Applying Rabbinic Law on Tzedakah Priorities

The rabbinic sages taught that humans should emulate God by meeting the particular needs of people in trouble. But how should one go about that today?

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Third: How much should different recipients be given?

The Rabbis asserted that the psychological dignity of the recipients should be affirmed as well as their biological needs. Those who had been accustomed to a prosperous life should not be doled out a bare handful of food. The community is not responsible to restore their former wealth, but should not make them objects of scorn.

The effort--and sometimes the result--of this weave of ethics and law was to strengthen the dignity of the poor in their own eyes as well as those of the prosperous. Tales are told of poor people who went on strike, refusing to accept tzedakah that they deemed too stingy until the amounts were raised, as if their willingness to accept tzedakah were like the willingness of carpenters to build houses. Why would a community respond to such a threat? Only because everyone so strongly felt the obligatory nature of tzedakah that no community could live with a breakdown in. its ability to give.

The questions facing us today are not only whether we carry out these rabbinic principles, but whether we agree with all of them.

Do we affirm the concentric circles of recipients of tzedakah laid out by the Rabbis?

Do we agree with Maimonides that preserving the donor's and the recipient's anonymity achieves the best results?

Since buying a poor person "the fishing rod rather than the fish" costs more, how do we measure the immediate cost against the hope of future transformation?

Are large-scale fund-raising appeals, direct mail, telephone calls, and professional experts the most effective means of raising funds? Are they the only effective means? Do they change the process so much that it is important to preserve or restore face-to-face, community-based ways of giving tzedakah?

How do we balance the values of meeting the poor face-to-face with the values of far-reaching modern welfare systems?

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Rabbi Arthur O. Waskow

Rabbi Arthur Ocean Waskow directs the Shalom Center and is the author of numerous books, including Godwrestling, Godwrestling--Round 2, Seasons of Our Joy, The Bush is Burning, and These Holy Sparks.