Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Why is charity called tzedakah?

It seems odd doesn't it? Etymologically, the word charity comes from the ideas of loving and giving. Tzedaka, of course, comes from the word for justice. The english word seems much more correct. After all, when I give my hard earned money to a poor person, that is lovingkindness. The recipient didn't earn a penny. That's not a value judgement, and the poor person may be honorable. But when I help him, he gives me nothing in return. All that I get is a good deed and the satisfaction that it brings. You have to wonder why we don't call charity chesed. It is accurate to describe it that way, but the name that we give to charity is tzedakah.

I have a theory to explain it. Between the two individuals, the giver and receiver, that act is one of chessed and not justice. Tzedaka from the micro perspective is indeed a misnomer. But from a national perspective it is a form of justice.

The Torah is absolutely concerned with the redistribution of wealth, in order to minimize the gap between rich and poor. This can be seen in the forgiving of loans and canceling of indentured servitude in the shemita year, and also the resetting of land ownership in the Yovel year. This leveling process is apparently described as tzedaka, because charity is a means of ensuring equal opportunity and access to all citizens. That makes it a central concern of social justice.

When individuals give charity, that is chessed. When a nation takes care of its weakest members and makes sure that they share in all of its blessings as equally as possible, that is justice.

It seems like an obvious answer. Why did this seem odd to us in the first place? Perhaps the cold war left many of us in the West in general, and America in particular, disturbed by socialist implications. This is so even when pursuing what Judaism considers social justice. As Jews, we should be wary of movements and ideologies that don't argue for the justice that is charity.

Jeremiah Chapter 7

1 The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD, saying: 2 Stand in the gate of the LORD'S house, and proclaim there this word, and say: Hear the word of the LORD, all ye of Judah, that enter in at these gates to worship the LORD. 3 Thus saith the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your doings, and I will cause you to dwell in this place. 4 Trust ye not in lying words, saying: 'The temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, are these.' 5 Nay, but if ye thoroughly amend your ways and your doings; if ye thoroughly execute justice between a man and his neighbor; 6 if ye oppress not the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, and shed not innocent blood in this place, neither walk after other gods to your hurt; 7 then will I cause you to dwell in this place, in the land that I gave to your fathers, for ever and ever.

מסכת אבות

ה,ט  [י] ארבע מידות באדםהאומר שלי שלי, ושלך שלך--זו מידה בינונית; ויש אומרין, זו מידת סדוםשלי שלך, ושלך שלי--עם הארץשלי שלך, ושלך שלך--חסידשלך שלי, ושלי שלי--

P.S. Am I the only one who thinks that ornate and expensive tzedaka boxes are vaguely distasteful?  




Noam Shapiro said...

I agree in theory- but what about the problem that has always been the problem with a system of collective redistribution: what if the people redistributing are themselves corrupt? Haven't most socialist movements fallen short because of that very problem? ISn't that problem a fundamental one? You can't necessarily trust the individuals in charge to be just.
How does the Torah safeguard against this? (Or maybe there is no safeguard, and that is why we had Yirmiyahu coming and admonishing the leadership for exactly that problem...)

MNUnterberg said...

How did the founding fathers design a system to reduce as much corruption as possible? Checks and balances. Why would they work less in this area of governance than in any other area?