Friday, November 25, 2011

Interest Free Loans: The Uncharity

Charity comes straight from the heart. Everybody can feel the pain of those in need, which is why compassionate people want to give the hungry food. When it comes to charity, the Jewish community can certainly take pride in the remarkable sums that we raise each year to take care of the poor. This philanthropic excellence highlights what is called “the Jewish heart”.

But charity at its best doesn’t only come from the heart; it comes from the mind as well. Charity should be given in a way that maximizes the impact on the recipient, and it should be given in a way that best preserves the dignity of those in need. The Bible tells us that we need to dream of a day when “there may be no more destitute among you”; to accomplish this, we must not only give from the heart, but also from the mind. When you give from the heart, you give the poor food; when you give from the mind, you give the poor a livelihood.

The Jewish tradition of giving from the mind is best expressed by the interest free loan. The Bible insists that we lend to our hand “to strengthen” those who are slipping by lending them some money. As the 11th commentator Rashi explains, to strengthen a person when they slip will save a great deal of effort; a lot less help is required to help someone who is slipping than to help someone who has fallen. Lending to someone who is in a credit crunch is much easier for the community than supporting someone who has fallen bankrupt.

But the interest free loan is more than a preventative measure. It is actually a form of charity that isn’t charity, the “uncharity”. Maimonides, the great medieval Jewish thinker and author, explains that there are different levels of charity; the highest form of charity is found when you give someone an interest free loan or a job. By giving someone an opportunity to flourish independently, we have given them the greatest gift of all, and by giving someone a loan rather than a gift, we have preserved their dignity. Ironically, the greatest form of charity is not a charity at all, it is the uncharity, where the recipient leaves without a handout, but with his head held high and with hope for a better future.

Today, the world has begun to understand the Jewish wisdom of the uncharity. Microlending, another form of what Jews have practiced for decades, is now making a powerful impact on the developing world. It is based on this simple wisdom that one must always give from the heart and the mind, and look to enable the poor to feed themselves. The practice of this “uncharity” can remove poverty from the world, by enabling the poor to support themselves in dignity and pride.

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