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A Workable Universal Tzedakah Standard

Posted on Wednesday, April 09, 2014 by Don Abramson

Pictured: A page from the Moss Haggadah: “Let all who are hungry come and eat.” 
With Passover on my mind, it’s worth contemplating that expressing oneself through generosity is an ultimate manifestation of liberation. The Biblical command to have tithing obligations taken care of before Passover could be a concretization of that generous impulse. I’d like to briefly explore what a contemporary, universal tithe might look like, but first a story.

In 1965, I was eleven years old and living in Canton, Ohio. We had a community Hebrew school and my teacher was a Holocaust survivor named Mr. Gottlieb, now of blessed memory. I suspect he taught Hebrew school because our community needed teachers who knew the prayers and biblical Hebrew while Mr. Gottlieb, like many European refugees, needed a job. He knew his Hebrew, but I found his teaching methods a challenge. So I didn't learn a lot of Hebrew; however, he did once, very serendipitously, teach me a lot about Judaism. I was on a crowded bus, sitting in a back seat, on my way to downtown Canton. Suddenly I saw Mr. Gottlieb. He was standing in the aisle. I scrunched down, trying to make myself as small as possible so he wouldn’t see me. I peeked out a few minutes later and watched him take three small steps back then three forward, shuckle back and forth and begin softly saying the Amidah! This was Canton in the mid-60s and I was sure this was one of the most un-cool things I had ever seen.

When I recall my teacher praying on that bus, I now understand that this was more than a gentle demonstration of his religious freedom. He was providing an eloquent rebuke to his Nazi tormentors. Yet it was even more than that. When being Jewish in Canton at that time meant having to put up with subtle and overt discrimination,  when just a  few years earlier, every child was expected to begin the day at public school by reciting the Lord’s Prayer and when living in Canton often meant  hiding one's religious identity. Mr. Gottlieb was letting me and everybody on the bus know that he did not subscribe to the social conventions of the time. For my teacher, obligations to his religion and G-d were more important than Christian conformity.

Fast forward to today where Mr. Gottlieb’s praying on a bus might be considered by some to be quaint, or of a distant time.  Prayer that was so central to Jewish identity in Mr. Gottlieb’s time, the Pew Report confirms, is not as important for many today. Yet many of us are searching for a way to enjoy our freedom as Jews in modern America in an authentic and powerful way that expresses our Jewish identity.   I believe there is a viable alternative, one that even people who find prayer tremendously meaningful will also agree is worthwhile: tzedakah.

Tzedakah has been and should be central to Jewish identity and practice, and holds appeal for those who don’t pray or even strongly affiliate Jewishly. It is a core Jewish value that can unite Jews today. It tells us and the outside world what we stand for.  Hartman scholar Noam Zion, in his magnificent opus, Jewish Giving in Comparative Perspectives, refers to David Hartman’s description of the conversion process. "[T]he non-Jew becomes a Jew not by a leap of faith but by a leap of solidarity. That [solidarity] defines the Jews and lays the basis for tzedakah -- for mutual responsibility for each other's physical welfare even in times of suffering -- as an expression of identity.”

In believing that this leap of solidarity embraces all Jews (and, in our day, might be expanded by some to go beyond just Jews), I suggest we publicly adopt the biblical standard called Maaser, or one-tenth. The tenth should be a minimum of 10% of our discretionary income or resources given to tzedakah. A commitment to this standard is one all Jews can proudly meet  -- there would be no “in” and no “out” Jews -- for some it will be fulfilling a mitzvah, and for others a declaration of identity. I’d like to persuade our community across the spectrum  to adopt that 10% standard. In order to do so I plan to undertake two projects.

First, to enlist 1,000 rabbis to give sermons about some important aspect of tzedakah to their congregations that I'd archive for public viewing on a website.

Second, to begin a Jewish giving pledge for those willing to commit to giving at least 10% of their discretionary income annually to tzedakah.

For some this would lead to deeper thought and study about how the tradition defines tzedakah; for others, it might become a discipline for turning meritorious thought into practice. As we come to contemplate the four children of the Hagaddah, and how to include all of them going forward, the practice of tzedakah is a powerful and unifying choice. If you'd like to join this effort, please let me know at borscht88@gmail.com or comment below.

Don Abramson, a Wexner Heritage alum (SF2), is a past chair of American Jewish World Service and a member of the Board of Governors of the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco. Don can be reached at borscht88@gmail.com.