Climbing the Ladder of Tzedakah


I am excited by the kind of learning that reframes reality with ideas and questions I hadn’t been exposed to before.  Suddenly the world I am familiar with is wonderfully destabilized, re-imagined, and I am challenged to respond to it in fresh ways.  This is why I am so passionate about bringing Jewish learning into conversation with our most difficult human, societal, and global struggles.  It is also why I came away from the Shabbat talk by Debbie Field, the Executive Director of FoodShare, both inspired and wanting to explore how we as a community can mobilize for change.

On Friday December 5th, the DJC Social Justice Committee organized a special Kabbalat Shabbat service addressing issues of food security.  Cantor Lisa and I wove Jewish teachings and kavanot (spiritual intentions) about justice throughout the service, seeking to both stir our awareness of inequity and the oppressive systems that perpetuate it and also grounding us in the Jewish prayers and practices that cultivate gratitude for what we have so that generosity flows more easily, cultivating awe and wonder so that we see the world around us as precious and part of our own being rather than just a product for our use, and cultivating an open and loving heart toward one another so that our hearts practice stretching to encompass the diverse lives of every sacred human being.  With that grounding in community, prayer-song, and silence together, when Debbie stood up to speak, the attention in the room was already heightened.  It is quite amazing how the depth of our listening and learning can be shaped by the inner receptivity we nurture.

With tremendous knowledge and vast experience, Debbie painted a picture of the extent of poverty in our city and across the globe, and the fundamental limits of current “charity-model” systems.  She pointed to the Jewish values and philosophies that guide our wisest ways of responding, not merely addressing poverty and hunger with stop-gap measures like food banks, but working to address the systemic inequities and work for systemic solutions.  She talked about Moses Maimonides’ (12th century Jewish philosopher, also know as Rambam) eight levels of tzedakah (righteous giving).  Rambam describes eight levels of giving to those in need, each subsequent level more advanced than the one before it. At the lowest or most basic level, one gives grudgingly.  At the next level, one gives gladly but not enough. As we move up the levels of giving, the giver grows in sensitivity and the dignity of the recipient is increasingly affirmed.  At the highest level of tzedekah, the giver seeks to support someone by giving a gift, a loan, entering into a partnership, or creating a job for her/him so that s/he supports him/herself and no longer needs to depend on others (Moses Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Gifts to the Poor, 10:7).

I have studied Maimonides’ laws of giving before, and you have probably encountered some version of this teaching before as well.  We certainly want to respond to immediate need when people do not have enough to eat, or have to choose between paying rent and buying food, but our aim is to enable everyone to afford to eat and feed their families with dignity.  What I found so insightful were the ways that Debbie applied Rambam’s teaching to issues of food security.  Among the many concrete suggestions she offered for a national food strategy (including increasing minimum wage!) was the idea of government subsidies for several core crops.  Government subsidies can significantly reduce the cost of, for example, soy nuts and broccoli, making healthy, locally grown produce accessible to everyone and supporting the farmers who grow it.  In this way, we ensure that, rather than some of our population living on handouts, everyone is able to afford good nourishing food.  While government subsidies for certain industries are commonplace, I found it eye-opening to learn about new ways of applying Rambam’s principles to removing the obstacles for us all to climb up the ladder of tzedakah together.

Thank you Debbie, FoodShare, and the DJC Social Justice Committee!

See the website for more information on the work of FoodShare, and join me on January 12th at 7:30 pm for more in-depth Jewish learning and discussion on issues of poverty, tzedakah, and social change.

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