Thursday, May 21, 2009

The ethics of Tzedaka

A guest post by JS:

Yesterday, there was a very interesting conversation about the ethical underpinnings regarding whether and how to give tzedaka to a person down on his luck who wishes to return to Canada (post here, comments here).

DB put on his Fundie hat (borrowed from Bray of course; they're the same hat size) and took a hardline, halachic approach to the problem essentially stating that by giving Tzedaka we are God's agents and it is not for us to judge how the man uses (or misuses) the money - the mitzvah is in the giving, not in the helping, per se (or rather, "helping" is totally subjective and we shouldn't place our values of what "help" means over the recepient's values). Thus, according to DB, if a poor person, who used to be wealthy, wants caviar, we shouldn't deny him caviar as we are merely acting in God's stead and are answering on God's behalf. Rabbi Fink acknowledged DB was correct from a halachic perspective.

DB based himself, partly, on a story from Ketubot 67B: A man once asked Rava for charity. Rava asked him, "What do you need?" The man replied, "Well fattened chickens and old wine." Rava was shocked and exclaimed, "What a burden you put on the community!" The man answered, "But, I do I not eat the community's food as all belongs to God." Just then Rava's sister arrived with a feast of well fattened chickens and old wine. Rava again expressed shock and said, "I've wasted too much time talking; come, let's eat."

DB points out that the lesson is in the poor person's reply that all belongs to God and the community is God's agent in providing it to him. I focus, instead, on Rava's exclamation that the man is a burden on his community and if Rava's sister hadn't surreptitiously shown up with exactly what the man requested, the man would have left empty-handed, or at least not with what he requested.

Personally, I think it's presumptuous to think we should just hand over whatever a poor person wants (assuming we have it) because we're God's agent when we give tzedaka. After all, maybe God wanted him to fall to this position in life? Maybe the person was too arrogant and haughty and selfish and God wanted to teach him modesty and humbleness? Maybe by giving caviar we're thwarting God's plan.

Tzedaka is a zero-sum game. Money that goes to one person is necessarily not going to another person. Consider the following example: A community has 5 poor people. 1 used to be wealthy. The rest have always been too poor to afford wine or meat, they always lived on cheap food and lived in shabby conditions.

Can it possibly be that the community should put up the once rich person in a mansion and feed him the best of foods while the other 4 subsist on beans and rice and live in a small shack? The community shouldn't split its tzedaka money evenly among the 5? The 4 should suffer because the 5th used to be wealthy and has extravagant demands? This is a Jewish value?

How do you reconcile the halacha and our own personal sense of right and wrong? Is a drug addict or alcoholic less worthy of help than someone who became poor due to high medical expenses? Is the person who spent his money frivolously and now has nothing less worthy than someone who lost their job? And should the person who demands caviar be told to get in line with the rest of the poor at the soup kitchen?

I particularly welcome DB's comments as he said yesterday: "I'm quoting a gemarah. I can be skeptical about the Jewish position tomorrow. Today, I am merely providing the Jewish position."

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