The Anatomy of Giving

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26 Mar 2009

I live in an Israeli community where a vast segment of the population lives beneath the poverty line. Few people own vehicles and necessities are a struggle for many. And yet it is a city that, per capita, donates copious sums of money to charity. On Friday afternoons, instead of hearing the tinkle of the ice cream trucks bells, one can hear the blaring megaphones atop cars collecting money for someone in an unfortunate predicament. Stepping outside you can see children running, their hands clasped tightly around silvery coins as the last embers of orange sun straggle over the horizon. Charity collectors come in droves and are sufficiently rewarded. Tzedakah, charity, is as much a part of the cultural milieu as are bar and bat mitzvahs, holidays, and rituals.

An astounding sociological phenomenon? Not really. In a city whose constituents aim to ardently follow the laws of the Torah, tithing is part of the fabric of the community. Donating ten percent of one’s income, even a modest income, creates a charitable complexion within a community. Is this easy for people? Not necessarily. I sometimes find my own hand clenched in a frozen position on my pen when I fill out checks for charity. But I am following a divine imperative.

Is this imperative necessary to create a scaffold for charitable activities within a society? A recent article that I read in the New York Times had me wondering. Nicholas D. Kristof in his article Bleeding Heart Tightwads shames liberals of his ilk who promote social spending yet close their own purse strings when it comes to individual contributions. He cites Arthur Brooks’ book Who Really Cares, who conducted non partisan studies of charitable donations across the board. Brooks cites a number of studies, including a Google study which found that average annual contributions by conservatives double those of liberals. Southern states were found more likely to donate to non-profits than the Northern coastal states. Conservatives and red states even volunteer more of their time towards charitable causes and donate significantly more blood.

Brooks found that the same Democrats who gave impassioned pleas for the neediest in society, personally divested themselves of charitable responsibility.

“When I started doing research on charity,” Mr. Brooks wrote, “I expected to find that political liberals — who, I believed, genuinely cared more about others than conservatives did — would turn out to be the most privately charitable people. So when my early findings led me to the opposite conclusion, I assumed I had made some sort of technical error. I re-ran analyses. I got new data. Nothing worked. In the end, I had no option but to change my views.”

Which brings me back to my question. Is a divine imperative necessary in order to achieve greater charitable spending? Is divine imperative necessary to achieve anything at all?

There is a story told, true or not, of a sailor who decided to sail the world on his own. Knowing that this isolated endeavor might lead to personal anarchy and sea madness, he arranged himself a system of laws by which he would abide by hook or by crook. He wrote this list of laws down in indelible ink and posted them on his deck. He would wake at a specific time and dine at a specific time with a menu that he had prearranged. He would not cuss or talk with his mouth full, and he would go to sleep with the stars. The list went on, but you get the picture. The man followed the list religiously, only it wasn’t a religion. It was a man made imperative which helped him immensely, to a point.

One evening, the man was reading a book and he got distracted. Before he knew it the stars were poking their twinkly heads over the black blanket of night. I must sleep, he thought. But he did not want to sleep. He wanted to read through the next chapter of his book. He deliberated back and forth and suddenly the preposterousness of the whole thing became clear to him.

I wrote these rules, he said. And I can just as easily destroy them. The man tore the paper off of the wall, ripped it into shreds and threw the pieces out to the murky sea like a sprinkling of confetti.

Morality without a G-d is like rainfall without a reservoir. It can run off in rivulets and streams but without a destination the water just evaporates. The liberals may have their bleeding hearts in just the right places but when it comes to shelling out their hard earned money they are rightfully indignant. What could compel them to take this obvious but ever so difficult step beyond the theoretical and into the practical?

Kristof’s article goes on to compare charitable donations across America and the European nations. Donations by Americans considerably exceed those of the European nations. But this should not be surprising. While the United States has seen an upsurge in Christian values and churchgoing, Western Europe’s religious mores are in rapid decline. Could it be that the charitable impulse is not a moral imperative but rather a religious one?

It would seem so.

But this theme works in both directions. Seeing Madoff’s name embossed across the newspapers led some institutions to scratch their heads. How could this man, renowned for his philanthropy, be a rogue of such considerable proportion? But there is no value to charity that is conducted in antithesis of the Torah’s laws. Just as Kristof’s article contends, the best of intentions fall flat when feelings are not translated into the appropriate actions. According to Torah law, benevolent donations don’t have the magical ability to mitigate devious business practices. We are commanded to tithe, but we are also commanded to uphold an impeccable standard of integrity in business ethics. The Madoff scandal left many boggled as to how so many could have acted with such moral repugnancy. But if morality is merely a subjective experience then perhaps the level of disappointment is warranted but the level of shock is not.

Unfortunately, “orthodox” Jews are also not immune to the scourge of deceit that plagues the business world. The glaring green of billfolds has a knack for blinding people to the divine imperative. Torah law does not justify exchanging one commandment in place of another. Philanthropy is not an excuse for embezzlement; Attending Synagogue is not a pretense for fraud.

It would seem that the divine imperative is the only real and lasting motivation in our society, behooving us to follow it all the way to the end of the playing field. Everyone fumbles sometimes, but if we keep our eye on the ultimate goal, that’s where the real fortune lies.

Yael Mermelstein holds an MA in Jewish Education, and teaches at a post high school institution in Israel. She publishes regularly for children and for adults. Yael lives in Beitar Illit with her husband and children.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.