The Justice Chronicles, Volume 2: Rethinking Tzedakah

In my previous Justice Chronicles post I talked about the ladder of tzedakah. I’ve been thinking about this ladder and wonder if we need to rethink this. I take nothing away from the brilliance of Moses Maimonides, but he wrote nearly 900 years ago and built his ladder on one very specific theme. He believed that giving charity (or doing justice) becomes more altruistic as the receiver is not able to repay, either because they don’t have the means or don’t know the giver.

I still hold to the validity of the highest rung (enabling the recipient to become self reliant), but I’m not so certain of the 7th rung (giving when neither party knows the others identity). In the last few years we’ve read about and seen devastating tragedies with Hurricane Katrina, the Indian Ocean Tsunami, and most recently earthquakes in Haiti and Chile and we Americans have responded generously. Catholic Relief Services has already raised $90,000,000 for Haiti, and it’s all 7th rung tzedakah. None of us who gave know who will benefit, and nobody who benefits will know us.

But at the end of the day, is that a good thing? In the 12th century it was fairly difficult to be anonymous. Most people lived in small villages and didn’t travel much. If you wanted to give to someone without knowing who, and without them knowing you, you needed to search out a middle man. Now it’s much easier, and I think perhaps not as noble. The sheer volume of money that goes to Haiti, Chile, etc. shows how generous Americans are, but it also shows that it’s easy to write a check or call a toll free number and know we are doing good.

But what about tzedakah that needs to happen close to home? Can we be as generous and give while looking at someone in the eye? Several years ago I met a man from St. Eulalia Catholic Church in Winchester, Massachusetts. A few years before that he attended an event where the speaker was Mother Teresa. He was so impressed with her talk that he came up to her and gave her a $50 bill and said: “Give this to the poor.” She gave him the bill back and said: “No, you give this to the poor. Find someone who needs it and give it to him.” As he told me the story he explained that while it was hard to find someone in Winchester, Massachusetts who was poor, he was on a mission. He eventually found someone to give the money to, and it transformed him to actually meet someone who needed what he had.

I don’t normally do New Years’ resolutions, but last year I made one that I still hold to: I will not avoid eye contact with people who stand at intersections and ask for money. You know what I’m talking about: they hold signs that say “Please help. God bless,” or “Will work for food.” Admit it, you’ve hoped that the traffic light would work in your favor and you wouldn’t have the uncomfortable few minutes when you’re only separated by the car window. Most people don’t give them money because “they’ll just use it for booze or drugs.”

Is that true? Maybe it is, but maybe it’s because we don’t want to do level 3 (giving after being asked). Maybe it’s because giving to someone who asks is, on some level, creating a relationship that we don’t want to create. I’ll confess that I keep a $5 bill handy to give to these folks and in return I ask them to pray for me. Nobody has ever refused my request. OK, maybe they don’t have any intention to pray for me, and maybe they’ll just use the money to make themselves worse, but does that make my tzedakah worse or wasteful? If the only good that happened out of this encounter is that two strangers made eye contact, is that a bad thing?

Maybe it advances the cause of tzedakah.

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