Giving that is a sacrifice, rather than out of generosity, or ‘giving till it hurts’ might be another ideal, following the principle that “According to the pain is the reward[9]. 

On one level the motives should not matter.
The very generous and hospitable Chasid says to the Rebbe (Master)
“I am not sure about the charity I give or having poor people around my table, because I don’t know if I am doing it for honor, or with (pure motives) truth”.
The Rebbe responds, the poor people enjoy the benefits, with complete truth!

While glory seeking by the giver matters less than the benefits to the poor, the equation changes if the motive interferes with addressing the needs of the poor.

The End of Charity
Nic Frances, a former CEO of a major charity, suggests that charity is often driven by guilt or a desire to feel good about ourselves but actually perpetuates poverty.  People feel satisfied to throw the crumbs from the rich man's table to the poor and therefore avoid thinking about the cost to society of keeping people poor[10]. Personally, as the leader of a non-profit responsible for fund-raising I would like to think he is wrong. That is part of his argument too, that we in the non-profit sector a doing well out of poverty and misery. Ouch.

Frances makes a complex argument and at the risk of oversimplifying, he is essentially proposing that social enterprises rather than charity should tackle poverty through the market with help from government legislation to make it profitable.

Certainly providing someone with a job is better than giving them a handout[11]. A man would prefer one measure of his own (produce) than nine of his friend[12]. Frances illustrates his vision with his success in the UK in transforming a charity that had been taking people's old furniture and stained mattresses and giving them to the poor.  It moved to a business model that sold new beds at a discount to the poor, reconditioned electronics and provided jobs to previously unemployed people.  

Markets are driven by profit, while governments or creativity occasionally manipulate the market to make a profit out of helping people, I wonder if it can work on a large scale.

Fixing “Charity”
Frances argues that charity has not solved the problem of poverty and has therefore been discredited. His ideal of poverty eradication is noble, but perhaps “the poor shall never cease from the land[13]”. In which case the better question is what is best way to “open, you must open your hand to your brother, to your poor and needy in your land?[14]

The word charity is often used to describe an act of benevolence that makes the giver feel virtuous in doing more than his fair share. Torah's word for giving to the poor is Tzedaka, which means justice. Giving to the poor is just passing on what is rightfully his[15].   

Whose Money?
The verb in Exodus (above) relating to “my contributions” is “take” rather than “give”. This is consistent with the belief articulated by the
7th Avenue
man that everything belongs to God. “Give Him, from that which is his, because you and yours is His[16]”. “Giving”, is actually taking what God entrusted to us for a particular purpose and delivering it. 

Supporting Scholars and the arts
Can it be that God gave rich people money so they can patron the arts? I see similarities between the support given to Torah scholars and artists. Artists civilize society and sometimes challenge it. Torah scholars contribute to the holiness of their communities (although this raises the issue of large scale avoidance of jobs in favour of study)[17]. The Holy Ark containing the tablets from Sinai was carried with poles, the Torah forbids the removal of the poles[18]. The poles symbolize those who financially support Torah study[19]. That the poles must not be removed from the ark represents the importance of this support[20].

Charity begins at home, but must not end there. Motives matter. Results matter more. Giving to the poor can be thought of as acting as God’s messenger. I hope 7th Avenue guy is ok, may the merit of your reading this brings blessings to him wherever he is on God’s earth.

[1] Talmud, Bava Metzia 71a, “the poor of your own city, (and community) come before others”
[2] The stork, a non-Kosher bird is called Chadidah, which means kind. A moral explanation for why such a benevolent creature is unfit, is that it is only kind with it’s own “friends”, or it’s own kind.
[3] Mishnah Gittin 5.8; Shulhan Arukh Yoreh Deah 254, 256, cited in
[4] Exodus 25:2
[5] Targum Yonatan Ben Uziel, on Exodus 25:2,  Lekach Tov, quoted in Torah Shelaima, Teruma p.6
[6]  Magid Meisharim, also quoted in Torah Shelaima, Teruma p.6, note 24
[7] Kli Chemda, parshat Truma, Torah Shelaima ibid
[8] Talmud, Kesuvot 59b
[9] Pirkey Avot,
[10] Frances, Nic, (2008) The End of Charity, Allen & Unwin, Sydney
[11] Mimonedes, eight levels of Tzedakah, the highest is giving someone a job
[12] Talmud Bava Metziah, Perek Elu Metziot
[13] Deuteronomy 15:11
[14] Deuteronomy ibid
[15] The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi M.M. Schneerson, Likutei Sichos.
[16] Pirkey Avot 3:7, it continues, with a quote from King David, for from you is everything, and from Your hand, we have given you (Chronicles I, 29:14)
[17] Shunning work to study and expecting to be supported by the governments, community or ones wife is another matter. Among other things, it seems to default on the commitment in the Ketuba/marriage contract “and I will work and provide for you…” It is at odds with many pro-work traditions in Judaism. This issue is dealt with to a limited degree in ” this article is about the merits of the giver in supporting the study of Torah.
[18] Exodus 25:15
[19] Midrash Lekach Tov, quoted in Torah Shelaima
[20] Nachshoni, Y, (1988) Studies in the Weekly Parsha, Teruma p530, Artscroll, Brooklyn, New York, based on earlier sources

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