Tzedakah comes from the Hebrew word for righteousness and justice. It can be divided into three traditional areas: tzedakah in the narrower sense (supporting good in the world through financial contributions), gemilut chesed (doing kind things for others in small and large ways), and tikkun olam (repairing the world through social action). Tzedakah is one of Judaism’s most basic value concepts. In fact, the narrower sense of tzedakah was a primary focus of classical Jewish texts. “Tzedakah is as important as all the other commandments put together,” according to the Babylonian Talmud.
Historically, the mitzvah of tzedakah was fulfilled by “maaser,” the giving of one-tenth of all yearly produce. This developed from the central principle that all of life’s bounty was a gift from God, and it was an obligation to return a portion as a sign of appreciation. Supporting the needs of the community through maaser became a Jewish way of life from the Rabbinic period through the time of the shtetls in Europe. Today’s society is very different from the one in which the rabbis had much greater influence over individual decisions of how much and where to give, but the Jewish value of tzedakah still enriches our lives.
The Adat Shalom Tzedakah Study Group developed a number of principles that can guide our community in the fulfillment of this mitzvah:
One way to set priorities among the many demands on our resources is to view them as concentric circles in our sphere of responsibilities. Priorities in giving tzedakah also need to be established within the tensions between immediate basic needs of others and long-term projects for ensuring their ultimate self-sufficiency. The necessity of support for such shon-term projects as disaster relief and Operation Exodus is obvious. The highest degree of tzedakah, though, in Maimonides’s ladder is giving that allows those in need to become economically self-sufficient, thereby helping them to dispense with the aid of others. Examples of projects that set up frameworks for the future that may multiply the effectiveness of our dollars are environmental conservation, medical research, and improvement of education and self-help programs. Both kinds of giving, short- and long-term, are critical, because no one can learn a trade while hungry or without shelter.
The society in which we live can make our participation in the mitzvah of tzedakah quite difficult. The values of today’s secular culture hardly encourage the giving of tzedakah. We have moved a long way from the belief of our Biblical ancestors that our possessions and our harvest are all temporary gifts and do not truly belong to us. In contemporary society, the emphasis on accumulating wealth and using it for personal consumption makes it difficult for us to strike a balance between our personal desires and perceived needs and our sense of responsibility to help others. We also live a lifestyle where time is a scarce resource, so we may be frustrated by our inability to properly research the organizations and causes that most deserve our support. There are tensions between the immediate demands of world crises and support for programs that ensure future self- sufficiency; between the requirements of our own family and community with whom we are familiar and those of the needy in distant lands, whose living standards do not begin to approach our own. Resolving these tensions can be extremely challenging. None of us can escape from the values of our surrounding culture. Our acute awareness of the immense needs of our world, however, makes tzedakah especially meaningful to us, so that even while we try to sort through these issues, we can begin to give of our personal financial resources.
Our modern Jewish response and our synagogue, Adat Shalom, can be helpful in overcoming the obstacles that prevent the fulfillment of our commitment to tzedakah. We can continue to emphasize the importance of tzedakah through congregational activities. We can try to understand the centrality of it in Judaism through our Reconstructionist view of God as the sum of forces that create good in the world and by recognizing that a portion of our financial resources belongs to God for the doing of acts of goodness and justice. In addition, Adat Shalom can start a group that will research the many potential organizations to which we might give tzedakah. To help address all areas of our ever- widening spheres of responsibility, the group would identify and investigate organizations to determine the level of financial support that is directed toward the primary fulfillment of the tzedakah principles outlined above. A list with detailed information may be presented each year or every six months, based on immediate needs within our community or the world and the value of supporting ongoing projects.
To help provide some foundation for making personal decisions about tzedakah, the discussions of the tzedakah study group also may be helpful. Drawing on the historical tradition of giving maaser, the “withholding” of a sum of money for tzedakah can be a great beginning. Maaser literally means “one-tenth,” but it can refer to that portion set aside to respond to our obligations to create good in the world (rather than the portion left over after our individual desires have been satisfied). Practical guidelines for how to determine what is an appropriate amount to withhold in today’s financial climate have been suggested by a few scholars, including Meir Tamari in his book With All Your Possessions.1 According to sources such as this, one may subtract all tax payments from gross income before calculating the ten percent for tzedakah. Many communities, both Jewish and Christian, take this tithing standard very seriously. Unfortunately, the charitable instinct of the general American population falls far short of this standard. The average percentage of gross incomne given by Americans to charitable causes is 2.3 percent. Ironically, the higher the household income, the lower the percentage contributed, a phenomenom which suggests that the more wealth one has, the harder it is to part with. Our goal should be to work towards a mindset that makes us want to set aside a large a percentage of our income as possible to help those individuals, organizations, and causes that rely on our gererosity. The allocation of this maaser can be divided, some to specific philanthropic groups (such as those that could be suggested by the Adat Shalom group researching organizations), some to umbrella charitable organizations that distribute funds (such as United Jewish Federation and the United Way), and for some responses to unanticipated needs (perhaps including requests from individuals on the street).
From our study of traditional texts, we know that there are specific priorities in giving. The very important responsibility of pidyon shevuyim, redemption of captives, had a dramatic modern-day equivalent with Operation Moses and Operation Solomon, the rescue of the Ethiopian Jewish community to Israel. Other ways of redefining this category could be redeeming those in situations where the captor has control over the life and health of the captive, such as abused children and politically oppressed minorities. Other priorities include education, specifically professional education for the poor and Torah study, or Jewish education. These categories are translated easily into scholarship funds for Jewish day schools and training programs for displaced homemakers and workers with obsolete skills.
The focus that Adat Shalom has put on the study of tzedakah has been a fime for us all to dedicate and rededicate ourselves to the fulfillment of this mitzvah that can enrich our lives and help heal the world around us. Our newfound knowledge of maaser and the priorities in giving that our Jewish heritage provide as guides can help us to overcome the obstacles that modem society presents. We hope that this focus will be only the beginning of our exploration into the central relationship between Tzedakah, our communal responsibilities, and the Jewish people.
These guidelines, adopted by the Adat Shalom board on 19 April 1992 (16 Nissan 5752) and then by the congregation as a whole on 14 June 1992 (13 Sivan 5752), are the product of a process that included a communal study of traditional sources and subsequent in-depth special study by topical subgroups. The subgroups formulated draft statements of principles and more detailed guidelines. Members of our congregation were invited to provide input on these guidelines throughout the year-long process.