Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Chesed towards Whom?

R' Daniel Z. Feldman's new book, "Divine Footsteps: Chesed and the Jewish Soul", on the various mitzvot that constitute the general requirement of "gemilut chasadim", distribution of lovingkindness, which is one of the "three things on which the world stands" (Avot 1:2; the others being Torah learning and Divine Service).

He includes chapters on:
  • Visiting the sick
  • Comforting the bereaved
  • Escorting the decease
  • Hosting guests
  • Helping a bride to marry
  • Lending
  • Collecting tzedakah
  • Giving tzedakah
R' Feldman interweaves halachic sources with the ethical and philosophical imperatives and goals that give meaning to the bare requirements of "doing good for others." For example,
The Talmud records that Friday night kiddush was recited in the synagogue when guests were eating there. In modern times, it is no longer common for guests to be hosted at the synagogue, and yet many contemporary synagogues have a custom to recite kiddush in the context of the Friday night prayers anyway. Many questioned or objected to this practice,[145] and a number of theories are suggested to explain why the practice should continue.[146] It may be suggested that the modern synagogue kiddush is a testament to the history of the original kiddush, which was a service to the needy being hosted. As such, it is a reminder that the communal center, the synagogue, is required to be concerned for both the spiritual and physical needs of the community at large. (p, 155)
145. See Rosh, Pesachim 10:5, and Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 269.
146. See Responsa Rashba I, 37 and 323; Magen Avraham 269:3; Responsa Teshuvot Ve-Hanhagot 1, 255; R Yechiel Ya'akov Weinberg, Responsa Seridei Eish I, 28.
That last is a sentiment that I'm sure my great-grandfather Louis Cohen and his brother Joseph H. Cohen, founders of the first two Jewish Centers, would have supported.

The one place where it falls short, in my opinion, is in relations with non-Jews. My mother runs a series of clothing and food drives, and organizes a fleet of volunteers through Lincoln Square Synagogue to staff them, give local yeshiva kids chesed-work credit, and twice a week redistribute 25-50 lbs of day-old bread from a local bakery to the poor, mostly non-Jews. In short, she's "the chesed lady".

But she gets a lot of flack from donors over the fact that she mostly sends the donations to non-Jewish charities. For the most part, this is out of necessity. There are very few Jewish soup kitchens and food pantries, especially in Manhattan; Jewish clothing-redistribution outlets can get factory-seconds from the still-present-in-NY garment business, and don't want used clothing; her volunteers aren't about to make multiple two-hour round trips to charities in Brooklyn. But she still gets flack for it, and I was hoping to find something to support the idea of giving to non-Jews.

American Jewish charities often give to non-Jews as well, following natural disasters or terror attacks. American Jewish World Service, various Jewish Federations, even the students and congregation of KJ/Ramaz, sent goods and supplies to New Orleans after Katrina, or to the Indian Ocean after the Boxing Day Tsunami.

The Rambam has a few choice words on the subject, in Hil. Matanot L'Aniyyim 7:7, "We support and clothe the non-Jewish poor along with the Jewish poor, because of the paths of peace," quoting the Gemara in the end of the fifth chapter of Gittin), which Ridvaz explains as "we support both Jewish and non-Jewish poor for the same reason." Other poskim discuss the parameters of darchei shalom. R' Dovid Zvi Hoffman explains that it's a different reason than "out of fear [of retribution if we don't]", rather, it's meant to promote real good-feeling between Jews and non-Jews. It's brought down in the Shulchan Aruch by the Rema at Yoreh Deah 251:1 - why not by the Mechaber? Various commentators and poskim discuss the duty towards non-Jews.

But I had to read through R' Feldman's section on Priorities between Causes twice to find the one brief passage that mentions non-Jews. He writes,

The needs of the larger world population, outside of the Jewish community, also merit a place on the list of causes supported by Jews. While the Talmud mandates assisting the poor of the world "together with the poor of Israel,"[99] authorities have ruled, following the Ran, that this language is not meant to exclude situations in which no Jews are involved.[100] (pp. 233-4)

99. Gittin 61a.
100. Shakh, Yoreh De'ah 251:2, and Biur Ha-Gra. See also Responsa Avnei Yoshefeh I, 193, and Emet Le-Ya'akov, Yoreh De'ah 251, fn. 137.
That's it. At least it does faithfully represent the halacha, if barely. But where is the larger discussion of goals? of underlying ethical imperatives? of fear vs. love? Where are they placed on the priority list? Where is the discussion of the Rema vs. the Mechaber? R' Feldman devotes pages and pages to the back-and-forth over prioritizing the poor of one's city vs. one's poor relatives vs. the greater community of Jewish poor, the more needy vs. the less, etc. Here was an opportunity to broaden our horizons beyond the narrow confines of the Jewish community, but tzedakah to non-Jews is only given a backhanded approval.

Note that I use tzedakah not charity - charity is the Christian word, which derives from karitas, or love - the giving of charity is subjective, depending on one's love for the other. One is supposed to have such love, of course, but it's not quantified. Our tzedakah, on the other hand, works the other way - we are mandated to give to the poor, in specific ways, and doing so sensitizes us to the needs of others.

Overall, the book is very well done, and covers a lot of material that one doesn't often see presented, in a clear, sensitive and well-organized fashion. It should have a place on the bookshelf of every Jew who considers gemilut chasadim part of his or her duty to the world.

1 comment:

s(b.) said...

Thanks; just came across this now. Very nice.