Give Away Your Money

This article by Rabbi Jill Jacobs in the Forward has got me thinking a lot about how I and the entire Jewish community gives away its money. Bottom line is, we’re coming up short.
I’ve read that the only taboo left in America culture isn’t sex, it’s money. Privilege and poverty make us uncomfortable. But if we as a Jewish community are serious about pursuing tzedek (justice), we need to get serious about one of the most effective ways to do it: tzedakah. We need to start talking about it, learning about it, and giving it.
I’d like to break the taboo and start a conversation here – what percent of your income are you going to give away this year to charity, and how are you going to do it?

15 thoughts on “Give Away Your Money

  1. Thanks for starting this conversation. I think talking about tzedakah, and peer-pressuring each other to give, is really important.
    I just reviewed my past year’s finances over the weekend and discovered 9% of my expenditures have been for charity. That’s still falling short of my goal (which is 10% of my post-tax, post-401k take home pay), but by less than I thought.
    I have recurring donations set up for a handful of hunger and homelessness related causes (my secular issues of choice) and I tend to binge donate to Jewy organizations around the holidays to make up the difference.
    As Rabbi Jacobs points out, that means half my giving isn’t for poor people and therefore maybe shouldn’t count. Even if I am counting non-poverty related giving, I always get confused if things like synagogue memberships should count, and I haven’t come up with a clear answer. Also, I appreciate that other people are giving to causes like saving the planet, and the arts, and other causes I don’t prioritize. If those causes don’t count, than who will be supporting them?

  2. Hey Shoshanah,Great post.
    I also get confused with things like synagogue memberships. For me, I give money to Uri L’Tzedek, an organization I helped found and am on the board of. I’m never sure if this is supposed to count or not. The way I see it is the way Jill put it – if the organization helps combat poverty, that works for me as going towards the poor. So, if your shul is really involved in anti-poverty efforts, and your donation sustains that, then I think it could count. It might be worth asking your shul where membership money goes.
    Do you think saving the planet could go towards helping the poor? People in poverty are often the ones affected the most by environmental problems…

  3. I’m in college. I get money from my parents and I work part time. 10% of every check goes to Partners in Health, an organization that does groundbreaking health work in communities that traditional UN calculus says are beyond help.
    I’ve been doing it since freshman year and I plan to do it for the foreseeable future.

  4. Before we examine how much people give, why not first look at where they give. Some Jews think giving to the Democratic party is tzedakah.

  5. Avigdor,
    1st, I believe that getting into the habit of giving is as important, if not more important, than the charity one gives to. I think people sometimes use analysis and hyper-criticalism as a means of excusing themselves from things like this. As a giver continues to give, he/she will become more sophisticated in their charity and think about questions like you asked. But I’d rather someone give to the democratic party, or the republican party if that’s something they believe in, than not give at all.
    2nd, what if believed that giving to the democratic party would reduce poverty systemically? I’m not saying it does or doesn’t do that, but could money meant to govern a society in a fairer way be considered tzedakah?

  6. The democratic party one is debatable, but as far as I’m concerned, they money has to be directly on its way to poor people for it to count as tzedakah.
    For instance, while it’s good to give to cultural organizations, synagogues, museums, etc, it’s not necessarily tzedakah.

  7. Ari, that’s exactly the reasoning people use. My $10 means very little to a food charity, but if those $10 help to elect a politician who directs $1 Billion to food stamps… In my opinion, you could justify anything as tzedakah in this way, however.
    Is any giving a form of giving? What does tzedakah mean? What is its purpose from a Jewish perspective? Is it to impact social or government policy?
    I understand your point about giving in general. It’s a good point. Some people think of tzedakah as their money that they can graciously bestow to this organization or that one. From a Jewish perspective, however, it’s not their money to begin with. Giving tithes is not optional. Separating a portion of your field for the poor is not optional. In today’s terms, 10% is a bare minimum. 20% is a respectable standard. Real tzedakah, giving for the sake of giving, is anything you give on TOP of that.

  8. Avigdor, how is “My $10 means very little to a food charity, but if those $10 help to elect a politician who directs $1 Billion to food stamps” useful to justify ANYTHING as tzedakah? I’m not sure I follow you. If you genuinely believe that, how is that not tzedakah.
    And as for your points about percentages etc, that’s all perfectly fair. Except that the fact that the money isn’t yours to begin with doesn’t mean that you aren’t the one who gets to decide where it goes. Neither God nor the Torah tells me who to give money to aside from telling me to give it to the poor.

  9. If you genuinely believe that, how is that not tzedakah.
    The question is not what people believe, but what is. Are political contributions considered tzedakah under Jewish law? How does Jewish law define charity? Is giving a buck to a homeless guy on the street tzedakah? How about if you reasonably assume he’s headed to the liquor store on your “donation”?
    What is the purpose of charity in Jewish law? Is charity merely a tool to prevent starvation, while breeding an underclass dependent on handouts? Does charity need to take into account human dignity and self-reliance?
    Neither God nor the Torah tells me who to give money to aside from telling me to give it to the poor.
    There are also tithes, which are different but similar to charity. Tithes are quite specifically prescribed in minute detail by the Torah. Furtheremore, there is such a thing as Rabbinic halakha, which is empowered by the Torah to make rulings on which forms of tzedakah – both in the way you give and to who you give – are superior to others.

  10. OK, Avigdor. So if you don’t want to give tzedakah to poor people, who do you give it to?
    If I’m missing some law here, I’m happy to be educated, but lets get specific.
    And is assuming anything about a poor person whose situation and story you know nothing about, much less assuming them to be an alcoholic (and judging them for being an alcoholic, no less!) an act of chesed? No. It’s mean.

  11. David, why are you so bitter and angry? Did I put words in your mouth? No. Why are you putting them in mine? I asked those questions to elicit discussion on those subjects, not to attack you or accuse you. The homeless drunk was a hypothetical we have all encountered, and also a case illustration of different philosophies in giving.
    Who said I don’t give to poor people, or that this shouldn’t be done?! There is a right way to do things, however, and a wrong way. Tzedakah, in my mind, is not forking over a dollar to some homeless guy, reeking of booze, and feeling good about yourself. In that case, you have nothing to feel good about; you’re helping to destroy a human being. That’s not judging the homeless alcoholic, but living in the real world and understanding how it works. Enabling misery is not chesed. We need to stop judging tzedakah on intentions, and start judging it on consequences.
    As for who I give to… in terms of addressing poverty and programs for people in need, I contribute to one organization – Colel Chabad.

  12. “We need to stop judging tzedakah on intentions, and start judging it on consequences.”
    No, we don’t.
    If you’re going to think that you’re actually helping a person but not giving the that dollar, and that’s where your responsibility ends, you’re wrong. Plain and simple. In your case, instead of feeling good about giving the dollar, you feel good about withholding the dollar. In my estimation, that’s worse. Because if you really do think that this hypothetical person needs help of a different sort, and you punt that responsibility to a hypothetical other, you have shirked your responsibility. You can’t have it both ways.
    Doing nothing is not the same as doing something.

  13. ML, do we live in a world where people take homeless drunks into their house and rehabilitate them? Not where I live. Perhaps that should be the ideal. Today, the best I or anyone else could do for the guy, and avoid being stabbed or robbed, is call the cops and have them take him to spend the night at county or a local shelter. It was summer. I only call the cops to pick up homeless people when it gets cold on the street.
    Btw, the “feeling good” aspect of charity infuriates me, no matter what the context. Is it really tzedakah if you get some satisfaction out of it? Or did you pay for that satisfaction?

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