Charity on Demand

The headline, “Buffet and Gates Prod India’s Wealthy to be More Philanthropic,” in this past Friday’s New York Times got me thinking about societal differences in compassion and charity.  The reason for my interest is personal (as always).  Back in the fall, I was honored by HIAS for my volunteer work with refugees and I was introduced by the Executive Director as a convert to Orthodox Judaism.  Then last week, I spoke at a HIAS meeting and it came up again.  I bristled somewhat and thought that my religion does not define me or my work.  So, why am I the way I am?

The Chinese Buddhist world view is one of acceptance.  Social status and quality of life is pre-determined.  People do give alms, as the monks are totally reliant on daily offerings.  However, there isn’t a tradition of social services—  the reason the Chinese have historically favored boys is that sons serve as social security in one’s old age—or of philanthropy.  From the NYTimes article, it seems India does not either.

What about the American values?  Carol Adelman of the Hudson Institute has lead research on the generosity of the American people which is far more impressive than that of their government.  According to the latest estimates, Americans privately give at least $34 billion overseas, more than twice the U.S. official foreign aid of $15 billion []

The economist Arthur Brooks has identified four predictors of charity: religion, skepticism about the government in economic life, work, and strong families.  [You could read the full arguments in his 2006 book, Who Really Cares: America's Charity Divide - Who Gives, Who Doesn't and Why it Matters.]  He found a strong causal link between faith and charitable giving.  Note: religious liberals give as much as do religious conservatives, but they are fewer than one-third in number as compared to religious conservatives in the United States.

So, I come to my third heritage: the Jewish faith.  Jews are commanded to observe the mitzvah (religious legal commandment) of tzedakah ( righteousness or justice but usually translated as charity) more carefully than for any other positive mitzvah.  According to the Jewish sage, Maimonides, there are eight levels of tzedakah, with the greatest being giving a person a gift, a loan, a partnership, or a job, so he can be self-sustaining (and give tzedakah of his own).

Traditional Jews practice ma’aser kesafim, tithing 10% of their income.  There are other forms of tzedakah required during specific times of the year (Purim and Pesach) and milestones in life (by the bridal couple at their wedding).  My favorites are the laws of tzedakah tied to the land, such as peah (the corners of the field are left for the poor, the needy, and the stranger), leket (dropped grain is left in the fields as gleanings for the poor) and shikchah (forgotten sheaves of grain are left for the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the stranger).  By the way, the commandment to not oppress the stranger in our midst is mentioned 36 times in the Chumash, Jewish Bible, a fact much beloved at HIAS.

This analysis has brought me to the conclusion that my faith is the guiding motivation for all that I do for HIAS.  While my Chinese heritage has instilled in me a strong work ethic— I proudly admit to being a Tiger Mom— it is the Jewish faith that compels me to my engrossing work with my refugees.


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