How do we define philanthropy? What is its mission? What role does it play in a democratic society? Is philanthropy as crucial as two other key sectors, business and government? Is the idea of philanthropy, with strands of classical Greek thought and Christianity woven in, even Jewish? Are the concepts of Tzedekah and philanthropy compatible?

Sometimes, it is helpful to step back from the constant process of fundraising and community-building in order to ask the big questions about what we do and why we do it. For Diaspora Jews seeking to make the world a better place through generosity and actions, that can require delving into the Jewish sources that underpin our approach. It also can and should entail an effort to understand the wider cultural and intellectual context in which giving and volunteering occurs. If you are interested in some of the questions we have raised from a wide-ranging, non-Jewish perspective, perhaps there is no better to place to turn than the 2008 book Understanding Philanthropy: Its Meaning and Mission by Robert Payton and Michael Moody.

Payton, who died in 2011 at the age of 84, was a pioneer in the formal study of philanthropy. The World War II veteran and onetime U.S. Ambassador to Cameroon enjoyed a varied career in academia, the nonprofit world, and politics. He was among the founders of what became the Lilly School of Philanthropy at Indiana University. Moody, who considered Payton a mentor, teaches at the Johnson Center for Philanthropy of Grand Valley State University in Michigan.

Combining Payton’s background in philosophy and the humanities with Moody’s training in the social sciences, the book makes a compelling argument that philanthropy – derived from the Greek, philanthropia, or love of man – is too little understood or taught. Philanthropy, the authors argue, is inherently about morality and every bit as pivotal to a modern civil society as good government and a free marketplace. At its essence, the authors describe philanthropy as “voluntary action for the public good,” acknowledging the ongoing and perhaps polarizing debate about what constitutes the public good. The authors also make a compelling case that donors need to be more self-aware about why they are giving and what they hope to accomplish. The writers advocate that donors construct their own philanthropic autobiographies, to better understand themselves, where they are going, and how they hope to impact the world.

But there is one section of the book that is particularly challenging – and potentially disturbing – to a Jewish audience. In the adaptation of an earlier essay written by Payton, the authors argue that one cannot understand philanthropy in a western or American context without taking into account the Parable of the Good Samaritan, recorded in the Gospel According to Luke. It’s a story that, while not originally intended as such, over centuries added fuel to the fire of Christian anti-Semitism. (To be fair, the authors do pay homage to the contribution of Jewish tradition to western philanthropy, paying particular attention to Maimonides’ “levels of charity.”) If a Christian story lies at the heart of western philanthropy, what does it mean for Jews, who are serious practitioners of philanthropy?

It is important to point out that the story emerged from the parable tradition developed in the Hebrew Bible, and that it was initially intended for a Jewish audience. The Good Samaritan story, Payton and Moody argued, is “part of our philanthropic tradition and culture in the West, whether we are Christians or not.”

In the Gospel, Jesus tells the story to an unnamed lawyer. Here is an excerpt from the translation used in “Understanding Philanthropy”:

A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him, and departed, leaving him half-dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was; and when he saw him, he had compassion and went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine; and then he set him on his own beast and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denari and gave them to the innkeeper saying, “Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.”

The authors state that this parable offers several lessons and raises questions for modern day philanthropists, including:

• The mandate to go to the aid of a stranger
• The moral core of philanthropy
• The question of whether one is willing to take a risk to help
• The idea that everyone is vulnerable
• The injunction to know the facts of a situation in order to provide the most effective assistance
• The question of where help ends and intrusiveness begins and the limits of our obligations

Moody, in an email exchange, explained that their aim was to “explore certain core, philanthropic values that still have relevance (and adapted uses) today in broad philanthropic practice.” He added that the story of the Good Samaritan illustrates “the significance of the philanthropic message that one should help others in need, even if those in need are very different from you or even from a sort of rival cultural group.”

There have been some interesting attempts in the Jewish world, in recent years, to reclaim the historical teacher Jesus for the Jewish tradition. Celebrity Rabbi Shmuley Boeteach created some controversy several years ago when he published “Kosher Jesus.” Within the academy, perhaps no one is doing more to help Jews understand Christianity, encourage Jews to pay attention to the New Testament, and to help Jews and Christians talk to one another, than Amy Jill-Levine, professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt University’s School of Divinity. A member of an Orthodox congregation in Nashville, her books include The Misunderstood Jew: the Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus, The Jewish Annotated New Testament and, her most recent, Short Stories by Jesus: the Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi.

In her latest book on the parables, Levine argues that the Good Samaritan isn’t about philanthropy at all per se, but about how we treat our enemies. In ancient times, Samaritans and Jews were hated enemies. If the parable were told today, she argued, it would be as if a Palestinian came to the aid of an Israeli Jew when a member of the IDF did not.

“Can we finally agree that it is better to acknowledge the humanity and the potential to do good in the enemy, rather than to choose death?” Levine writes. “Will we be able to care for our enemies, who are also our neighbors?”

We mention this not to make any kind of commentary about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – though we think Israel, has, in many ways, acted as a Good Samaritan in the area, for instance, by treating victims of the Syrian Civil War. Instead, we wanted to provide a glimpse of the multiple interpretations that, whether we like it or not, are embedded in our culture and have consciously or unconsciously influenced generations of philanthropists. By asking ourselves tough, basic, philosophical questions, we can better prepare ourselves to operate in the philanthropic landscape and articulate our vision, whether as a donor or as the representative of an organization. By taking a step back, we can develop our own philanthropic autobiographies. We can tell the story of why we give and why we seek to create a must just, fulfilling and nurturing world.

In January 2001, President George W. Bush said during his inaugural address that, “And I can pledge our nation to a goal: When we see that wounded traveler on the road to Jericho, we will not pass to the other side.” Most American Jews missed the Good Samaritan reference completely, thinking he was talking about a place in Long Island, wrote Levine. How important is it for Jews to be conversant in the texts of other religious traditions when so many of us are undereducated in our own textual tradition? We would argue that, at the very least, it is good idea to have some grasp of concepts and stories that have crept into the popular culture. When presidents cite a religious reference, and when scholars declare it fundamental to American philanthropy, we should at least be aware of what they are talking about.

We have consistently urged Jewish organizations and synagogues to look outside the Jewish world for inspiration and ideas. But we also contend that the stronger a Jewish organization is grounded in Jewish sources and knowledge, the more mission-driven it will be. In the second part of the series, we plan to address the concept of giving in Jewish sources, and ask whether the Jewish idea of tzedekah and the western notion of philanthropy are two sides of the same coin or fundamentally incompatible.