The Justice Chronicles: Volume I

The recent events in Haiti have caused me to think a great deal about the role of justice. They suffered a 7.0 magnitude earthquake on January 12th and thousands lost their lives. Countless others survived but are in need of basic services (food, water, shelter, etc.) and that has lead to a very public debate.

Organizations like the Red Cross and Catholic Relief Services have raised millions of dollars. President Obama asked former presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush to spearhead a fundraising effort.

This raises lots of questions to me on the nature of justice and charity. In a previous post I spoke of medieval Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonmides (1120-1190) and his teaching on the “ladder of tzedakah.” Tzedakah is normally translated as “charity” but it means much more. In a sense, true tzedakah is not simply a rich person giving something to a poor person; it’s an act of fairness and justice, an act that works to restore all of us to equality.

More than that, the “ladder” part tells us that there are rungs, or levels; not all tzedakah is the same. Maimonmides taught that this ladder had 8 rungs:

1. Giving begrudgingly
2. Giving less that you should, but giving it cheerfully.
3. Giving after being asked
4. Giving before being asked
5. Giving when you do not know the recipient’s identity, but the recipient knows your identity
6. Giving when you know the recipient’s identity, but the recipient doesn’t know your identity
7. Giving when neither party knows the other’s identity
8. Enabling the recipient to become self-reliant

For most people who are giving to the relief in Haiti, it’s really the 7th rung. That’s pretty good particularly given that the people who will benefit from these donations will never have the opportunity to give back, but I wonder if we shouldn’t think more about moving to the 8th rung.

This may be too politically sensitive to discuss directly, so let me get to this at a slant. Going back a century, I think most people are aware of the name Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919). He founded United States Steel (now called USX). In building his empire he earned a phenomenal amount of money and when he retired he gave much of it away. In total, he donated approximately $350,000,000 and was instrumental in the building of over 2500 libraries. Even today the <a href="Carnegie Corporation is continuing Andrew’s vision.

Much of the work they do is 7th rung stuff. The people who fund the charity don’t know the people they help and they don’t know the donors. But when Mr. Carnegie was amassing his fortune, did he need to keep it all himself? Did his workers need to live in poverty and work in poor conditions so those of the next generation would have a library? In 1892 Carnegie broke the union that represented his workers. Had he worked with the union and given everyone a living wage, couldn’t that have been 8th rung tzedakah? Maybe Carnegie wouldn’t have been so famous, and maybe we wouldn’t have as many libraries, but workers in the late 19th and early 20th century might have had less poverty, disease, and shortened lives.

Maybe the earthquake in Haiti gives all the rest of us the opportunity to not only provide food and water, but also the tools to allow their economy to grow. Maybe this is our opportunity to make them better able to survive the next earthquake.

I entitled this “Volume 1” in the hopes that I’ll write about justice/tzedakah on a regular basis.

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