By Rabbi Steve Bayar
This is Rabbi Bayar’s most recent post for Rabbis Without Borders-My Jewish Learning. This post was published on February 7, 2016.
One of the more troubling aspects of Tzedakah (charitable giving) is its tendency to be coercive. I often hear people who are turned off by different communal policies of publicizing the names of donors to “encourage” others to give. The practice goes back to the Middle Ages and before. I myself have been disenchanted by these tactics from time to time.
I was once asked to be on the board of a local charitable organization. At the first meeting, we were each handed a binder with informational material. Within the material was one page; the left column had the name of each board member. The next three columns listed in order; address and phone number, last year’s contribution and this years’ recommended contribution.
It was my last board meeting.
The Code of Jewish Law (the Shulchan Arukh) states that “Members of a community may force each other to build a synagogue or to buy a Torah.” (Orach Chaim 150:1)
Despite this experience, I would like to reframe this issue in the following way: Is it that the members of our community have the right to force others to contribute or is it that the members of our community have the obligation to force others to contribute to Tzedakah?
We see coercion in many forms:
- Open any bulletin from the organization. How are the donations publicized? How many are anonymous?
- Take a walk around the building. How many plaques do you see? How many times is the memory of the Holocaust invoked to motivate giving?
- In my first congregation we prided ourselves on never announcing a donor during the High Holy Day Appeal. We were lucky to raise $10,000 from 200 families. One year the leadership gave the donors the “option” of being identified. We more than doubled the donations.
For me, the bottom line of this Mitzvah is that if the money will directly affect people in need and not go to umbrella organizations with administrative costs and building funds, any form of coercion is allowed. Tzedakah can be a big business. It takes a lot of money to help people in big ways. But there is a difference between Tzedakah and fundraising. Tzedakah is when you take a resource and transfer it to someone else for that person’s benefit. It is a direct transaction. Fundraising is the raising of money for a Tzedakah cause. There is a difference.
You may ask, with so much going on the in world — Donald Trump, secret emails, the Wailing Wall and ISIS — that I have chosen to write about Tzedakah? Well, the world has a way of forgetting people who don’t have enough to eat when there are sexier headlines to catch your eye. But a person who is hungry is at least as important an immediate need as anything else in the world.