Tzedakah today exists in a fallen state much more akin to "Charity" than to the obligatory actions of righteousness idealized in rabbinic sources. We have created a philanthropic culture that lavishes honor upon donors who have the "vision to invest" in chosen initiatives. Meanwhile, ordinary communal needs such as poverty relief, elder care, and subsidized Jewish education suffer from benign neglect.
Part of our failure is cultural. we have internalized Western concepts of individual agency and patronage, wherever they lead, and largely abandoned the Jewish ideal of obligation. But other aspects of the failure are our inability to develop a coherent sense of priorities in Jewish spending and our graduated expectations of giving based upon financial capacity. Even as they seek to accommodate the demands of "donor relations," Jewish professionals should define and project a countercultural ideal of tzedakah, not as charity, but as the responsible and righteous use of resources.
One way to do this is to reclaim ancient categories that align with a broad set of Jewish obligations. This is not a list of charities, but of sacred spending that is mandatory for a religious Jews.
- Peah, shikhecha v'leket -- emergency food relief for the local, regional, and global poor. This is a mitzvah that the rabbis say has no limit, yet they advise that at least 1.5 percent to 2.5 percent of income from field crops be surrendered to the poor. So, too, should contemporary wage earners give a tangible amount to support the hungry and vulnerable in their community and around the world. From the behavior of Boaz toward the Moabite woman Ruth, we see that such gifts are not limited to the Jewish poor.
- Teruma u'ma'aser -- a tithe (10 percent?) for religious services. In ancient times, this supported the landless priests and Levites who ran the Temple, taught Torah, and represented the community. Today, we could apply these funds to the religious organizations needed by the Jewish community: synagogues, day schools, seminaries, and summer camps, which sustain and deepen Jewish identity.
- Ma'aser Sheni -- a second tithe amounting to 9 percent, most of which was reserved for a family pilgrimage fund, while the rest was distributed to the local poor. In our day, such money could be allocated to a family's own ritual expenses (sukkah, seder Israel travel, synagogue dues, etc) and to increase donations to ameliorate the poverty of elderly, ill, disabled, and isolated individuals.
- Machazit Ha-Shekel -- a final flat poll tax whose purpose is truly communal in that it supports central welfare organizations that serve the entire Jewish people.
- Daniel S. Nevins, "Rebranding Tzedakah: From Charity to Sacred Spending"