This blog is part two in a three part series called “Money and Morality” written by Ariella Hoffman-Peterson. Ariella is a participant in our Repair the World Onward Israel Service Learning Initiative in Be’er Sheva. This is Part Two in the series. Click here to read part one.
Jewish privilege is not reserved only for American Jews, but in certain aspects, has long been a part of Jewish culture. The emphasis on education, learning, reflecting, and supporting one another within the community has earned Jews monetary and societal status. Rabbi Levi Brackman suggests that direct lessons from the Torah relate to sound business practices and even Moshe’s leadership can teach important conclusions about successful leadership practices (n.p.). So, in a modern world, how does a Jew cope with a drive to succeed and attain financial security and even status while still remaining moral? The Torah makes it clear you need to spread wealth; allowing the poor to glean produce left in your fields is a basic rule spelled out in Leviticus.
The Torah also forbids using money as power over others, especially within your community (Newman). Pursuing security through financial success is not inherently immoral. It is when you use it against others that it becomes dangerously close to the boundaries of morality. The existence of Jewish success, societal engagement, and status, however, is matched with a major emphasis on generosity, humility, honesty, and giving back. Tikkun Olam, Tzedakah, and G’milut Chasadim all reflect these values integral to Jewish morality and tied up in the issues of money. It is up to each individual Jew to find their way to give back at least some of what they gain and commit to being self-reflective about their own morality with money.
One lesson in our Yahel service learning curriculum focused on Rambam’s recognition that Tzedakah (charity) and Tzedek (justice) are not straightforward topics, but must be dissected in order to guide living a Jewish life. He showed that giving Tzedakah in a morally Jewish way is not simple and can be done with different levels of goodness depending on the situation, and he created an eight-leveled hierarchy of the ways to give charity. He considered the lowest form of giving charity as when one gives charity unwillingly, and the highest form to be giving charity when both the donor and recipient are unaware of each other’s identities (Maimonides). Unlike lower levels of charity giving in which one party does know the other’s identity, the highest way according to Rambam, spares the recipient from feeling a sense of duty to their donor’s generosity and denies the donor a level of power in his giving and makes it more genuine and selfless.
The feelings of embarrassment I observed in my own anecdote clarifies for me why hiding identity is important in doing a mitzvah. However, the level of giving Rambam places even higher than giving blindly, perhaps reframes the comment my friend made about how to trust those you give money to on the street. Teaching a person to empower themselves (teach a man to fish), takes the highest place on Rambam’s Tzedakah scale. Empowering is a word that I personally see intertwined in the Jewish decree of “Justice, justice you shall pursue.” Pursuing justice is something achieved through action, meant to change something that is unjust in the world for the long run in a sustainable way. Creating sustainability through service or volunteer work lies in empowering those you want to help to help themselves. We work in the parts of communities in which we find injustice, and as part of Tikkun Olam and the Jewish pursuit of justice we are really working within the borders of Rambam’s highest level of Tzedakah, Tzedek (Maimonides).
I visualize Tzedek as the top tier of a pyramid built with a foundation of the seven other levels of Tzedakah. As you work toward change through the action of Tzedek, it is also valuable to bandage the societal wounds that exist in whatever ways you can. Rambam includes all eight levels of Tzedakah to imply that they all have a place and have the capacity to do some good. So, when you have money and someone needs help, be aware that there are more productive and less productive ways to approach giving that Tzedakah, but trust yourself and the person in your midst to see that all giving is important and moral.
Please stay tuned for Part Three.