Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Prioritizing charity: Who comes first?

You can't write a post like this one without bracing for a storm. Stirring things up was clearly part of my intention, and I'm pleased that the reactions so far have largely been thoughtful.

The post has only been up for 14 hours, much of which were late at night either here or in the U.S., but I'd like to respond to the comments so far. I expect they're representative of what many readers are thinking. (Incidentally, I neglected to point out that I am not a rabbi, and that any practical questions should be referred to one. I'm just a troublemaking blogger.)

In appreciation of his flattery, let me start with YodaYid, who is "a bit upset" (particularly as this is "one of [his] favorite blogs" - thanks!). He describes my post as callous and glib.

Unfortunately, any analytical discussion of human suffering and its response will sound callous. How can we apply the tools of reason and logic to a situation which calls for empathy and compassion? Yet, only through reasoned analysis can we consider our options pragmatically.

Our emotional response to suffering must be compassionate and instinctive. Our pragmatic response, however, must be rational and workable. Acts of charity must be motivated by compassion, but they must be guided and prioritized by reason if they are to be effective.

YodaYid, I'm not looking for "rationalizations not to help". I am trying to understand whether Jewish law - or, for that matter, any pragmatic moral argument - obligates me to help. I am trying to understand whether the claim to charity posed by the tsunami victims should take precedence over the claims of those who are emotionally and physically close to me.

Clearly, it does matter that millions of others are stepping forward to help in this regional disaster, including the world's major governments - and I'm rightly proud of Israel's role in this regard. Meanwhile, the poor and disadvantaged who are close to me may have no one else to support them.

I am reminded of a recent essay (Hebrew) by Rabbi Yaakov Ariel, Chief Rabbi of Ramat Gan, on the subject of charity and public policy. He argues that there are two aspects to the mitzvah of tzedakah: An individual obligation and a communal obligation. As he puts it, "The community is entrusted with the social side, while the individual is entrusted with the moral side."

In other words, these two obligations have separate objectives. The community is entrusted with the welfare of all its members, and as such each community must ensure that residents are adequately supported in times of need. If one poor man suffers, the community has failed him. It is a failure of society.

No individual, however, can be held liable to support all of his community's poor. The individual's obligation is a moral one. It is that he must remain sensitive to his fellow man's suffering. He must not turn a blind eye; rather he must give something of his own wealth to everyone in need. This develops his moral personality and his instincts of compassion and righteous behavior. From this perspective, it is better to give many small gifts to many individuals than one large one, because the greater the number of acts of tzedakah, the greater the impact on the giver's character.

To a large extent, Rav Ariel's communal obligation corresponds with the pragmatic response I mentioned above, while his individual obligation corresponds with the emotional response.

Note, though, that both these obligations remain within the context of a community, a collection of people in a shared society. It is that commonality which gives rise to, on the one hand, the community's responsibility towards its members, and, on the other, the individual's responsibility towards his neighbor. Only in the age of mass communication can we even pose the question of our potential responsibility to people we have no ties to whatsoever.

While I appreciate YodaYid's attempts to distinguish between the tsunami and other tragic situations around the world, I don't buy it. There is always a reason why one tragedy is more needy than another. If anything, the tsunami victims have the attention of the world - for now. Countless others suffer in silence and solitude. If I have an individual obligation to help some, I have that same obligation towards them all. Such an approach is ultimately unrealistic.

Reb Yudel implies this emotional/pragmatic distinction in his thoughtful remarks: "Can you make [them] feel better? Can you help them? Of course not. But can you do nothing? Of course not, too." In other words, while the practical impact of my individual donation is negligible, I may have an obligation to help, even minimally, which derives from my emotional response to their suffering. Just to make the point that I feel empathy.

In the context of one's own community, I agree. But beyond that, where does it end? Am I obligated only towards those tragedies which make the evening news? Towards all of them, or only the most acute? If coal mines are closing in eastern Europe, must I open my wallet for the unemployed? If a train crashes in Alabama, must I step forward?

Empathy is vital towards the development of our character. But empathy is cheap. To give rise to a financial obligation, it must be possible to apply that obligation consistently and universally.

Thus, I agree that "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... can do that little something." Our obligation, to the extent that it exists, is communal, not individual.

Shira Salamone is in shock that a rabbi might argue against aiding the tsunami victims. From her brief description of his words, it sounds to me that he argued that we are not required to contribute to their aid, not that it would be wrong to do so. Regardless, it's not a matter of being "against giving tzedakah." It's a question of priorities and degrees of responsibility. Tzedakah funds come from a limited pool. As individuals and as a community, we have to decide how best to allocate them.

Finally, DovBear himself responded that I'm a racist, and besides he hadn't really meant to praise the OU but to attack the Christians. That's very compassionate of him.

In response to those who label as bigotry the preference of one's own community over others, I defer to Ze'ev Maghen's essay, "Imagine: On Love and Lennon".


DovBear said...

I am not sure I called you a rascist. You might be, but I wouldn't know it from the screed under discussion.

As for the Christians... you can argue (in fact you did) that Jews have a lesser obligation toward non-Jews. Fine. Do Christians believe that, too? No, of course not. Christians can't claim a lesser obligation toward non-Christians, and anyway, millions of Christians were caught in the tsunami.

So why arne't the Christian organizations I discussed raising money?


They are hypocritcal phonies.

Shira Salamone said...

Sigh--you can count on DovBear not to have a kind word to say about Christians.

Perhaps I wasn't clear about my rabbi's logic. His problem with giving tzedakah to aid the tzunami victims was not *only* that Jews have priority and that, in any case, the U.S. government was using our tax money to do the job, but *also* that their governments are anti-Zionist. Not having had the benefit of a day school education, I’ll need the help of some of my better-educated friends to cite the parsha, chapter, and verse: Doesn’t the Torah state that, if a beast of burden falls, we are obligated to help it get up, even if it belongs to our enemy? What do politics have to do with a toddler who’s dying of thirst for lack of safe drinking water?

DovBear said...

All things considered, do the Christians deserve a kind word from us?

Zman Biur said...


Some of the governments, notably Indonesia, are indeed enemies of Israel, and I see no reason for Jews to help them. Others such as Thailand and India, however, have friendly relations with Israel and we have every reason to support them in their time of need.

Though Israel does not have diplomatic relations with Sri Lanka, it has extended assistance and, hopefully, this may lead to closer ties in the future.

Regarding the citation about the beast of burden: From a strictly halachic perspective, this is understood as referring to one's personal enemy among the Jewish people. Enemy nations are a different story entirely.

What about the innocent victims among an enemy nation? That is indeed a painful question. But ultimately our enemy's innocents are their nation's responsibility. If it wanted our help, it could stop being an enemy.