Remembering Why We Give

Published November 14, 2003, issue of November 14, 2003.
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Admirers of Jewish philanthropy like to say that Jews are a generous community. It’s a flattering thought, and considering the vast sums we donate to a dizzying array of causes, it’s not far off the mark.

But generosity isn’t really the point. Being generous means giving because you’re a nice sort. We give because we have to, because we are members of a community and a society and we have an obligation to those around us. It’s called charity, but it’s really about taxation. We’re for it.

What that means isn’t as easy to pin down these days as it was once. Our relationships to one another, to our society and to our traditions are changing faster than anyone can keep track of. It’s time to sit down and take stock, if we still remember how.

Centuries ago, Jews lived in self-contained communities, walled off from our neighbors, speaking our own languages, following our own laws. We paid a tax to the community, which provided basic Jewish communal obligations such as education, food inspection and care for the poor and sick. The community also paid a collective tax to the local prince, who left us alone, if we were lucky.

Once we were permitted to leave the ghettos, we began living double lives. We paid taxes to our governments, and we also supported community institutions that provided the necessities a government didn’t offer. Way back when, those extra services included schools, hospitals and care for the poor, all considered duties of the church, not government. Also included were special services a Jewish community had to provide, such as fighting for equal rights, slaughtering chickens and, at times, redeeming hostages abroad.

Decade by decade, almost without noticing, we started to spend more of our waking hours living in the general society, and the Jewish parts of us shrank accordingly. What we needed from the community got smaller as we became more like our neighbors. And, while nobody noticed, our neighbors were becoming more like us. Decade by decade our society was coming to view its obligations much the way the Jewish community once did: teaching the young, healing the sick, caring for the poor. Our community was left with these massive institutions — hospitals, family services, federated campaigns — and no clear sense of what they were for. Some of us walked away, others kept slogging forward.

Now we are here. Most of us have transferred the biggest part of ourselves into the general society, knowing we were not betraying our past because the society had become, in an important way, more Jewish. That is, until the great tax revolt of the last two decades. Now, suddenly, society seems to be backing away from those obligations it undertook in the past century. The polite term for it is “privatization.”

What do we do now? In a way, that is the question behind the question posed by Marc Stern in his landmark essay on the shifting wall of church-state separation, on Page 13. Our community has a massive investment — financial, intellectual and legal, as well as institutional — in a social contract that is coming apart. Simply complaining about it, as some of us tend to do, won’t stop the changes. Neither will it do to sit back and claim we enjoy the new regime, as some would have us do. Our values have not changed, nor should they. Living in a decent society is still at the heart of the Jewish mandate. The question is how.

Fortunately, we still have those institutions that bring us together. We still have the tools to think together and act together. What’s needed is the will to open up the doors, invite our fellow Jews back in and start talking to one another again. That’s the real challenge of the 21st century: remembering how to be a community.

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