Remembering Why We Give

Published November 14, 2003, issue of November 14, 2003.
  • Print
  • Share Share

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.






Find us on Facebook!
  • Sigal Samuel's family amulet isn't just rumored to have magical powers. It's also a symbol of how Jewish and Indian rituals became intertwined over the centuries. http://jd.fo/a3BvD Only three days left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • British Jews are having their 'Open Hillel' moment. Do you think Israel advocacy on campus runs the risk of excluding some Jewish students?
  • "What I didn’t realize before my trip was that I would leave Uganda with a powerful mandate on my shoulders — almost as if I had personally left Egypt."
  • Is it better to have a young, fresh rabbi, or a rabbi who stays with the same congregation for a long time? What do you think?
  • Why does the leader of Israel's social protest movement now work in a beauty parlor instead of the Knesset?
  • What's it like to be Chagall's granddaughter?
  • Is pot kosher for Passover. The rabbis say no, especially for Ashkenazi Jews. And it doesn't matter if its the unofficial Pot Day of April 20.
  • A Ukrainian rabbi says he thinks the leaflets ordering Jews in restive Donetsk to 'register' were a hoax. But the disturbing story still won't die.
  • Some snacks to help you get through the second half of Passover.
  • You wouldn't think that a Soviet-Jewish immigrant would find much in common with Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But the famed novelist once helped one man find his first love. http://jd.fo/f3JiS
  • Can you relate?
  • The Forverts' "Bintel Brief" advice column ran for more than 65 years. Now it's getting a second life — as a cartoon.
  • Half of this Hillel's members believe Jesus was the Messiah.
  • Vinyl isn't just for hipsters and hippies. Israeli photographer Eilan Paz documents the most astonishing record collections from around the world:http://jd.fo/g3IyM
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.