Hard dollar numbers are still hard to come by, but it seems certain that donations by Jewish mega-millionaires to the recent presidential campaign exceeded $115 million – from just 11 donors, five on the Republican side and six on the Democratic one.
In a post-election editorial, this newspaper said it was “appalled at how much Jewish money was expended.” Other Jewish publications made similar statements. The various editorials condemning these expenditures do not challenge the right of anyone to donate to political campaigns; they merely challenge the level of giving.
KEEPING THE FAITH: One religious perspectIve on issues of the dayTo my mind, the use of words such as “appalled” is wrong – not because the expenditures were not appalling, but because “disgusting” is closer to the truth; “outrageous” works well, too.
Sinful, however, is the best word. Spending that kind of money when communal needs go wanting is a sin.
So, to Sheldon Adelson, George Soros, Ronald Perelman, the Lauders (most of whom gave to Obama, by the way), the Bronfmans, et al, this column is for you. I am not prepared to argue with you over the amount of your donations. It is your money and you get to decide how to waste it. I do, however, wish to issue you a challenge.
First, a little background that, sadly, I fear most of you are simply not interested in reading. Nonetheless, bear with me.
It is about tzedakah. Notice, please, that I did not say “charity.” In Judaism, we have no concept of “charity.” Charity comes from the Latin word caritas, which comes from the root word carus, meaning dear, costly, or loved, and the root word cor, which means heart. In other words, “charity” is something that comes from the heart; it is motivated by compassion; it is wholly voluntary in nature.
Not so tzedakah; it derives from the root word tzedek. Tzedek has multiple meanings, including righteousness, justice, truth, purity, and sincerity. Several times in Deuteronomy, tzedek is used as the word for honest – specifically, an honest weight and measure. To that definition, the Talmud adds yet another – “to be liberal with.” Specifically, it means “to be liberal with what is your own and give it to” the poor person by adding overweight and overmeasure. (See Babylonian Talmud tractate Chulin 134a; also Bava Batra 88b and elsewhere for similar discussions.)
In other words, if a poor person comes into your grocery store and asks for a pound of flour, and you know that person needs more than that to feed his or her family, it is tzedek to charge that person for a pound of flour, but to give him or her a little extra, without embarrassing that person by saying you are doing so.
From tzedek, we also derive such meanings as kindness, virtue, and piety. A tzadik, for example, is not a saint in the Christian sense, just a normal person whose very being is defined by one or more qualities associated with a definition of tzedek.
Which brings us to tzedakah, the feminine form of tzedek. It means righteousness, purity, equity, and “to be liberal with.” Tzedakah has nothing to do with the heart. It is obligatory on those who have, because it is the God-given right of those who have not. To use a word considered dirty by many, it is an entitlement.
The only question is why. Here, then, is what Moses had to say. If “you say to yourselves, ‘My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me,’ remember that it is the Lord your God who gives you the power to get wealth….” (See Deuteronomy 8:17-18.)
Thus, as Britain’s chief rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks, explains so cogently, “Ultimately, all things are owned by God, creator of the world. What we possess, we do not own – we merely hold it in trust for God….
[B]ecause we are not owners of our property but merely guardians on God’s behalf, we are bound by the conditions of trusteeship, one of which is that we share part of what we have with others in need. What would be regarded as charity in other legal systems is, in Judaism, a strict requirement of the law….”
Some of you “fat cat donors,” to hark back to an expression from a previous political era, may argue that your donations to this year’s campaigns fit that bill. God gave you the wealth and put you in a position to protect the interests of the Jewish people or the Jewish state, or both, and that is what you did with the $115 million or so. To this, we turn to “the second Moses,” Moses Maimonides, the Rambam:
“A poor relative takes precedence to all others, a poor member of one’s household takes precedence over the poor of one’s city, the poor of one’s city take precedence over the poor of another city….” (See Mishneh Torah, Gifts to the Poor 7:13.)
Put in simplest terms, we must prioritize our giving. First consider what is most needed closer to home, and by whom. There are more important matters to address and none may be more important than Jewish education. (Note to all my other readers: that means you need to write out your end-of-year checks to your local synagogues, the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, the local Jewish Family Service agency, and so forth.)
So here is the challenge, Mr. Adelson, and Mr. Soros, and all the rest of you others whose donations went into that $115 million political pothole. Take one-third of what you donated to the 2012 campaign and put it into a superfund for Jewish education – not for special projects, or fancy buildings with your names on it, but for tuition for any child whose parents cannot afford it; for salary augmentation for teachers who otherwise do not earn a decent living; for curriculum development on a par with the best private schools; and for enhanced quality learning at after-school programs for those students whose parents prefer to send them to public schools for their general education.
Spend that $38 million in this way and you will have a far more positive impact on the future of the Jewish people than any political donation can bring.
You especially, Mr. Adelson. This year, it seems, you had money to burn. Use some of it to light up the Jewish future. I dare you.