Rebranding tzedakah

Rebranding tzedakah

The third paragraph of birkat hamazon, referred to in English as “Grace After Meals,” presents an odd conflation of concerns. Opening with a petition for divine mercy toward Israel, its people, capital, temple, and monarchy, the prayer veers into an anxious plea to escape material dependence on other mortals: “Do not make us dependent upon the gifts of people, nor on their loans, but only on Your full, bountiful, and capacious hand, that we not be ashamed or humiliated forever.”

Without even the slightest bridging attempt, the prayer then returns to its initial theme, asking that God rebuild the holy city of Jerusalem speedily in our day. What is the middle passage about financial insecurity doing in a prayer about Jerusalem?

It is unclear when this section was added. It is not mentioned in the Talmud’s brief discussion of the origins of birkat hamazon (B’rachot 48b), and it appears for the first time in the medieval Machzor Vitri (83). This passage’s anxiety about economic dependence on others, however, is consistent with earlier rabbinic themes.

Jewish reality, however, was and has remained that tzedakah is more commonly viewed as a voluntary act of generosity and kindness for which one is due gratitude and honor. The ancient rabbis had to accommodate this internalization of “Mediterranean” values within the Jewish community while still offering symbolic resistance.

Perhaps this can explain the interpolation of the theme of economic independence in the prayer for Jerusalem. Redemption will be signaled not only by the reconstruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, but also by the reordering of society such that no person will be dependent upon the gifts and loans of another, but only upon God’s bountiful hand.

Tzedakah today exists in a fallen state much more akin to “charity” than to the obligatory actions of righteousness idealized in rabbinic sources. We have created a philanthropic culture that lavishes honor upon donors who have the “vision to invest” in chosen initiatives. Meanwhile, ordinary communal needs such as poverty relief, elder care, and subsidized Jewish education suffer from benign neglect.

Part of our failure is cultural. We have internalized Western concepts of individual agency and patronage, wherever they lead, and largely abandoned the Jewish ideal of obligation. But other aspects of the failure are our inability to develop a coherent sense of priorities in Jewish spending and our graduated expectations of giving based upon financial capacity. Even as they seek to accommodate the demands of “donor relations,” Jewish professionals should define and project a countercultural ideal of tzedakah not as charity, but as the responsible and righteous use of resources.

One way to do this is to reclaim ancient categories that align with a broad set of Jewish obligations. This is not a list of charities but of sacred spending that is mandatory for a religious Jew.

• Peah, shichecha, v’leket – emergency food relief for the local, regional, and global poor. This is a mitzvah that the rabbis say has no limit. So, too, should contemporary wage earners give a tangible amount to support the hungry and vulnerable in their community and around the world.

• Terumah u’ma’aser – a tithe (10 percent) for religious services. In ancient times, this supported the landless priests and Levites who ran the Temple. Today, we could apply these funds to the religious organizations needed by the Jewish community which sustain and deepen Jewish identity.

• Ma’aser sheni – a second tithe amounting to 9 percent, most of which was reserved for a family pilgrimage fund, while the rest was distributed to the local poor. In our day, such money could be allocated to a family’s own ritual expenses and to increase donations to ameliorate the poverty of elderly, ill, disabled, and isolated individuals.

• Machazit ha-shekel – a final flat poll tax whose purpose is truly communal in that it supports central welfare organizations that serve the entire Jewish people.

Every family should use these categories to identify its Jewish obligations

No one wants to feel dependent upon charity; our goal must be to create a Jewish community that systematically addresses individual and collective needs, thus binding us together. Such a community would minimize shame and maximize dignity; such a community would be the very image of redemption.

Sh’ma/JTA Wire Service