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Tuesday, October 22, 2013

How altruistic is giving tzedakah supposed to be? / Yerushalmi, Peah 5


I recently listened to a Freakonomics podcast entitled, “How to Raise Money Without Killing a Kitten”[1] (designed, as you might guess, to launch a fundraising campaign for the podcast).  University of Chicago economist John List, who has studied charitable giving in America, marshaled data to shoot down the “myth” of altruism. People are driven by “purely self interest,” often the warm glow they derive from giving. List advises that to induce people to give more money, we should appeal to what giving can do for the giver (such as the “warm glow” effect), or alternatively employ the strategy, “if you don’t give today this [i.e., the benefit you derive from the cause] will actually be taken away and you will no longer be able to use it.”

Is altruism a Jewish value? Is it one the Sages expect, support, and seek to cultivate? Or do they operate under the assumption that people need a self-serving motive to give generously? Tzedakah is a mitzvah, but it differs from “charity” because tzedakah is a commandment and not caritas, which is given out of pure altruistic love and therefore optional. Torah (in the broad sense that includes Talmud) seems to prefer the pragmatic to the idealistic; the poor are hungry today.

Tzedakah tatzil mi-mavet. “Tzedakah saves from death” is found in the Book of Proverbs (10:2 and 11:4) and the Rabbis quote it liberally. Hyperbolically, the Rabbis tell us:

R. Yehudah says: Ten strong things have been created in the world. The rock is hard, but the iron cleaves it. The iron is hard, but the fire softens it. The fire is hard, but the water quenches it. The water is strong, but the clouds bear it. The clouds are strong, but the wind scatters them. The wind is strong, but the body bears it. The body is strong, but fear crushes it. Fear is strong, but wine banishes it. Wine is strong, but sleep works it off. Death is stronger than all, but charity saves from death, as it is written, Righteousness [tzedakah] delivers from death (Proverbs 10:2; 11:4). (BT Baba Batra 10a)

How altruistic is that? R. Chiyya b. Avin learned from R. Yochanan that we find this expression not once, but twice, in Scripture because tzedakah saves one from both an unnatural death and the punishment of Gehenna (BT Baba Batra 10a). Perhaps tzedakah tatzil mi-mavet, which does not appeal to altruism, is a good fundraising strategy.

The Yerushalmi (Jerusalem Talmud) offers a wonderful discussion of tzedakah in Masechet Peah 5a. There is no pretense of altruism here. R. Abba boldly states that God protects those who give tzedakah to the poor from having to pay a variety of taxes and levies imposed by the Roman government. This is the good kind of payback:

R. Abba said: If you give of your funds to tzedakah, the Holy One blessed be God will guard you from tributes, fines, head taxes, and tithes [levied by the Roman government].

I understand that my contributions to MAZON are tax deductible, but R. Abba is promising me that God will arrange a tax credit. Others will have to pay the government assessments, but I will be somehow exempt. It seems a brazen claim. The Bavli (Babylonian Talmud) makes a similar claim, while paying lip service to altruism: it is preferable to give for the sake of the mitzvah itself, but in the end, God will recompense the giver.

R. Yehudah b. R. Shalom preached as follows: In the same way that a man's earnings are determined for him on Rosh Hashanah, so are his losses [i.e. expenditures] determined for him on Rosh Hashanah. If he finds merit [in the eyes if God], then, share your bread with the poor (Isaiah 58:7) [i.e., if he gives tzedakah to the poor] but if not, then he will take the wretched poor into his home (Isaiah 58:8) [the wretched tax collectors will arrive on his doorstep].

An example is the nephews of Rabban Yochanan b. Zakkai. [Rabban Yochanan] dreamed that [his nephews] would lose seven hundred dinarim that year. He accordingly pressured them to give tzedakah; he convinced them to give all but seventeen dinarim [of the seven hundred]. On the eve of Yom Kippur, the Government sent and seized [the remaining seventeen dinarim]. R. Yochanan b. Zakkai said to [his nephews], “Do not fear [that you will lose more]; you had seventeen dinarim and these they have taken [i.e., they cannot take more].” They said to him, “How did you know that this was going to happen?” He replied, “I saw it in a dream.” “Then why did you not tell us?” they asked. He replied, “Because I wanted you to do the mitzvah [of giving tzedakah] for its own sake,[2] without knowing you would lose the money anyway.” (BT Baba Batra 10a)

R. Yochanan b. Zakkai receives divine intelligence (the dream) that on Rosh Hashanah God determined that his nephews would lose a great deal of money in the year just beginning. He coerces them into giving most of it—all but 17 dinarim—to tzedakah. As a result, when the Roman tax collector come to town and knock on their door, they have a mere 17 dinarim to hand over. Better the money should be in the hands of the poor than in the hands of the Roman government. This passage raises some troubling questions: If Rabban Yochanan must pressure his nephews into giving—indeed hounding and coercing them, as the story suggests—they are certainly not the models of altruistic generosity. Rather, tzedakah is here a scheme to avoid paying taxes: if you don’t have it, you can’t pay it. Or, as economic John List expressed the fundraising tactic, “If you don’t give today this will actually be taken away and you will no longer be able to use it.” Tzedakah here is a tax dodge, echoing R. Abba’s contention that God protects those who give tzedakah from the tax collector’s reach.

In the Yerushalmi (Jerusalem Talmud), the Gemara supports R. Abba’s troubling contention with a story about King Munbaz[3] who lived in the first century of the Common Era. (The Bavli has a version of this story, as well, in Baba Batra 11a.)

King Munbaz arose and dissolved all his possessions [to feed] the poor.  His relatives sent [a message] to him saying: Your forefathers added to what was theirs and their fathers, while you have squandered what is yours and your forefathers! He said to them: All the more so! My forefathers stored away [wealth] on earth, while I have stored away [wealth] in heaven, as it is says, Truth springs up from the earth and tzedakah looks down from heaven (Psalm 85:12). My forefathers stored away treasures that do not yield fruit, while I stored away treasures that yield fruit, as it is said, Say of the tzaddik that it will go well because he will eat the fruit of his deeds (Isaiah 3:10). My forefathers put away that which the [human] hand has the power [to destroy], while I have put away that over which the hand has no power, as it is said, Tzedakah u’mishpat) are the foundation of his throne (Psalm 97:2). My forefathers put away money, while I have put away souls [i.e., saved lives], as it is said, [The fruit of the tzaddik is a tree of life] and one who acquires souls is wise (Proverbs 11:30). My forefathers put away [wealth] for others, while I put away [wealth] for myself, as it is written, it will be for you tzedakah [before the Lord your God] (Deuteronomy 24:13). My forefathers amassed [wealth] in this world, while I amass [wealth] for the world-to-come, as it is said, Charity will save from death (Proverbs 10:2 and 11:4).

Munbaz’s relatives are appalled that the king is depleting the family’s storehouse of riches accumulated over many generations, “squandering” them by distributing money to the poor. We might presume that previously they could tap into it for their own purposes. Munbaz, however, is invested in assuring his chelek in olam ha-ba (his portion, or reward, in the world-to-come). While King Munbaz’s actions can only be described as righteous, his motivations are hardly altruistic. He fully expects to be compensated in olam ha-ba, yet the Rabbis applaud his intentions and hold him aloft as a model of righteousness. They place in his mouth all their arguments concerning the benefits of giving tzedakah.

All of this seems at first glance a far cry from the idealism expressed in BT Ketubot 67b, which seeks to interpret the claim in Deuteronomy 15:8 that we are to give someone in need, Sufficient for whatever he needs, even if that borders on the ridiculous, or indeed leaps entirely over the border (e.g., Hillel running like a horse before a recipient of tzedakah, providing expensive meats and wines to the poor). But Ketubot 67 does not deny the payoff of tzedakah; rather, it focuses on how to go about the important business of distributing money to those in need.

Fundraisers remind us that the size of a donation is not as important as habituating people to giving. The Rabbis accept human nature for what it is and seek to maximize the good that can come of it.

R. Dostai ben R. Yannai preached: Observe that the ways of God are not like the ways of flesh and blood. How does flesh and blood act? If a man brings a present to a king, it may be accepted or it may not be accepted; and even if it is accepted, it is still doubtful whether he will be admitted to the presence of the king or not. Not so God. If a man gives but a farthing to a beggar, he is deemed worthy to receive the Divine Presence, as it is written, I shall behold Your face in tzedakah, I shall be satisfied when I awake with Your likeness (Psalms 17:15]). R. Eliezer used to give a coin to a poor man and straightway say a prayer, because he said it is written, I shall behold Your face in righteousness [i.e., when I perform an act of righteousness, I will be able to behold God’s countenance]. (BT Baba Batra 10a)

The Rabbis are pragmatists. They see no problem in people feeling good about the acts of righteousness they perform. The better we feel, the more we are likely to do. Truly, as R. Yehudah teaches:

Great is charity, in that it brings the redemption nearer, as it says, Thus said the Lord: Observe what is right and do what is just (tzedakah), for soon My salvation shall come, and my deliverance be revealed (Isaiah 56:1). (BT Baba Batra 10a)

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman


[2] In Mishnah Pirke Avot 1:3 we find: “Antigonus of Socho received the Torah from Shimon ha-Tzaddik. He used to say: Do not be like servants who serve their master for the sake of receiving a reward, but be like servants who serve their master not upon the condition of receiving a reward; and let the fear of Heaven be upon you.”
[3] Munbaz II (also written Monobaz) was the first century C.E. king of Abiadene, which is in present-day Iraq. King Munbaz was the son of Queen Helene (d. ~56 C.E.) and Munbaz I. Josephus (I.c. #5) writes of Queen Helene’s generosity, describing how she had corn brought from Alexandria and dried figs from Cyprus to distribute during a famine. It appears that Talmud may have transferred credit for her deeds to her son, Munbaz II.