Tzedakah, Take Two

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December 30, 2009

I have been surprised and thrilled by the response to a recent Forward article in which I called attention to the fact that, despite all of our talk about tzedakah, American Jews, on average, give away no higher a percentage of our incomes than other Americans. Indeed, most of the money that Jews—and other Americans—give away would not be classified as tzedakah according to Jewish law. While tzedakah refers to money designated for the poor, most charitable gifts in the United States go to religious institutions, higher education, and the arts.

Most of the responses, on the Forward website, and on blogs that picked up the piece, has centered around the issue of how much money to allocate to tzedakah, and of how to give this money away in the most effective and responsible way possible.

These questions are not new; generations of rabbis and everyday Jews have debated how and where to give tzedakah. While I certainly don’t have definitive answers, I will offer a few thoughts based on my own research and experience.

Do Taxes Count as Tzedakah?

Jewish law establishes ten percent of income as the minimum amount that one should give for tzedakah, and twenty percent as the maximum. An extremely wealthy person or a person on his or her deathbed may give away more than twenty percent, as there is no danger of this person ending up destitute as a result of his or her generosity (Shulhan Arukh Yoreh De’ah 249:1, Talmud Ketubot 67b).

In theory, our entire gross salary might be considered income, and we might be able to count as tzedakah whatever percentage of our income tax goes to support social service programs. In reality, however, this calculation is a bit complex. In the United States, approximately eleven percent of our tax money goes into safety net programs, and about six percent goes to Medicaid and CHIP (Children’s Health Insurance Program), both of which provide health insurance to those who would not otherwise be able to afford it. We may therefore safely count at least seventeen percent of our tax money as tzedakah. One may also make an argument for counting the two percent that goes toward education, since public schools have the potential to minimize poverty and inequality.

But from here things become more confusing. Thirteen percent of our tax dollars go to Medicare, and twenty-one percent goes to social security, with the majority of social security payments benefiting those over sixty-five. Depending what measure one uses, anywhere from nine to twenty-five percent of people over sixty-five may be considered poor. Furthermore, since social security payments are based on lifetime earnings, those with a history of higher earnings receive more social security money.

To make life simpler, I calculate my own tzedakah obligations based on post-tax income. This approach finds support in a ruling by Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (Russia/United States, 1895-1986), one of the most influential American rabbis of the twentieth century. Feinstein distinguishes between sales tax and income tax deducted directly from one’s paycheck. The latter, he says, is not really income, as we never actually receive the money. (Igg’rot Moshe, Yoreh De’ah I:143)

Can We Make This Any Easier?

The challenge of giving away ten percent or more of one’s income can feel daunting, especially for those of us who have experienced salary cuts or job loss. Some authorities therefore suggest designating a special pocket or box for tzedakah money, lest the money accidentally be spent on other expenses (see, for example, Shevet HaLevi 5:133). In a somewhat modern spin on this concept, I have set up a separate bank account for tzedakah. Banking on-line makes this process much simpler. My bank allows multiple checking accounts, and I have set up an automatic transfer into my tzedakah account for the day after my direct deposit arrives. Since I do most of my giving on-line, I have found it useful to designate one credit card for tzedakah, and to pay the bills for this card from my tzedakah account.

Those of us who are barely making ends meet, however, should take comfort from the allowance, made by many rabbis, to pay basic household expenses such as food and shelter before calculating the ten percent for tzedakah (Tzitz Eliezer 9: 1). Even the poorest person, however, is expected to give at least a token amount to tzedakah (Talmud, Gittin 7b).

Is This Donation Fighting Poverty?

The question of what counts as tzedakah money is, perhaps, the most difficult one. The basic principle is that tzedakah must serve the needs of the poor. But does tzedakah therefore only include the provision of basic needs such as food and shelter? Or would we also include a gift to an organization working to pass health care legislation that will free families from overwhelming medical costs? What about support for schools, as education has the potential to lift individuals out of poverty? Do we include arts programs aimed at low-income children? What about money given to a political candidate whom we believe will institute more just laws? What about union dues?

Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg (Israel, 1917-2006) comments that tzedakah money can be used to purchase books intended for lending because “this is like distributing spiritual food, and is no less desirable than distributing physical food to those who need it” (Tzitz Eliezer 9:1). Another contemporary rabbi, though, cautions against using tzedakah money to purchase books with the intention of lending these out, lest the books end up getting mixed into our own property (Shevet HaLevi, 5:133). Based on this ruling, we might justify as tzedakah not only gifts to public libraries, but also support for other cultural institutions provided that our gifts primarily benefit the poor. Personally, for example, I would not count as tzedakah a donation to a museum that charges a $20 admission fee, but would count a music program for low-income students.

While most traditional Jewish discussions of tzedakah focus on the immediate needs of the poor, it is clear that simply providing basic necessities such as food and shelter will not solve poverty in the long term. In my personal giving, I therefore prioritize gifts to community organizing, advocacy, and community development groups that are working to minimize inequality and to build sustainable communities. I also set aside a certain percentage of money for organizations that provide direct services, as there are many people who need to eat before we achieve the end of poverty.

Within the Jewish community, we often use the language of tzedakah to describe gifts for communal institutions such as synagogues and day schools. However, most Jewish sources do not allow tzedakah money to be used for such causes (see B’tzel Hachochmah 4:161 for a long discussion of this). While Jewish law also demands that we support communal institutions, this obligation is separate from that of tzedakah. I therefore give to my local prayer community but take this money out of my regular checking account.

Bringing the Conversation Home

My own personal decisions about tzedakah are certainly not the only correct ones. Within the general parameters of defining tzedakah as support for the poor, there is significant room for debate about which organizations and causes count as tzedakah, and about how best to distribute our giving. In fact, those debates, whether in our households or our institutions, have a tremendous educational and ethical value in themselves; these conversations are a part of taking our tzedakah seriously by investing our choices with real thought and discussion, and by creating a community in which giving at least ten percent is the norm, and not the exception.

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