Charity in Jewish Thought and Culture
I am interested in how Judaism and Jewish culture have addressed the subject of charity, or tzedakah, and the degree to which this understanding differs from Christian charity. It is well-known that Christian charity has historically been very outward-looking, embracing everyone in need, and this is one of the reasons for the Church's growth in Roman antiquity. The Church provided effective relief when there were few safety nets in place for the poor, for orphans and abandoned children, for widows, and for the sick. Some notable pagans, such as Julian the Apostate, resented the Church for this service, and attempted (with very limited success) to emulate Christian charity to steer the people back to the old cults.

Although some of the world's foremost philanthropists are Jewish, serving causes devoted to the good of all humanity, rabbinic thought seems to present an image of charity considerably different from that of Christianity. I found a very interesting column from several years ago, published in the Jewish Chronicle, by Rabbi Natan Levy, that argues that Jews have an obligation to give to gentiles, not just Jews. Frankly, I was unaware that this was even a subject up for debate. Here is the link to the article, which I have quoted in full. I have bolded those parts that I found especially interesting.

Quote:Last year, in a hotel outside Jerusalem, the movers and shakers in the Jewish world of development aid met for the inaugural conference on Jewish action for the world’s poorest inhabitants. On the first day I encountered a problem: we could not get a minyan together for prayer.

I turned to Abraham Burg, the former Knesset Speaker, and asked him in frustration, “Where are all the Orthodox aid workers?” “Aniye ircha kodmim,” he answered in sonorous Hebrew. “And the goyim (sic) come last of all!”

Aniye ircha kodmim, a talmudic phrase meaning “the poor of one’s own town come first”, refers to a defined system of priority in giving, where relatives come before poor neighbours, poor neighbours before poor from the next town, and so on until the final rung, the non-Jews. For Mr Burg, it was the direct reason why so few traditional Jews were present in that aid conference. Jewish law seems to place gentiles at the bottom of the charity chain and at the fringes of Jewish consciousness.

Giving tzedakah to non-Jews unveils a complex web of old wounds and ancient divides. In Christianity and Islam, giving to the poor has historically been bound up with missionary work. For Judaism, where potential converts are discouraged, we have kept our largesse primarily turned inward. But now that we are willing participants in globalisation, the question of giving tzedakah beyond the shtetl gates has become critical. Are we obligated to support the poorest on the planet, even if they are not Jewish? The talmudic sages answer yes (Gittin 61a): “Support the non-Jewish poor with the Jewish poor... visit the non-Jewish sick with the Jewish sick, and bury the non-Jewish dead with the Jewish dead all because of darchei shalom, ways of peace.”

The phrase darchei shalom, based on Proverbs (4:2), had profound meaning for the sages. It signified a willingness to go beyond the bounds of Torah law in order to achieve a more civil society. So because of darchei shalom, a poor individual was allowed to collect slightly more produce from the corner of a field than they were strictly entitled (Toesefta, Peah 3).

However Rashi, the 12th-century commentator, states that the concept of darchei shalom when applied to gentiles is inherently a self-defence mechanism. Refusing to care for the non-Jew might lead to increased animosity towards Jews. This concept, known as eiva, literally “hatred”, refers to the potential anger of non-Jews if we refused to bury their dead, or give them charity. The spectre of hatred was so real that it overrode the Torah’s distinction between Jews and non-Jews in the public domain.

Privately though, we always prioritised our own. Choosing between charitable causes based on physical and emotional proximity appears instinctive. As philosopher Peter Singer notes, we would deem it irredeemably evil if we saw in the news that an ordinary citizen had refused to save the life of a child drowning in a pond, because he did not want to risk damaging his expensive shoes. So why is our moral sense hardly troubled by the fact that tens of children would be saved every day if we donated the price of those shoes towards a new water pump in Mali?

In the image-driven, globally entwined world of television and the internet, it is no longer possible to claim ignorance of these dying Malian children. It seems that even when we know what’s happening, we are disinclined to extend a hand beyond the familiar. Human beings are hard wired to help their own first.

Is priority in giving to those closest to us the Torah’s way of assuring self-preservation in a cruel, Darwinian world? In his 19th-century legal commentary, Rabbi Yechiel Michel Epstein wrote that if we just understand the law of concentric responsibility in simple terms, then a real problem emerges: “Even the richest individual is surrounded by so many needy family members, that there will be nothing left to give to the desperately poor in a distant city…How can the law allow for the distant poor to die of hunger? Therefore, it appears to me that we must make sure to give to even the very distant poor, however those closest to you should continue to receive more than those further away.” (Aruch Hashulchan: Yoreh Deah 251).

Rabbi Epstein is referring to tzedakah for Jews but his logic can be applied more broadly: the needy at the bottom end of your list of priorities should still receive something. So, for example, if you have £100 to give away this month, £50 could go to your children’s school, £25 to a Jewish care charity, £15 to an international Jewish organisation, and the final £10 for projects in India and Africa.

In the 1970s, the then Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Yehuda Unterman presented darchei shalom as much more than a facade of good PR: “Lately it has become customary amongst our teachers to state that there is no real obligation towards bettering the life of non-Jews…” he wrote, “and there is no need to encourage the community to support non-Jews with tzedakah and kindness, for any such acts are only done for the sake of darchei shalom and thus have no real source in the Torah law. Therefore we must define the true concept of darchei shalom. It is not just a means to keep Judaism safe from non-Jewish hatred, but flows from the core ethical teachings of the Torah.” (Shevet M’Yehuda, 70).

Rabbi Unterman’s original approach leads us to a clear conclusion. Even in the privacy of our homes, without the worry of causing animosity, the ethic of darchei shalom should still encourage us to give to non-Jewish charities.

Rabbi Moses Feinstein, the great legal authority of the past generation, wrote, “the laws of priority in giving refer solely to communal monies, whereas individual donations can be given to anyone we deem to be in need.”(Iggeret Moshe, Yoreh Deah 1:144). The final choice rests in your hands.

Rabbi Natan Levy, following Rabbi Yehuda Unterman, addresses a rabbinic tradition that goes back to Rashi (Shlomo Yitzchaki or Salomon Isaacides, an 11th Century French rabbi) and which is rooted in the Talmud, which sees charity towards gentiles as motivated by a need to keep peace (darchei shalom by removing any cause for scandal that would lead to animosity against the Jews on the part of gentiles (eiva). I applaud Natan Levy's humane words, but it seems to me that he doesn't go far enough. He still maintains the traditional distinction between giving to fellow Jews and giving to gentiles; his point of contention is not with whether helping other Jews is of higher priority, or a higher calling (the rabbinic tradition is clear), but instead is to affirm the goodness of charity to gentiles independent of any consideration of eiva.

Maimonides (Mosheh ben Maimon, also known by the acrostic RaMbaM), one of the most significant scholars in the history of rabbinic thought, created a highly-influential "ladder of tzedakah," eight levels of giving in order of the virtue associated with it, which are to be found in his magnum opus, the Mishneh Torah. Maimonides is so influential that, according to several of the foremost rabbinic authorities, such as Malachi ben Jacob ha-Kohen of the 18th century, it is prohibited to interpret the Talmud in such a way that it contradicts Maimonides. Following the logic of Malachi, if one thinks the Talmud contradicts Maimonides, then one has misunderstood the Talmud. So, without saying more, Maimonides is quite authoritative in rabbinic Jewish thought.

The Chabad website has an an abridged translation of the relevant section of the Mishneh Torah, containing Maimonides' ladder of tzedakah. The lowest form of charity is to give when coerced to do so. The highest form of charity:
Quote:The greatest level, above which there is no greater, is to support a fellow Jew by endowing him with a gift or loan, or entering into a partnership with him, or finding employment for him, in order to strengthen his hand until he need no longer be dependent upon others.
Charity is for the chosen, not the filthy goyim cattle. Goyim aren't human. Only Jews are human. We are unclean, too. Judaism is rather unconcerned with the filthy goyim.


Jews = good
Goyim = bad


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