Is There Anything Jewish About Giving to Charity?

Scholar Explores Different Religious Approaches to Tzedakah

Preaching the Gospel of Self-Reliance: Ralph Waldo Emerson criticized the practice of giving.
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Preaching the Gospel of Self-Reliance: Ralph Waldo Emerson criticized the practice of giving.

By David Mikics

Published October 08, 2013, issue of October 11, 2013.
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● Charity: The Place of the Poor in the Biblical Tradition
by Gary A. Anderson
Yale University Press, 232 pages, $30

Charity, as an old joke puts it, sometimes does begin at home, but it always begins with an annoying phone call.

But Jews, with their high rates of charitable giving, have often been eager to answer that call. The Jewish sages say that tzedakah — charity — is the most important of mitzvot. But why? What kind of payoff does one receive for helping the poor or the sick?

These questions, which arise while reading “Charity: The Place of the Poor in the Biblical Tradition,” by Gary Anderson, a Catholic scholar who teaches at Notre Dame, may seem crude: Isn’t charity supposed to be its own reward? Not in Jewish tradition, which wrestles with the question of whether and how we will be compensated for sustaining the widow and the orphan and for being kind to the stranger.

By addressing this hard problem of the reward for tzedakah, Judaism shows itself to be attuned to a realistic awareness that even the righteous person often suffers, despite his or her good deeds. As the Talmud remarks at one grim-faced moment in Berakhot 7b, in general the wicked cannot swallow the righteous, but when the hour is smiling upon the wicked, things are different.

In Bava Batra 10a, the Talmud cites a famous line from Proverbs 19:17, “Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the Lord, and will be repaid in full,” and then adds a comment that makes room for skepticism: “Had it not been written in scripture, it would have been impossible to say it!” It does seem, on the face of it, a little implausible that someone who gives to the poor will be paid back in any literal way, at least in this lifetime. In order to make tzedakah worthwhile, must Judaism resort to the promise of an afterlife where God will finally recognize our good deeds?

Yes, says Anderson who, in “Charity,” sets out to prove that there is a strong continuity between Jewish and Christian teachings on the postmortem reward for doing good. As he puts it, in a passage that will make some Jewish readers a bit nervous, “Jesus does not overturn Jewish teachings on charity; rather, he makes them manifest in his incarnate life.”

Anderson notes that Jewish beggars in rabbinic times called out to possible patrons with the phrase zeki bi — that he translates very loosely as “acquire a merit in heaven through a gift to me” (it literally translates to “be righteous through me”). As Anderson sees it, Jewish gift-giving can only be justified if we know it will be amply repaid in the world to come, the olam haba. The act of charity (which also includes visiting the sick, burying the dead, and dealing justly with others) is a testimonial that will make God respond to the person who performs it, and will ensure a worthy place in the afterlife.


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