Investigating the Individuals to Whom We Contribute
A contemporary Conservative rabbi reviews the Jewish legal literature for guidance on how much to ask about a person who solicits us for tzedakah--or whether to give to all who request our help.
Reprinted with permission of the author. The full responsum (a rabbinic reply to a question of law), including footnotes not reprinted here, appears in Responsa in a Moment, published by the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies and is available at its "Responsa for Today" website. An additional question to ponder, which was not raised by the author: Since in our times, the government usually provides for the basic needs of the poor--how does this affect the issue? Our related article on "Investigating the Organizations to Which We Contribute" addresses many of the questions raised at the beginning of this article.
A "bag lady" accosts me on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and asks me for a quarter. Should I ask her why she doesn't go out and get a job? A schnorrer [charity collector] knocks on my door, holds out a letter signed by an eminent rabbi and asks me to contribute to his yeshivah in Jerusalem. Should I check out the letter and the yeshivah? I enter my local Jewish bookstore and see five pushkes [charity boxes] on the counter. Should I automatically put a quarter in each, or should I read the fine print and investigate each charity's legitimacy? Lastly, I receive many direct mail solicitations every month. Should I send a small donation to each, or investigate every charity that asks for money and send a larger contribution to the one that deserves it most?
Jews have been grappling with these dilemmas for at least 2,000 years. On the one hand, most individuals and organizations that ask for our help are legitimate and really do merit our tzedakah. On the other hand, a certain percentage of those who ask for money are charlatans and crooks.
Some tzedakah experts say that giving is a habit that must be cultivated. Therefore, it is better to give often and spontaneously, even if one is not sure about the credentials of the recipients because, if we stop to think about every contribution, we will get out of the tzedakah habit. Others say we should investigate before we give, because by giving to the wrong people and organizations, we may have technically fulfilled the mitzvah of tzedakah, but we are in fact depriving those who really need our help. Let us see what Jewish tradition has to say on the subject.
Surprisingly enough, the rabbinic sources have a basically positive attitude toward beggars. Maimonides clearly states:
Whoever sees a poor person asking [for assistance] and ignores him and does not give him tzedakah has transgressed a negative commandment as it is written, "do not harden your heart nor shut your hand against your needy brother" (Deuteronomy 15:7).