Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Charity again: Obligation and community

This will be (bli neder) my last post on the subject of charity for the tsunami victims. I'm responding to critics one more time because I feel there are signficant philosophical issues I haven't yet addressed.

Annie Gottlieb of AmbivaBlog comments on my first post in the midst of a discussion of fundamentalism and evangelicals. I think she's misconstrued my intentions. She certainly quoted only one side of my argument, though, to be fair, she concedes that "it's not that simple" and advises reading the whole post. (Please read the followup post as well.)

She understands me as advocating - or at least exemplifying - the social separatism of Orthodox Jews: "Orthodox Jews have made another kind of adaptation: they coexist by withdrawing, into enclaves that are not hostile to the outside world, just strictly separate and detached." While there are Orthodox Jews who live in such enclaves, most do not, and I am certainly not one of them.

What she seems to miss in my discussion is the one key word which perhaps best characterizes the approach of Orthodox Judaism to moral questions: Obligation.

When faced with a question of religious behavior, we are meant to ask: What does halacha, Jewish law, say? Is it forbidden, permissible or obligatory? If it is obligatory, what is the source for the obligation? What are the parameters of the obligation? What are its exceptions? What overrides it, or is overridden by it?

To take the case of charity: Jews are obligated to give charitable donations. Halacha specifies what is deemed a charitable donation and how much of one's income to give overall. Generally, though, one is not personally obligated to support any specific poor person or cause (though there are exceptions). If such a specific obligation existed, there would be no end to it, as it would apply equally to every poor person in the community, which would likely be more than any one giver could bear. The community as a whole is obligated to support all of its poor, but no individual bears that burden alone.

Similarly, I argued, no individual Jew can be obligated to contribute to tsunami relief, as such an obligation would imply an equal obligation to contribute to every other legitimate charitable cause on earth. This is clearly impossible. At the same time, though, I argued that the Jewish community as a whole may indeed have such an obligation, even if no individual is compelled by it. Simply put, my primary argument was about obligation, not separatism.

Ironically, YodaYid seems to agree with this argument, while claiming to reject it:

Regarding the idea that if we have to help the Tsunami victims, we have to help everyone - I wholeheartedly agree! Obviously no individual can be responsible for, say, all the malaria victims, but it would certainly be laudable to donate at least a small amount a year towards alleviating the problem.

Right. No individual can be responsible for all of the world's poor, and thus no individual can bear an obligation to help all of the world's poor. It may indeed be laudable, but it cannot be obligatory.

So far, none of the critics has put forth a credible argument to the contrary.

This brings us to the second key word for understanding my argument: Community. This aspect of the discussion is by no means particular to Jews, or to Orthodox Jews.

AmbivaBlog seems ambivalent (surprise!) about the notion of community. Philosophically, indeed, it is difficult. If all men are created equal, on what basis can I possibly accord different treatment to some, purely on the grounds of their geographical, genealogical or theological proximity to myself?

The same question, it seems, can be asked about family. Is it legitimate to show preference to members of one's family over other people? Set aside the question of dependent children. Why should I, as an adult, care more for my sister than anyone else's sister, for my father than anyone else's father, for my cousin than anyone else's cousin? Yet I do, and nearly everyone does, and no one finds fault with it (outside the legal definition of nepotism).

On one level, community is the natural extension of family. In ancient times and in parts of the world today, community and family are often closely related, with entire towns populated by members of one extended clan. Similarly, Jewish sources traditionally regard the Jewish people as one large family, or at least descended from one - despite centuries of displacement, intermarriage and conversion.

The same is true on the level of a town or a nation. Our responsibility towards those we pass daily in the street, those with whom we share a society and a government, is inherently greater than it is towards outsiders.

We may all be created equal, but ultimately there is no "brotherhood of man"; there are no "citizens of the world" (and I've lived on three continents). Each of us is born into a family, a neighborhood, a town and a country, a faith and a culture. As adults, we similarly live in such overlapping communities. To different extents, each of these forms of community embodies aspects of shared responsibility, of mutual assistance. Our allegiances to them are, naturally and legitimately, stronger than and prior to our allegiances to outsiders.

Thus, I argue, one's responsibility to aid the tsunami victims is directly proportional to one's communal ties to them. Clearly, primary responsibility falls on their own governments (and India's 1.2 billion, for example, are more than capable of rehabilitating their suffering compatriots. The same may not be true of other victimized countries.). Other world governments, in a sense, share communal ties with them and should rightly help out in appropriate ways, especially with respect to their allies.

But for me as an individual, the poor and suffering in my own communities rightly take precedence over those in distant lands. To do otherwise would be to forsake my immediate responsibility towards my relatives, fellow citizens and countrymen, in favor of strangers. I fail to see the morality in that.

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