Tzedakah: Anonymity or Relationship?

by Rabbi Dr. Ilana Goldhaber-Gordon

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The son of a wealthy family fell on hard times. He had been accustomed to all the luxuries that life could offer a Jew in the ancient world: a large house, a stable of horses, servants to wait on him night and day. The Talmud does not record how he lost it all, but the day came when he had to beg the leadership of his town for charity.

As it happened, the “leadership” was none other than Hillel the Elder, famous to this day as an icon of tolerance. How did Hillel receive the poor aristocrat? The man had hit bottom in a year of abundance; no one was hungry, no one in need of a dowry. With everyone else’s basic needs cared for, Hillel restored the man to his previous standard of living, even providing him with a horse and a servant to run before him.

The following year, communal fortunes were not quite so good, and Hillel could not provide the man with a servant.

The man was crestfallen. He had no idea how to get around a stable. How would he care for his horse? The entire community would witness his shame! Hillel took pity on him and dressed himself in servant’s clothing and ran before the man’s horse (Ketubot 67a).

What was Hillel doing? Other stories suggest that he was generally unmoved by social status. The Talmud’s stories are often extreme, meant to drive home forcefully some important point. But exactly what point is the Talmud pushing with this story?

Whatever Hillel was doing, he was doing it openly. In other passages, the Talmud promotes anonymity in tzedakah (charitable giving). Maimonides famously categorized different approaches of tzedakah: “. . . The second highest level is when the donor. . . does not know to whom he gives, and the pauper does not know from whom he takes. . . Less good is if the donor knows to whom he gives, but the pauper does not know from whom he takes. . . Less good still is if the pauper knows from whom he draws, but the donor does not know. . .” (Laws of Gifts to the Poor, 10:8). This ideal of anonymous giving is far more comfortable to our modern sense of ethics than Hillel’s debasing himself to run before a pauper’s horse.

But for both Maimonides and the Talmud, anonymity takes second place to genuine relationship. For example, Maimonides reserves his highest category of tzedakah for one who enters into a business relationship with a pauper. And of someone who feeds the poor at his own table, he writes, “He calls to God and God hears him and answers and rejoices.” In other words, a person who takes the poor into her home approaches the level of the prophets (Laws of Gifts to the Poor, 10:16).

I would like to suggest that anonymity was never an ideal for its own sake. In a small community, donor and recipient could meet each other on the street or pray in the same room, , and feel no awkwardness. One is living off the communal fund. He may suspect who the donors are, but he never suffers the humiliation of taking directly from their hands. The other is donating to the fund. He knows he is helping others, but not whom.

The Talmud is clear about priorities. When funds are limited, we attend first to the physical needs of the most vulnerable. With nearly seven billion people in the world, city populations in the millions, and a society segregated by wealth, there is no way for us to care for the most needy except through large collective funds. We must give to these organizations, and we must give generously.

But if all of our tzedakah is through professional charities, we fall short of the rabbinic ideal. Many of us live in bubbles of comfort. Yet within these bubbles are some who struggle to be there, and under their sheen of luxury lurks a swamp of worry. Should they slip and lose their financial means, they could lose not just comfort and security, not just pride and self-esteem, but also their community.

One of the most important roles of synagogues today is to create communities that cut across social boundaries. At kiddush after services, the woman standing next to you might be the CEO of a large company, or she might be out of work and worried about the next rent check. You can have an interesting conversation with her and never know, either way.

Congregational rabbis are frequently approached by congregants for financial help, for everything from summer camp tuition to grocery bills. The rabbi may offer assistance from her discretionary fund: that is, money donated by more prosperous congregants. For these donors, the recipients of their charity are anonymous – but not alien. They are members of the community who happen to need help.

One can also build community by donating to day school scholarship funds. Of course, the economics here are more complicated; the cost of educating a child is far greater than the cost of including an additional synagogue member. But when scholarships are severely limited, the school community becomes a bubble of privilege, and poverty takes on the unreality of a distant unknown. The deeper the scholarships a school offers, the more diverse the school community.

Without an institutional format, building relationships across social boundaries is difficult. But it can happen, and, when it does, both sides are immeasurably enriched. Here are two true stories of such friendships.

At a time when Cindy needed some help in her home, she noticed a young woman panhandling in front of her supermarket. Suddenly inspired, Cindy took a chance. She got down on the ground with this young woman, and asked her if she would be willing to work for her. In Cindy’s own words: “In the months that followed, this young woman proved over and over that she was worth the leap of faith. There was such an aspect of grace in every aspect of this relationship, including that this young woman was an orphan, and I, too, was orphaned by the time I was 21.”

Step by step, Cindy helped this woman move back into the mainstream. Early on, Cindy heard that someone was planning to donate a car to a non-profit, and she asked him to give the car to the woman instead. Another friend agreed to give her a phone. Finally, Cindy put forward the young woman for a job, coached her in her application – and she was hired, eventually becoming the manager of the small business.

In another story, Joel traveled frequently for his work. He became friendly with an Israeli taxi driver, Uri, and began relying on Uri exclusively whenever he needed a ride to the airport. The difference in Joel’s and Uri’s standards of living was enormous. Joel was worrying about affording private school tuition for his children; Uri was living hand-to-mouth, often worrying about having enough gas in his tank. Unaware of these differences, they simply enjoyed each other’s company. Then, Uri was evicted from his trailer home, and had no place to go. Joel invited Uri to live in his home. During the months he was in Joel’s house, Uri taught Joel and his family Hebrew words and Israeli jokes, the method of netting fruit trees with two tall sticks, and the best way to preserve an over-abundance of summer fruit.

So what was Hillel doing, running before that horse? The Talmud offers little detail, yet the scene is unforgettable. It shows the extremes Hillel would go in his empathy for another human being, even one whose emotional needs were so different from his own.

At the same time, Hillel may have been modeling a better attitude toward luxury and social status. What did our poor man think and feel, watching the greatest scholar of his generation running ahead while he rode high on a horse? Perhaps the experience made him question his own sense of need. Yesterday he was wealthy and had many servants, today he is poor and begs for help. How deeply do these changes matter, so long as he remains a valued member of the community?

Rabbi Dr. Ilana Goldhaber-Gordon teaches children at Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School in Palo Alto, California, and adults in various communities in Silicon Valley. For ideas in this article she is grateful to participants in her Thursday class at Congregation Etz Chayim, Palo Alto.