We often conflate “charity” with the mitzvah of tzedakah. But while charity is something we all do, it often takes a form that distinguishes it from tzedakah. In contemporary American society, giving and charity are discretionary rather than intrinsic values. They are neither required nor viewed as an obligatory part of citizenship. And they are rewarded through tax incentives. In Jewish terms, tzedakah is far from discretionary — even though many of us who give tzedakah do so from a discretionary frame, if not in principle, then in practice.
Before exploring how charity is prescribed in Maimonides’ legal code, let’s take a look at a recent study that appeared in The Chronicle of Philanthropy by Emily Gipple and Ben Gose, “America’s Generosity Divide.” The article states, “Middle-class Americans give a far bigger share of their discretionary income to charities than the rich.” Wealthy people who live in wealthy neighborhoods give less than wealthy people who live in mixed neighborhoods. Red states give more charity than blue states. States with tax incentives for charity give more than states without them. What is surprising is that households even in the lower income brackets give more of their discretionary income, proportionately, than wealthy families.
While these numbers must be analyzed from various angles, a few preliminary thoughts can be deduced that may inform how we in the United States (Jews and non-Jews) view charity. Wealthy people (“wealthy” is not defined in the article) want to keep more of their money and want to retain the power to decide what to do with it. The study also shows that among the wealthy, where one lives matters a great deal. Those who live in wealthy neighborhoods and who do not come in contact with people of less means on a daily basis give less than those who live in mixed neighborhoods.
Finally, let’s take into consideration the notion of tax incentives that, according to the study, foster increased giving. When we receive a tax deduction based on a charitable donation, we lower our taxable income and tax burden. This is a governmental reward for giving charity and a basic part of our economic system. However, this kind of giving may actually diminish charity as defined by classical Judaism. Why? Because, if I receive a tax deduction for a gift of $10,000 to the Lincoln Center, I will pay less in taxes. As a result, there may be less money for government programs for the poor. And tzedakah is precisely about the poor, which is why Maimonides titles his laws on tzedakah, “Laws of Gifts to the Poor.”
Although I should have the freedom and right to give where I choose (for example, to the Lincoln Center rather than to a homeless shelter), I may be inadvertently withholding important tax dollars that would pay for programs that fall directly into the category of tzedakah. And tax incentives create a benefit, an incentive, to giving, which is antithetical to the obligation of tzedakah, as Maimonides codified it.
Maimonides’ “Laws of Gifts to the Poor” is the first systematic discussion on how Judaism views charity/tzedakah. It is founded on the unambiguous statement: “It is a positive commandment to give charity to the poor according to their needs.” (7:1) Further, anyone who sees a poor person in need and who does not give aid transgresses a negative commandment. (7:2) This is not limited to people of means; the commandment of tzedakah also applies to those who receive charity. They are still obligated to give to those below them on the economic spectrum. (7:5) Tzedakah, as opposed to charity, is not discretionary. Refraining from the mitzvah is actionable. “If a person refuses to give charity, the courts can force him and even beat him until he gives what is fitting. (7:10) This is not the case with, say, one who refuses to put on tefillin. The apparent reason for this difference is that, according to Maimonides, tzedakah is more than simply a mitzvah; it is the very foundation of a just society. (9:1)
A few other relevant points: For Maimonides, tzedakah is not limited to the needs of a Jew. The obligation of tzedakah applies to Jewish and non-Jewish causes. (7:7) Moreover, one should not investigate if the poor person is as poor as he or she says; one must give regardless of the truthfulness of the need. Regarding the tithes for the poor, Maimonides writes that if the produce is in the field or barn, the owner has little power over how it should be distributed. The poor person may come and take as he or she wishes, even against the will of the owner. (6:9) Maimonides makes this mitzvah so foundational that he allows the courts to enforce it and strips the giver of the power to decide to whom and how the produce is to be distributed. Finally, on a psychological level, he writes: “Anyone who gives tzedakah resentfully, even if he gives a thousand gold coins, will have no merit from that act of giving. Rather, he must give joyfully and with an understanding of the gravity of his actions.” (10:4) There is a significant distinction here between perfunctory giving that makes us feel righteous and the religious act of tzedakah.
There seems to be a divide between how we give charity and how Maimonides defines the mitzvah of tzedakah. Regarding philanthropy, we choose how much to give, to whom to give, and how the gift is to be distributed. We want to give, but we also want to benefit from that giving, i.e., through tax deductions. Maimonides says that if the goods are in the barn, the proprietor has no control over who comes and takes what is set aside for charity. In Maimonides’ rendering of tzedakah, it is the one receiving and not the giver who should be empowered.
We consider ourselves a giving community, pride ourselves on being charitable, and view that act as part of religious life. But we are also very much a product of the society in which we live, a society that rewards financial success by protecting financial success. We live in a society that is constitutively suspicious of people’s failures and claims of need, and wary of an individual’s ability to overcome odds and move from one class to another. This, I submit, also bleeds into our giving tzedakah.
For Maimonides, the mitzvah of tzedakah requires us to lift the veil that separates the “haves” from the “have-nots,” and to resist the values that teach us that success is akin to goodness, that the poor are somehow responsible for their poverty. Whether they are or not is not the issue. For Maimonides, the true giver doesn’t even ask the question; the question itself invalidates charity as an act of tzedakah.
Many feel that when we give “charity,” we are fulfilling the mitzvah of tzedakah. Tzedakah is an act of obligation, of sacrifice, of responsibility to the society in which we live. It is not an act of discretionary generosity; it is, according to Maimonides, an act of redemption. The prophet Isaiah says, “Zion will be redeemed in fairness (be-mishpat), and will return to its glory with tzedakah.” (Isaiah 1:27) Tzedakah may be understood as either justice or charity. Maimonides deploys the verse in the tenth chapter of his “Laws of Gifts to the Poor” to suggest that it not be rendered as charity. “Israel will only be redeemed through tzedakah.” (10:1) Teshuvah (to turn or repent) is the internal act of self-awareness; tefillah (prayer) is the external act of appreciation; tzedakah is an obligatory social act of justice. These are the liturgical pillars upon which Jewish society stands.