Judaism: Jewish Concern for 'TZEDAKAH" (Charity) and Social
Most Jews are aware of the traditional story about
the great Jewish scholar, Hillel, who was asked by a
Roman soldier to summarize Judaism "while standing
on one foot"in other words, to put all of
Jewish theology in a nutshell. Hillels response
was to repeat Judaisms original "Golden Rule":
"That which is hateful to yourself, do not do unto
others. That is the heart of the Torah; all the rest
is commentary. Now go and study!"
The "Golden Rule" is in that portion of the
Torah known as "The Holiness Code" (Leviticus,
Chapter 19). It is a basic principle underlying the
traditional Jewish commitment to fairness, human responsibility,
and social justice.
These fundamental values, rooted in the Torah, have
led Jews to establish relatively high standards of generosity
for charitable causes. Actually, the concept of tzedakah
extends beyond charityits usual translationand
includes the dual concepts of righteousness and human
responsibilitysomething a Jew is required to do
as a part of her or his Jewishness, not simply a voluntary
The great Jewish scholar, philosopher, and rabbi, Moses
Maimonides, who lived 800 years ago, delineated eight
different levels of charity. As you read these words,
consider how relevant these Jewish teachings are today,
more than 800 years later:
Going from the lowest level to the highest:
1. One who gives unwillingly.
2. One who gives cheerfully, but not enough.
3. One who gives enough, but not till he
4. One who gives before being asked, but
directly to the poor person.
5. The poor one knows from whom he or she
takes, but the giver does not know who is receiving.
6. The giver knows to whom he or she gives,
but the receiver does not know the giver.
7. The giver does not know to whom he or
she gives, nor does the poor person know from
whom he or she receives.
- The highest form of charity is to strengthen the
hand of the poor by giving a loan, or joining in
partnership, or training out of the individuals
poverty, to help become independent.
- The highest level of charityhelping a person
establish herself or himselfis the foremost
ideal of our modem social agenda as we address the
complex issues of poverty and welfare and seek the
best ways to help people break the chains of poverty.
The words of Maimonides exemplify the compassion
of Judaism and also vividly show how Jewish sages
have sought to point the way for Jews to help make
our world a better place in which all people might
live with dignity and self-respect.
Some people are surprised when they learn that Judaism
embodies compassion and love, for language in the Torah
often appears harsh to the modem ear. However, one must
remember and understand that the Jewish Biblewhat
Christianity called the "Old Testament"was
written 3,000 years ago. Just as it is important to
judge Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration
of Independence, in the context of the times in which
he lived, and not in absolute terms of his having been
a slave owner, we must judge the Jewish Bible, including
the first five books known as the Torah, in terms relative
to what was taking place in society 3,000 years ago.
By that standard, the Torah was remarkably progressive.
(For instance, the well-known adage, "an eye for
an eye," by contemporary times may seem harsh,
but this concept was an improvement over the mores of
Middle Eastern society 3,000 years ago when one could
be killed for injuring another persons eye.) Actually,
although the Torah is an ancient document, there is
in Judaism a process of study, commentary, and re-interpretation
that has allowed the Torah to continue to speak to Jews
in every generation.
Even though Christianitys "New Testament"
was written more than 1,000 years after the Jewish Bible,
nevertheless both have passages that are harsh by modern
standards. Both also have language of love and compassion,
and there are many important similarities such as the
Golden Rule. These similarities are not surprising since
Jesus was raised as a Jew as were all of his contemporary
On the other hand, there are major philosophical differences,
the most fundamental being that Jews did not, and do
not, believe that Jesus, who lived and died a Jew, was
the Son of God. Another central difference was that
Christianity asserted that an individual had to "believe
in Jesus in order to be saved," therefore denying
any life in "heaven" to non-believers. In
sharp contrast, the central theme of Judaism was one
of universalism with the "gates of heaven"
open to all who lead an exemplary life of good actions
and deeds, regardless of religious creed.
Although the Jewish Bible was written nearly 3,000
years ago, much of it still speaks directly to us today.
For example, in an ancient world in which slavery and
injustice were rampant, the Jewish prophets were among
the first to call for social justicefor everyone,
not just Jews.
One of the most meaningful aspects of Judaism is that
it offers a religious and cultural environment and a
structure in which these moral values can be enhanced
and also transmitted from one generation to the next.
Some people assert that there is no longer a need to
have any religious identity and that these values can
be transmitted automatically without the need for a
religious framework. However, most thoughtful Jews believe
the remarkable extent of active involvement of modern
Jews in support of charitable causes and issues of freedom
and social justice did not arise in a vacuum but rather
developed out of a religious and cultural heritage and
faith, nurtured and refined over a period of 4,000 years.
This Jewish heritage has been a very important factor
in influencing and encouraging individual Jews to speak
out on behalf of freedom, compassion, love, peace and
justice for all. Therefore, committed Jews seek Jewish
continuity, not just for themselves, but for all humankind.
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