There were many things that resonated for me in Nevins’ Sh’ma article “Rebranding Tzedakah: From Charity to Sacred Spending.” In what was an otherwise beautifully orchestrated piece, I couldn’t’ help but cringe at a solitary note of discord in a distinction he makes between two types of philanthropists in the Jewish world. The first, he describes as a philanthropic culture, “that lavishes honor upon donors, who have the ‘vision to invest’ in chosen initiatives.” His discomfort with this seems reasonable enough insofar as he uses this characterization to bring to our attention to a second kind of philanthropy, namely, ordinary communal needs, needs such as poverty relief, elder care, and subsidized Jewish education, which he says, “suffer from benign neglect.” This second type of philanthropist, according to Nevins is sadly disappearing. The chosen initiative donors he refers to, we might call, the “kooky visionary.” Let’s call the others, who address everyday communal needs, the ‘communal Tzadik’
Though Nevins isn’t specific about the kinds of ‘initiatives’ he sees as troubling, we can probably assume with some measure of certainty that what he means is that it’s better to look after those in need than the well-to-do. The point is well taken. The problem is that the argument, premised as it is on the idea that the ends served by the ‘kooky visionary’ and the ‘communal tzadik’ are mutually exclusive, might be a bit troubled. The ‘kooky visionary’ and the ‘communal Tzadik’s’, I’d like to say, are in fact, close band-mates.
It seems to me that the kind of public social-initiatives Nevins’ would like to see more of aren’t just pulled out of a vacuum, but arise out of an inner life that itself needs careful attention. “I was very fortunate,” Abraham Joshua Heschel once said, “having lived as a child in an environment where there were many people I could revere, people concerned with problems of inner-life, of spirituality, of integrity.” There was a vibrant psychological backdrop to his committed fight against poverty, prejudice and the Vietnam war.
What I’d like to say is that the best results we can ask for from initiatives funded by the Kooky Visionary often come in a quiet key, making their music hardest to hear. It’s not the tambourine bang of survey-monkeys.
In some ways, what I do, Bible Raps, ought to pass muster with Nevins because of the contributions it makes to Jewish Education. But I’d like to think that why what I do is important is that, through cultivating an appreciation for and understanding of hip-hop in my students, concern for how communal needs like poverty and justice manifest in history as a rapping golem rather than a preaching robot.
In our generation, the Hip-Hop generation, the communal tzadik who is equipped to navigate the landscape of needs is at an advantage when she understands the cultural terrain on which she walks.
Actions are not created in a vacuum. Communal problems must first be taken seriously before acted upon sacredly. ‘Waking up’ the right person from his coma of comfort can be done by aping the communal tzadik’s example, no doubt, but we might also benefit from not being so quick to discount the Shofar blast of the Kooky Visionary and her flash mob.email print