Ego, Giving and the Jewish Tradition
Is the Jewish concept of Tzedakah inherently different from contemporary philanthropy? Does Jewish tradition demand total altruism, or does it make room for a complex mix of motivating factors behind good deeds? In this piece, the authors interview two well known rabbis to address these and other questions related to giving.
Most major donors are looking for some type of recognition for their generosity, but many feel guilty about their desire, perhaps their need, for public kudos. However, our ancient sages understood that people often do the right thing for a complex mix of selfish and altruistic reasons. Giving for the right reasons is not necessarily juxtaposed with giving for the wrong reasons. From the Mishnah to Maimonides, classic Jewish sources pay a great deal of the attention to the role that ego plays in philanthropy. Yes, donor recognition has a basis in Judaism.
The key, for many people with means, is to direct their ambition and desire for public recognition for good rather than for ill. Remember the High Holiday refrain, “Help us to use our strength for good and not for evil.” Anyone seeking to shape the Jewish world through philanthropy – whether observant, secular or somewhere in between – should know something about what traditional sources have to say about Tzedakah. At a time and place in which Jewish literacy is not widespread, it falls to Jewish and professional leaders to educate donors and show them how our sources can serve as an illuminating guide – even as we all have to make our own decisions about where to give and how much to give.
“There is certainly an element of ego in all philanthropy. Judaism’s understanding of human nature doesn’t expect us to achieve true altruism” says Rabbi Howard Alpert, who since 1986 has served as executive director of Hillel of Greater Philadelphia. During his tenure, Alpert has spearheaded successful fundraising campaigns for new student centers at the University of Pennsylvania and Temple University.
Alpert, who received his ordination from the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Seminary of Yeshiva University, often finds himself reassuring donors that there is little reason to feel guilty about wanting to see his or her name on a plaque. Building relationships with major donors involves an ongoing dialogue. As part of that conversation, Alpert said he explores the donor’s reasons for giving, and many of his donors express curiosity about what Jewish sources have to say about giving.
One of the tradition’s most powerful teachings, Alpert says, comes from the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, who offered commentary on a passage from the Mishnah.
The Mishnah – the third century compilation of rabbinic teachings – records Ben Zoma saying “Who is strong? He who subdues his evil inclination.” The Baal Shem Tov, taught that subduing the evil inclination does not mean killing it, but keeping it in check, and perhaps directing expressions of ego and ambition into the desire to perform mitzvot. “The philanthropist,” Alpert says “has the inner strength to do so.”
In our last piece, we grappled with the contention that the Good Samaritan, a Christian parable, has had a great influence on the development of the American philanthropic tradition. It is certainly important for Jewish Americans philanthropists to understand the American context in which they give, just as it is important to know Jewish sources. As a Reconstructionist might say, Diaspora Jews live in two civilizations. That is certainly true when it comes to philanthropy. (Of course, it is a decades old issue that Jewish philanthropists are increasingly giving to secular causes and cutting back their aid to, or ignoring, Jewish causes.)
There are some differences between the Jewish concept of Tzedakah, which stems from the Hebrew root for justice, and the western – and largely Christian – idea of charity, which originates with the Latin word caritas, affection. Alpert points to Nachmanides, the 13th century scholar, who explained that God expects the wealth of the world to be evenly distributed and those who give Tzedakah are the conduits.
The most often cited distinction is the fact that, in the Jewish tradition, Tzedakah is considered obligatory while charity is a voluntary act that stems from feeling affection
Perhaps the most famous Jewish treatise on giving is Maimonides’ “Eight Levels of Tzedakah?],” which chronicles the different levels of need for recognition, going from least honorable to most honorable. The second highest level involves a gift in which the donor does not know who received it and the recipient doesn’t know who gave it. (The highest gift is the gift of self-sufficiency, namely, the act of helping someone find employment.) The point is, altruism is hard. Some of us may be able to reach the highest level of giving if we strive. Some may never be able to give without seeking credit.
Jewish legal codes contain a great deal of material related to gathering funds from community members and distributing them to needy individuals. The acknowledgment of the need for a middleman in many ways, this foreshadowed our contemporary charitable landscape and preponderance of nonprofit organizations. Still, the focus of Jewish law is fixated on helping the poor. Can our texts offer guidance to funders seeking to help shape the Jewish world today? Can giving to Hillel or other educational institutions that promote Jewish life even be considered Tzedakah?
Alpert says yes. Deuteronomy 15:7-8 states that “If there be a destitute person among you…you shall open your hand to him; you shall lend him his requirement, whatever is lacking to him”. In the Midrash and subsequent commentaries, that passage has been understood as meaning that it is incumbent upon each of us to help our fellow Jews feel a sense of wholeness. So if giving to Hillel, for instance, helps Jewish students feel better about themselves, feel more complete, it is an expression of Tzedakah.
“Giving to the symphony orchestra is also an act of Tzedakah, if the music that is produced by the symphony helps people feel good about being part of this world,” Alpert says.
Rabbi David Teutsch, former president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and current head of its Center for Jewish Ethics, is the author of a slim volume called A Guide to Jewish Practice: Tzedakah. In his book he writes “Funds given in support of synagogues and other worthwhile organizations (schools, clinics, arts organizations – the variety and number are endless) and activities also qualify, as long as the funds do not result in immediate personal benefit.”
“We ought to treat Tzedakah as a moral obligation that has great merit whether or not one sees oneself as bound by Halakhah,” he said in an interviewOur takeaway message is that Jewish giving should be grounded in Jewish values, and it is up to our rabbis, and our organizational lay and professional leaders, to educate donors.To paraphrase a famous saying by Rabbi Hillel: Give to organizations that move you and where you think your contribution will have the most impact. All the rest is commentary. Now go and study!
You must log in to post a comment.