Thursday, August 12, 2021

Why Are Jews So Charitable?

Charity is absolutely impractical. It is far more reasonable to keep your own money than to give it to strangers. That’s why it is not surprising that pagans in ancient Rome showed a pronounced disinterest in helping the poor. The 4th-century Roman emperor Julian, who restored ancient Roman paganism as the state religion, complained to one of the pagan priests that "it is disgraceful that, when no Jew ever has to beg, and the impious Galilaeans [Christians] support not only their own poor but ours as well, all men see that our people lack aid from us."

Julian makes clear that the pagans failed to give charity even to their co-religionists, while adherents of the Biblical religions of Judaism and Christianity were very charitable, to the point that every impoverished Jew was taken care of. (The Talmud corroborates this depiction of paganism; in one passage, it tells of Turnus Rufus, the Roman governor, criticizing the Jewish emphasis on charity to Rabbi Akiva). Peter Brown, a Professor emeritus at Princeton, explains that the Romans couldn’t understand the purpose of charity, and that the charitable approach of Judaism and Christianity represents a "new departure."

The example of ancient Rome reminds us that charity is never a given in any society; people don’t like to give away money. For this reason, the Torah phrases the commandment to give charity in an unusual way. It says: "If there will be among you a needy person, from one of your brothers shall not harden your heart, and you shall not close your hand from your needy brother." This language implies an ambivalence, with a heart that can be softened and hardened, a hand that is opened and closed. Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Berlin comments that it is natural "to be merciful, and to take pity on someone who is suffering. However it is also human nature to take pity on one’s own money, and to close up one’s merciful heart." While we certainly have a natural instinct to give, we do not always follow the better angels of our nature. Often, we close our hearts and our hands. The prophets consistently prod the people to take on social responsibility because one can never assume that people will be generous.

Jewish philanthropy remains a powerful force until this day. Hanna Shaul Bar Nissim, writing for Philanthropy Daily, notes how widespread charity is in the Jewish community, and that "60 percent of Jewish households earning less than US$50,000 a year donate, compared with 46 percent of non-Jewish households in that income bracket." Jews also give more money on average than adherents of other religious traditions. Bar Nissim writes that "the average annual Jewish household donates $2,526 to charity yearly, far more than the $1,749 their Protestant counterparts give or the $1,142 for Catholics." What makes this comparison significant is that the Christian tradition emphasizes charity as well.

So why is Jewish charity different?

I would argue there are two major factors for this extraordinary philanthropy, both due to the experience of Jewish history. The first is that persecution creates a unique bond of empathy. One example of this is found in a public letter to Egyptian Jewry by Maimonides, written in 1168. The Crusader King Amalric of Jerusalem had invaded the town of Bilbays on the southern Nile, and taken a group of Jewish prisoners. A very large sum was needed to ransom them. Maimonides wrote to the Egyptian Jewish community: “I have sent you a letter with our honored master and teacher, Aaron Halevi, may God keep him, who will read it out in public, he is accompanied by a parnass, [a social welfare official], also sent by me. When this letter is read out to you dear brothers, pay attention to it, as is expected from you, and earn this great merit. Act as we have done, we, the great judges, elders and scholars. We all go around day and night and solicit the people, in the synagogues and in the bazaar, at the gates of their houses, until we get something for this great undertaking, and this after we ourselves have contributed as much as we have been able to do.” This was an expensive and difficult undertaking for the community. In his book “Poverty and Charity in the Jewish Community of Medieval Egypt,” Mark R. Cohen explains that the going rate for a captive was 33 and one third dinars, “enough money to support a middling family for a year.” To ransom captives on a regular basis, on top of the other community charitable needs, must have required exceptional philanthropy.

This extraordinary benevolence needs to be understood. When Maimonides composed his Halakhic work, the Mishneh Torah, a few years later, he offered some insight into his passion for charity.  He wrote that it is critical to give charity because “if a brother does not show compassion for another brother, then who will have compassion for him? And to whom can the poor of Israel look? To the idolatrous nations that hate them and pursue them? They can only look to rely upon their brothers” (Matanot Aniyim 10:2). Maimonides is calling on his fellow Jews to give, and reminding them that they know from bitter experience what it is like to be at the mercy of the powerful who despise them. Even the wealthiest members of his community recognized how vulnerable they were, and understood that, but for the grace of God, they too could be dispossessed.

Compassion is feeling pity for those who don't have; empathy is imagining that you, yourself, might also end up going without. In Maimonides’ Egypt, every Jew could empathize with those who were down and out, and could imagine themselves being the captive one day.

But another reason for the Jewish emphasis on charity has to do with the search for redemption. In the Talmud (Baba Batra 10a), when Turnus Rufus criticizes charity to Rabbi Akiva, his argument is that if someone is poor, God must have wanted him to be poor; therefore, charity is impious, a violation of God’s will.  The commentary of the Maharsha explains that the subtext of this argument is political. Turnus Rufus is arguing that if the Jews are in exile, God must want them to remain in exile; and they should embrace Roman domination instead of searching for redemption. Rabbi Akiva offers the opposite view; the lesson of exile is to despise exile, and to refuse to accept it. One must always pursue redemption. The world as it is now is not a representation of a divine ideal, and we should never passively accept its flaws as the will of God. It is an unfinished creation, a place where tragedy, exile and poverty are still possible. It is up to man, as God’s partner, to finish the job. The Jewish mission is to repair an imperfect world, and every act of kindness and charity is a continuation of that mission. 

Charity for Jews is about more than caring for the poor; it is about transforming the world. And while giving away one’s hard earned money may seem impractical, Jewish history has taught that one cannot survive without charity.   



No comments: