The Jewish commitment to charity is both deep and illustrious, going to the core of the Jewish faith. Maimonides offered a scintillating account of the moral hierarchy of charitable giving that has not been surpassed in a millennium. He regarded as the highest of all giving to be the kind that allows the recipient to break the poverty cycle and become self-reliant. As the world changes, so too must our response to the profound commandment of charity.
I would like to urge a globalization of our tzedakah; we should increasingly aim our charitable impulses and energies to places on the planet in most urgent need, where tzedakah can mean the difference of life over death for millions of our fellow human beings each year, and where our giving can satisfy Maimonides’ call to break the poverty trap itself.
The Jewish charitable impulse arose in the distant past, far before our present affluence. We remember the moment in "Fiddler on the Roof" when the beggar complains at receiving only one kopeck rather than two. When the donor responds that he had a bad week, the beggar famously replies, "You had a bad week, so I should suffer?"
The deeper truth in this exchange is that charity has been, historically, deeply ingrained in communities in which even donors faced tremendous and chronic risks of impoverishment, famine, and deprivation. Charity was and is a commandment for all, even the poor, and even at times of mass vulnerability.
Today’s middle classes in the high-income world, not to mention the more affluent members of the community, live far beyond the material standards of the royalty of all earlier ages. While the vagaries of life continue to be real, they are not due to the imminent risks of extreme material deprivation.
But this is not true for more than ‘ billion people on the planet who live in conditions of severe material deprivation, and it’s certainly not true for the poorest billion people, whose material deprivation is so extreme that life is a daily struggle for survival. The poorest billion lack reliable access to food, micronutrients, safe drinking water, basic preventative health care, and essential health treatments when sick. Best estimates are that around 8 to 10 million people die each year for the simple and preposterous reason that they are too poor to stay alive.
Scientific studies have shown what can be accomplished even in marginal environments if the poor are empowered with the tools of modern, proven technologies. Africa can grow vastly more food than it does if farmers are availed of improved seed varieties, better water management (e.g., drip irrigation), and organic and chemical systems to replenish depleted soils. Diseases such as malaria, African river blindness, hookworm, and many more can be brought under control with proven technologies. Internet and cell phone connectivity can connect rural areas that have been chronically and devastatingly isolated from the international economy. The U.N. Millennium Project has shown how investments on the order of $110 per person per year can make the difference of life and death, and poverty trap versus economic development, for hundreds of millions of the world’s poorest people.
Here is where we, as Jews, come in. Tzedakah can be effectively mobilized for these impoverished communities. For example, it is time for Israel to resume its large-scale aid to Africa. African leaders would be grateful for the support of Israeli science and know-how in agriculture, water management, and communications technology.
Affluent Jewish communities could be doing much more as well. Many charities have tended to primarily focus on local and parochial concerns, but it is urgent to recast such activities in a global effort, bringing support to the poorest of the poor throughout the world and enabling communities to lift themselves out of chronic hunger and poverty.
The truth of our time is both stark and compelling. Given today’s wealth, scientific expertise, and global reach, we are the first generation that can end extreme poverty. This is both opportunity and existential fate. If we turn our backs on the world’s poor, we too will suffer the brutal fate of shortsightedness and neglect. If we act, as we can and should, we can help usher in an era of widening prosperity and peace.