“The Highest Form of Jewish Giving” might be a surprise.

If you bring up the subject of tzedakah, money given for charity, many Jews will tell you two things:

1. Tzedakah is from the same Hebrew root as “justice.”  and

2. Maimonides taught a ladder of tzedakah, with making a loan as the highest form of tzedakah.

The first is true, the second is missing some bits.

1. Tzedakah is indeed from the Hebrew root associated with justice: tzadee, dalet, kuf.   The Hebrew for justice is tzedek.

2. Maimonides teaches us a hierarchy of virtue in giving tzedakah, from least to greatest:

  1. Giving begrudgingly
  2. Giving less than you should, but giving it cheerfully.
  3. Giving after being asked
  4. Giving before being asked
  5. Giving when you do not know the recipient’s identity, but the recipient knows your identity
  6. Giving when you know the recipient’s identity, but the recipient does not know your identity
  7. Giving when neither party knows the other’s identity
  8. Enabling the recipient to become self-reliant

Adapted from Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, Laws of Gifts to the Poor 10:7-14

“Enabling the recipient to become self-reliant” is a far cry from “the highest form of charity is a loan.” Maimonides specifies, first of all, that he refers to an interest-free loan or a money gift to enable a person to start a business. Providing an interest-free loan or a gift for education or training might also qualify. The Talmud (Shabbat 63) suggests that an interest-free loan is preferable because it is more sensitive to the dignity of the recipient. However, the highest form of tzedakah, according to Maimonides, is to form a business partnership with the intended recipient, which means taking on risks and serving as an ongoing partner in the venture. It isn’t for the faint of heart, and should not be undertaken lightly. We are forbidden to give tzedakah beyond our means.

There’s a third point about tzedakah that gets less press. Maimonides teaches that when we select a recipient for a share from our limited resources, we should look first nearby and for the most in distress. “Nearness” might mean physical nearness (give to the food bank in your own county before you give to the one far away) or it might mean familial nearness, so help for the cousin who can’t make rent takes precedence over a non-relative, or an organization that will survive without our gift. (I can imagine development directors groaning at this one, but that’s what the Rambam says, folks.)

Maimonides warns, like a good investment advisor, against putting all of one’s tzedakah funds in one place: figure out how much is possible, then divide the funds between two or more recipients. So even if hapless Cousin Susie could absorb all one’s tzedakah, at least a bit should go elsewhere. Also (returning to that principle of helping people be self-sufficient) it may be best to help Cousin Susie get out of her current situation by assisting her in making terms with creditors, or moving into more affordable housing, or whatever will contribute to a long term fix.

For a more complete explanation of Maimonides on giving, I recommend this article online or the book from which it is excerpted, The Challenge of Wealth: A Jewish Perspective on Earning and Spending Money, by Dr. Meir Tamari. Dr. Tamari is both a rabbi and an economist, serving for many years as the Chief Economist of the Bank of Israel.

In an era of growing income inequality it can be overwhelming to make decisions about tzedakah. I appreciate that our forebears thought a lot about this question and left us a framework for decision making.

The Corners of My Field

When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not completely reap the corners of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I the Eternal am your God. – Leviticus 23:22 (Parashat Emor)

It looks so simple, on the surface: when you gather the harvest, leave some for the poor. Why, then, do we need an entire tractate of the Talmud to talk about it, and why does Maimonides devote an entire volume of the Mishneh Torah to it?

The commandment may be simple, but human nature is not. The minute people heard “leave the corners, leave the gleanings” the questions began: how much of the corners? On every field of any size? And what exactly are gleanings? What if a worker drops an entire basket of produce? What if you don’t have a field, but a silver smithy? What if the harvest is really bad that year? What about… on and on.

There are also questions about the recipients: who gets the gleanings? Who are the poor? Who is the stranger? Why do they deserve free stuff?

Actually, that last question is a ringer. The rabbis addressed the question of fraud but they don’t question that a poor person deserves food to eat. Indeed, Maimonides says that while we can question a beggar’s request for money, if a person asks for food, if they say they are hungry, the observant Jew has to give, or at the very least, speak kindly when they say a regretful “no.”

I live in a part of the country where I am asked for money on the street on a regular basis. I have a son who trained as a social worker who feels very strongly that one should not give street people money. I have a colleague who has made a very cogent argument for giving money to people who ask for it on the street. And I hear Maimonides’ words scolding me when I pass someone and say, “No, I’m sorry, not today.”

I resolve my dilemma by giving as much cash as I can to my local food bank. Canned goods are nice, but the truth is they can do a lot more with cash. They can buy what people actually need as opposed to our fantasies of what they need. They can buy at steep discounts, too. My “harvest” doesn’t involve corners of fields or gleanings, it is in my checkbook, and so I give what I can.

There are a growing number of poor families and individuals in the United States. The recovery from the Great Recession has left many behind.  We live in a cruel economy at the moment, and funds for food stamps have been cut again and again. It is up to us to dig deep and give to organizations that feed hungry people. Our tradition demands no less.

My Shul, My Rules: The Power of Local Custom

A reader recently mentioned that she had attended a shiva house and been told rather forcefully that her choice to sit down next to one of the mourners was (1) inappropriate and (2) bad luck.

I have to admit that this particular custom was new to me, but that it didn’t surprise me. Communities and families have very particular customs around death because it is a frightening time: we seek predictability and tradition in an effort to make the world seem a little less terrifying. Also, the house of mourning is sometimes a place where tact is in short supply, since people are already upset. All we can do, when we stumble into a mourning custom that is old for someone else but new for us is to apologize and be kind.

Minhag Hamakom, “the custom of the place,” is a powerful force in both Jewish law and Jewish good manners. The simplest way to explain it is the maxim, “My house, my rules.” If I am visiting the home of someone who has the custom of cutting challah with a knife, I don’t complain, even though our custom at my home is to tear the challah. It is their house, so we follow their rules.

In the synagogue, this applies too. It is bad manners to visit a synagogue and then complain to the regulars that they are doing things improperly. A visiting rabbi has to tread very carefully in this respect, as does any other visitor. I can say my prayers the way I like quietly, but I don’t make a production of it.

Judaism is full of regional customs as well. The first time I visited a Reform synagogue in the Southeastern US, I was completely shocked, because the service seemed so different from the custom in my Oakland, CA home congregation. As I became better educated, I learned that there were reasons for the differences, and I grew to appreciate them. Fortunately, my mentors had taught me not to make a fuss, so at least I didn’t leave the good people of Louisville, KY, with the impression that Californian Jews are rude!

When we find a surprising Jewish custom in a new place, be it someone’s home, or a synagogue, it is traditional to conform as best we can to the local custom.  I find it is helpful to cultivate a curious mind about these things: “Oh! That is interesting! What is the reasoning behind it?” Just be aware that the answer may be “we have always done it this way” or “all PROPER Jews do it this way.” If you get those answers, you can always find an “Ask the Rabbi” online and leave the question there!

Lag B’Omer for Beginners

Lag B’Omer falls on day 33 of  counting the Omer, the count of days from Passover to Shavuot. (Follow the link if you want to learn more about the Omer and how to count it.) It gets its name from the number 33, lamed-gimel, which can be pronounced as “Lahg.”

It is a festive minor holiday, a short respite from the semi-solemnity of the Omer. During the Omer season, traditionally we avoid celebrations such as weddings. We are so serious because we are remembering a plague that killed many of Rabbi Akiva’s students. According to the story, the plague stopped on the 19th of Iyyar, so we pause then for some minor festivities.

It is a very minor holiday, not mentioned in the Torah at all. Some of the customs of the day:

WEDDINGS – Lag B’Omer is the one day during the Omer when weddings are traditionally performed.

PARTIES – Parties are often held on Lag B’Omer, precisely because they are discouraged otherwise between Passover and Shavuot.

HAIRCUTS – Some Jews do not cut their hair during the Omer. On Lag B’Omer, they can get a haircut. It’s also the traditional day for children’s first haircuts.

BONFIRES – Bonfire parties are particularly popular on Lag B’Omer. In the northern hemisphere, spring weather is well-established by that day.

In 5775 (spring of 2015) Lag B’Omer begins at sundown on Wednesday, May 6. How will you celebrate?

A Little Twitter Trick

Busy day ahead! I am meeting other members of the Social Action Committee from my congregation to sort donations at the Alameda County Community Food Bank. I think we’ll do a little bit of good and have a nice time. Then meeting my son for lunch, then getting ready for Shabbat. I suspect this was my one chance at a blog post, so here I am.

I have learned a new trick – if you use Twitter, try searching for the name of the weekly Torah portion, which you can get at the Hebcal Jewish Calendar site. Go there, and look at the top of the page for the link to the weekly portion. (That link will take you to a directory of various ways to access the portion.) Now go back to Twitter, and search on the name of the portion, with or without a hashtag.  Voilá: Links to many current posts about the portion!

This works better the closer we get to Friday.

Shabbat Shalom!

Shimon Says: Listen!

Shimon the son of Rabban Gamliel said: All my days have I grown up among the wise and I have not found anything better for a man than silence. Studying Torah is not the most important thing rather fulfilling it. Whoever multiplies words causes sin. – Pirkei Avot 1:17

Here I am on the Internet, multiplying words – the irony does not escape me.  We live in talky times. Nothing goes uncommented: Bruce Jenner, Nepal, Supreme Court, Hillary, Iran, Syria, Baltimore, Baltimore, Baltimore.  The news is rarely merely reported; it is interpreted, commented upon, analyzed. Multiplying words.

We talk, but we rarely listen. When we listen, we wish to comment. We want our news to be interactive, because we all have something to say.

But Shimon tells us, “Listen.” Be quiet and just listen, really listen.

Listening without comment is hard work. Listening and just taking it all in will exhaust most people. Listening and imagining the world of the person talking will make a strong woman want to lie down for a while.

Talk is, as they say, cheap. It is easy to have opinions. It is easy to tell others what they should do, ought to do, need to do. It is hard just to listen.

And yet recall the time someone listened, really listened, to you. Recall what a gift it is, just to listen.

If this post inspires you to listen, here’s a project for listening.

Does Leviticus 18 Forbid Same Sex Marriage?

You shall not lie with man as with woman. It is a toh-eh-vah. – Leviticus 18:22

We read this verse in this week’s Torah portion, Acharei Mot. It is usually quoted and interpreted out of its context. When LGBTQ rights and same-sex marriage are in the news, we tend to hear it quoted often and unwisely.

The context was set in verse 3-4:

You will not do according to the doings of the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you will not do according to the doings of the land of Canaan, where I will bring you, nor shall you walk in their laws. You will do my doings, and you will keep my laws to walk in them. I am the Eternal your God.

Verses 6-19 then go through a long list of people whose nakedness should not be uncovered, some discussions of defiling (including land and beasts.) Something to note: the verb l’da-at, “to know,” does not appear in this chapter. Instead we get a series of other verbs, “uncover nakedness,” “lie with,” “defile.”

And yet l’da-at is the verb the Bible generally uses for loving sex. Adam “knows” Eve in Genesis 4:1. Sometimes, as with Jacob and his wives, the verb is “he went in,” vayavo elecha. But the verbs from Chapter 18 of Leviticus, the verbs “uncover nakedness”  or “lie with” are used. What do they denote, precisely? We see them elsewhere in Torah  in the descriptions of Lot’s daughters having sex with Lot, and in the rape of Dinah, to name just two examples.

The practices forbidden in chapter 18 of Leviticus may be sexual on the surface, but they are not what goes on between two consenting people. The verbs used are the verbs used elsewhere to denote rape and incest. Even in translation, they are different: “uncovered his nakedness” and “lie with.”

Chapter 18 of Leviticus is saying that it is forbidden to copy the religious practices of the Egyptians and the Canaanites. Then it gets specific, listing sexual practices that, judging from the way the verbs are used elsewhere in the text, suggest incest and/or rape.

Just because a thirteen year old might read all of these translated verbs as euphemisms for sex doesn’t mean that they are the same thing as sex between a happy couple. If the parallels to Dinah and Lot apply, those apparent euphemisms may have more to do with rape, or incest, or ignorance or foreign religious practices, or some combination of them.

And as for the word toh-eh-vah, which has often been translated as “abomination,” it’s the word Torah applies to the practices of the Egyptians and the Canaanites. (Apparently one or the other group was fond of shellfish: eating it is toh-eh-vah, too.)  The word denotes a particular type of transgression – anything else is an addition in the translation.

The moral of this story is that there is more to understanding a text than simply matching the words up with literal meanings. Also, that a poorly interpreted text can cause profound hurt. I am glad that newer editions of Plaut and other commentaries have seen fit to drop the “abomination” translation.

(P.S. – And seriously, folks, if you are going to scarf down shrimp cocktail, I don’t want to hear this nonsense about abominations in the Bible. Enough, already.)