Sunday, June 6, 2010

Why give tzedaka?

"God loves a cheerful giver!"

If you grew up in the church or in the Messianic world, you've most likely heard those words from Paul as part of an exhortation to make a financial contribution to some cause.

A recent article from Cross Currents discussed the motivations behind giving tzedaka within the Orthodox Jewish community:
“Judaism isn’t so concerned with personal reaction; altruism is not about one’s ego. Even if people believe that they will be rewarded in the Next World for good deeds, the emphasis is on action in this world, and on doing what’s right.”
As [Stephen Linenberger] conducted interviews with children, he found that Jewish children didn’t quite know how to answer the question, “How do you feel about the person you’re helping?” It’s not that they don’t feel empathy; it’s that doing “what’s right” (aka a Mitzvah) is independent of their personal feelings. As he put it:
They are action oriented. They take themselves out of the picture. It’s not about some primitive response to the person in need, and ego centered evaluation about whether I feel like helping. It’s about responding to a need. It’s almost as if, contrary to what the research has always supported, the disregard for empathy heightens altruism rather than suppresses it.


James said...

I think the simple answer is the best: because it's the right thing to do.

Carl Kinbar said...


Your post grabbed my attention because I have been pondering issues concerning the individual and halakhah. As you know, Jewish law is a body of halakhot concerning every area of life. The same kind of thinking that underlies the seven levels of tzedakah also underlies the remembering and keeping of Shabbat, laws of family purity, civil law, blessings, etc. Everything that is done within this system is done "because it is the right thing to do." More deeply, it however, it is right because the halakhot substantially embody human responsibility within God's order. A Jew says the blessing over bread before eating and the birkat hamazon afterward because it is right to bless and thank God for every meal.

Of course, there can be great satisfaction and joy in keeping the mitzvot. And obviously it contributes to order and maturity in our personal and communal lives. But the ultimate purpose of Torah is not primarily what it does for individual Jews, or even for the Jewish community. Its purpose it the restoration of the world. When we fulfill an obligation that is halakhically defined, we contribute toward that end.

And yet, keeping halakhah is only the beginning. Here is a great quote from Rav Kook:

“Since our forefathers kept the [laws of] the Torah by their own free inner choice, it is desirable that this quality play a large role in morality. . . If actions above and beyond the letter of the law were set down as obligations of the Torah, they would have obscured its eternal guidance from being a beacon to all generations and a light to the gentiles, according to their widely varied spiritual levels. That aspect of morality which must rise out of charity and the love of righteousness must always be the greater part of general positive morality [Torah and the commandments], just as the open air is in comparison with buildings and the cultural activities in them, so that it is impossible not to reserve a large role for it.”

Rav Kook is saying that our deeds “above and beyond” what is given in Torah (understood as the entire written and oral law) must be the greater part of our ethical life. Of course, this does replace simple obedience to Torah.

IMO, the underlying issues involved here—specifically the dynamic tension between halakhah and free inner choice—are crucial for us at this time. Moving forward will require men and women who respond to the obligation to study Torah and also embody the spiritual, pastoral, and theological values of Messianic faith. Without such men and women who are deep in Torah and God’s love, the balance will always tip away from halakhah toward personal freedom, just as in Orthodoxy it tips away from personal freedom and toward halakhah.

Judah Gabriel Himango said...

Aw shucks, I put in a long comment here, hit submit, and it disappeared into the vast internet void.

Basic jist of my long comment: I tend to give primarily to organizations primarily, individuals secondarily. To be honest, empathy for individuals is usually what causes me to give. Heh. That may not be the right motivation, but that is reality. :-p

Yahnatan said...


I wish the long version of your comment had made it through...thanks for giving the gist at least. I do feel that empathy for individuals (for example, a beggar on the street) surely can't be bad. (And Yeshua taught, "Give to him who asks of you"!) But surely being more strategic about how I give would also help that man (and many others) more in the long run. Here I find Rambam's concept of different levels of tzedaka (which R' Carl mentioned) helpful (even if I haven't yet read the book about it which is sitting on my shelf.

Yahnatan said...

R' Carl:

Your comment (particularly the closing sentences about what is needed to move forward) really inspires does the quotation from Rav Kook. Thanks for sharing your meditations here.