Charity, Coercion, and Judaism

Some of the feedback from my piece on communal responsibility, plus some comments by my good friend Ezra, have got me thinking about charity. Generally, I do not prefer government-run charity operations for a few reasons. First, government in general is inefficient, rigid, and about as discriminating in its decisions as a wrecking ball through a crystal factory. Second, a large part of the charitable experience is the spiritual and moral effect it has on the giver, which is lost if we simply give our money to the government to act on our behalf. Third, it seems to run counter to the Jewish model of charity, which has a number of features to recommend it. But I am beginning to wonder whether the Jewish model can realistically be applied to a largely secular society.

[Disclaimer: I am not a rabbi, nor do I play one on TV. I believe that the statements about Jewish law below are accurate, but I have not made an exhaustive study of the subject.]

Jewish law mandates three different avenues for charity. First, if you own a field and grow food on it, you must set aside a corner of your field for the benefit of the poor (and this corner has no maximum size); furthermore, when you harvest your field, any stray produce must be left where it falls, to be gathered by the poor.

Second, three years out of seven, the “second tithe” of agricultural produce is set aside for the poor. This amounts to about 9% of the harvest, roughly every other year.

Third, all people are required to give at least 10% of their net income to the poor. (The rabbis imposed a maximum of 20%, after a number of prominent people were reduced to poverty themselves through their charity.) This is true even of the poor themselves; a beggar would have to give 10% of his alms to another beggar worse off than he.

A few points are worth noting. First, the punishment for not fulfilling your obligation was not judicial, but spiritual excision (i.e. a Divine punishment). One partial exception is that food which had not been properly tithed from could not be eaten; but even here, the punishment for eating untithed food was spiritual excision as well. So while there is a high degree of communal pressure to be properly charitable, it is primarily dependent not on civil authority but on belief in the Divine obligation for charity.

Second, only charity to those who actually need it counts; generally, this is defined as someone who does not have a year’s savings (excluding a home and furnishings), and without a steady income sufficient to live on. Giving to other causes, such as education, environmental conservation, etc., is commendable but must be over and above your initial obligation to give to the poor. That being the case, people have a mandate to determine whether recipients of charity are in genuine need.

Third, while there is an obligation to feed and clothe all of the poor, there is no blanket obligation beyond that; for a poor person to receive anything else requires that he cultivate the goodwill of charitable individuals. There is ideally a sort of “free market” for charity, where people decide individually who should benefit the most from their charity; those poor who are seen to deserve more support get it at the expense of those less deserving, who must be content with the minimum level of support, i.e. food and clothing.

Finally, the highest form of charity is to give someone employment. I do not know at what point salaries cease to be charity and become simply salaries, but the ideal is to get a poor person to be self-sustaining. On the other hand, the Torah warns us that “poverty will never cease from within Israel,” so our policies must not be predicated on any Utopian end to poverty.

So my prior thinking on the subject had basically been, “Instead of governments taking money by force and then spending it on lavish entitlements and subsidies, they should simply require that individuals give X% of charity on their own, or to private organizations who will do it for them.”


How would such a thing be carried out? Would “properly poor” people have to register with a government agency, and keep receipts of their takings? Would charitable organizations be divided into “eligible” and “ineligible?” How can you prevent abuse of the system, and would such abuses be more or less preferable to the abuses taking place in the present system?

Communities are very different now than they were. It used to be that in a given location, there would be some rich people, some not-so-rich people, and some poor people. Poor people would always be available to the rich, and people always had the option of giving directly to the poor if they felt that working through intermediaries was not as effective, which has the effect of regulating the intermediaries’ behavior. Additionally, people generally knew each other, and could judge between possible recipients accordingly.

Nowadays, people largely live in communities grouped by level of affluence. The poor are very far away from the rich; if the rich wish to give charity, they are practically forced to use intermediaries. And that opens up all sorts of abuses. The larger an organization is, the less likely that it will do the job efficiently, or without some sort of corruption—especially if you involve government in the process.

I was at a dinner recently where one of the people, an economist, described a sort of Gresham’s Law of charity. (Gresham’s Law, remember, is that bad money drives out good. It can be easily generalized to all sorts of subjects.) As he said, a poor person in DC can decide to get meals from a local Catholic church, where they begin by asking your name and about your situation; over time, they will encourage you to take steps to improve your circumstances, and will eventually cut off people who are not working on self-improvement in some form. Or, the poor person can go to a government-funded soup kitchen, where they feed everyone without asking names, or demanding any sort of long-term development from the beneficiaries. Naturally, most poor go to the government kitchen.

I am very worried about charity, and about the communal obligation for the poor. At the same time, I think that the perceived obligation we have to the poor has been increased all out of proportion to what it should be; furthermore, the reciprocal obligations of the poor to the community have been completely forgotten. Charity is not a free lunch; beyond a certain minimum, it is an implicit statement that you, in particular, deserve this particular coin more than that other poor man down the road. And that means that you must justify your alms, through good morals and character if nothing else. (In Jewish communities, it is customary for the poor to bless their benefactors; those whose blessings are particularly potent receive much more charity in return.)

That is part of why I so distrust government charity programs as they are now constituted. There is no sense of reciprocal obligations; indeed, such programs are called “entitlements,” and there is a growing sense that people deserve such entitlements not by virtue of their worthiness, but their simple existence.

At the same time, I worry that we have few alternatives. Can the old model work if it must depend disproportionally on intermediaries, who are kept honest primarily through civil coercion, and not necessarily belief in a Supreme Being? Divine law has a major advantage over civil law, in that you cannot deceive God; but if you do not believe in God, all that limits your behavior is the fallible power of the state, and your own decency. And wherever large amounts of money go, there will be unscrupulous con-men mixed in with the truly noble—especially if part of the process is securing governmental endorsements for mandatory charity.

On the other hand, are government programs any better? At least if a private charity is dishonest, you can simply stop giving to them and find another. Competition can work in charity as well as in business. Government programs, on the other hand, have more or less guaranteed funding and arbitrary quotas to meet. They have historically given very little bang for the buck, and even encourage the growth of the very poverty they wish to alleviate. As the saying goes, “If you want more of something, subsidize it.”

On the whole I still think the Jewish model is superior in concept. But I don’t know if it could effectively supplant the present government infrastructure, if given the chance (though I am cautiously optimistic). I think, though, that we as a nation need to seriously consider whether giving the poor a free ride, with no strings attached, is truly to their benefit. There must be a reciprocal obligation, moral or communal or material, on the part of recipients of charity.

1 comment:

Jochannon Mahler said...

Your interpretation of Jewish law is quite correct, well done.