Monday, January 03, 2005

Point of Pride?

DovBear is proud that the OU's website calls for contributions to aid victims of the Asian Tsunami - while various conservative Christian sites do not.

Reading further, though, one discovers that the OU is walking a fine line. The organization expresses grief and empathy for the victims, and offers prayers. It announces the launch of a fund for disaster relief, and says it is accepting donations.

Yet the OU avoids explicitly calling on people to donate to this fund!

The Orthodox Union has launched a special fund to which monetary contributions for disaster relief can be sent. We call upon our constituent synagogues, individual members, and all members of the Jewish community, to reflect upon this disaster as an expression of God's inscrutable will, and to take the suffering caused by the disaster to heart in prayers, thought, and action. We encourage each synagogue to determine the manner in which it will express the emotions and feelings engendered by this suffering. (Emphasis added)

What gives?

I'm (thankfully) not privy to the OU's internal deliberations, but I presume this flexible phrasing has to do with the thorny question my wife posed to me the other day: Do we, as Orthodox Jews, have an obligation to donate to the tsunami relief effort?

I'm doubtful.

To start with, halacha agrees with the saying, "charity begins at home." When giving charity, we must give first to the poor among our own relatives, then to those of our own town, then of other towns, etc. Clearly, given a limited pool of charitable resources, the victims in Asia are a low priority for those of us thousands of miles away.

If we were obligated to help the tsunami victims, why stop there? Hundreds of millions around the world live in various stages of poverty. Must we, as Orthodox Jews, support them all? The tsunami victims may have the most acute, immediate need, but many other victims of war and disaster are not far behind them. Is it our responsibility to bear the burden for all the world's poor?

Second, does it matter that the victims are (almost entirely) not Jewish? In a town of mixed population, the halacha requires us to give charity to non-Jews on the same terms we do to Jews, apparently so as to maintain friendly relations between the communities. Where we give to the Jews, we must give to the non-Jews. But does this apply here, where there are hardly any Jewish victims to begin with?

As individual Jews, we have no links with the suffering Asian communities. Whether or not we contribute to them as will have no effect on intercommunal relations. Why donate to them rather than support our more immediate charitable responsibilities at home? Other kind souls the world over will step forward to help them; none will do the same for us.

Note, though, that I said "as individual Jews." As a community, however, we may have interests in aiding the victims. The State of Israel, for example, clearly has an interest in promoting friendly relations, and, where possible, alliances, with large Asian countries, especially those such as Thailand with which it already has close ties. Clearly, Israel should be offering assistance in accordance with its means, and it is doing so.

There is also a kiddush hashem to be made in demonstrating that the State of Israel and the Jewish community are concerned for all of God's creatures. Though such acts may not always win the recognition they deserve, they remain valuable for both their practical and symbolic impact. People should associate Jews, and religious Jews in particular, with acts of charity and compassion. (It's better than associating us with stinginess!)

So it would seem appropriate for the OU to launch an assistance fund. And yet I can't find a compelling argument requiring me, or any other individual Jew, to actually donate to such a fund. As I noted, the OU itself doesn't even make such a claim. The paradox stands.

A final note: The cynic in me can't help but suspect the OU of ulterior motives in this prominent initiative. The OU's site highlights an exchange of letters with one of their Sri Lankan clients. It is no secret that the OU does a great deal of business certifying Asian food manufacturing plants. Could the OU's Asian assistance fund really be motivated primarily by its own business interests?

Let's hope not.

Certainly, the OU's Christian counterparts have no similar motivations.


Reb Yudel said...

My guess is that within the OU, the part of the institution that acts within the broader Jewish community led the way, with the halachicists saying we're not hayav, with the result being the fine compromise that you pointed out.

I think the communal thinking of BE is strong enough that the cynical Kashrus angle didn't need to play any real role. The impact more likely would have been to have made the devastation feel real for those within the organization who because of hashgacha work (a) have acquaintances in Thailand and (b) don't interact strongly enough with internet or television to feel the emotional impact of the distant event.

The real question being asked -- by all the organizations who solicit aid and all those who donate -- is not "what is our hiyuv, our obligation," for this particular group of suffering people, but "how can we carry through our instinctive desire to do something in the face of tragedy." I doubt that the Rambam characterizes lo ta'amod al dam re'echa as a hok; at time of great tragedy, it is an instinctive need. It's why calls for tehilim and segulah visits of the sick abound in an obstensibly modern Jewish community -- it's a way of doing something.

From that standpoint, it really doesn't matter whether the OU ends up donating $180 or a $180,000. What matters is that Jews who want to do something, and don't feel comfortable giving, say, to the American Red Cross, can do that little something. What matters is not shutting ourselves down and pretending the pictures we see on TV aren't "us".

In any visit to a shiva house, but particularly where death has come tragically prematurely and unexepectedly the same issues are at play. Can you make the mourners feel better? Can you help them?

Of course not.

But can you do nothing?

Of course not, too.

And here's the little secret. Though your visit is inadequate to fill the hole, it really does make a difference. Amidst the aching loneliness, your presence brings another, quietly reassuring message: The mourners are not totally alone. They are part of a broader community. Their loss, and the person snatched away from them, has not gone totally unnoticed.

I don't want to think about how many people in South Asia now feel the burden so many Jews felt 60 years ago, of feeling that they alone hold the memories of countless people, perhaps of whole villages. Even the piddling sum I contributed through Amazon's fund (now topping $13 million from 162,000 people on average more generous than me) will tell someone that they are not alone on this shivering planet.

And frankly, it's harder to think of a greater kiddush hashem, or a greater embodiment of following in God's footsteps than that.

M-n said...

I wrote about the inherent bigotry in the response of frumkeit to tragedy here:
Mis-nagid: Tsunami Tragedy (Updated)