It’s our duty to give to non-Jewish causes

Charity may begin but should not end at home.


By Rabbi Natan Levy, January 21, 2010
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A  rescuer carries a child from his ruined home after the Haiti earthquake

A rescuer carries a child from his ruined home after the Haiti earthquake

Last year, in a hotel outside Jerusalem, the movers and shakers in the Jewish world of development aid met for the inaugural conference on Jewish action for the world’s poorest inhabitants. On the first day I encountered a problem: we could not get a minyan together for prayer.

I turned to Abraham Burg, the former Knesset Speaker, and asked him in frustration, “Where are all the Orthodox aid workers?” “Aniye ircha kodmim,” he answered in sonorous Hebrew. “And the goyim (sic) come last of all!”

Aniye ircha kodmim, a talmudic phrase meaning “the poor of one’s own town come first”, refers to a defined system of priority in giving, where relatives come before poor neighbours, poor neighbours before poor from the next town, and so on until the final rung, the non-Jews. For Mr Burg, it was the direct reason why so few traditional Jews were present in that aid conference. Jewish law seems to place gentiles at the bottom of the charity chain and at the fringes of Jewish consciousness.

Giving tzedakah to non-Jews unveils a complex web of old wounds and ancient divides. In Christianity and Islam, giving to the poor has historically been bound up with missionary work. For Judaism, where potential converts are discouraged, we have kept our largesse primarily turned inward. But now that we are willing participants in globalisation, the question of giving tzedakah beyond the shtetl gates has become critical. Are we obligated to support the poorest on the planet, even if they are not Jewish? The talmudic sages answer yes (Gittin 61a): “Support the non-Jewish poor with the Jewish poor... visit the non-Jewish sick with the Jewish sick, and bury the non-Jewish dead with the Jewish dead all because of darchei shalom, ways of peace.”

The phrase darchei shalom, based on Proverbs (4:2), had profound meaning for the sages. It signified a willingness to go beyond the bounds of Torah law in order to achieve a more civil society. So because of darchei shalom, a poor individual was allowed to collect slightly more produce from the corner of a field than they were strictly entitled (Toesefta, Peah 3).

However Rashi, the 12th-century commentator, states that the concept of darchei shalom when applied to gentiles is inherently a self-defence mechanism. Refusing to care for the non-Jew might lead to increased animosity towards Jews. This concept, known as eiva, literally “hatred”, refers to the potential anger of non-Jews if we refused to bury their dead, or give them charity. The spectre of hatred was so real that it overrode the Torah’s distinction between Jews and non-Jews in the public domain.

Privately though, we always prioritised our own. Choosing between charitable causes based on physical and emotional proximity appears instinctive. As philosopher Peter Singer notes, we would deem it irredeemably evil if we saw in the news that an ordinary citizen had refused to save the life of a child drowning in a pond, because he did not want to risk damaging his expensive shoes. So why is our moral sense hardly troubled by the fact that tens of children would be saved every day if we donated the price of those shoes towards a new water pump in Mali?

In the image-driven, globally entwined world of television and the internet, it is no longer possible to claim ignorance of these dying Malian children. It seems that even when we know what’s happening, we are disinclined to extend a hand beyond the familiar. Human beings are hard wired to help their own first.

Is priority in giving to those closest to us the Torah’s way of assuring self-preservation in a cruel, Darwinian world? In his 19th-century legal commentary, Rabbi Yechiel Michel Epstein wrote that if we just understand the law of concentric responsibility in simple terms, then a real problem emerges: “Even the richest individual is surrounded by so many needy family members, that there will be nothing left to give to the desperately poor in a distant city…How can the law allow for the distant poor to die of hunger? Therefore, it appears to me that we must make sure to give to even the very distant poor, however those closest to you should continue to receive more than those further away.” (Aruch Hashulchan: Yoreh Deah 251).

Rabbi Epstein is referring to tzedakah for Jews but his logic can be applied more broadly: the needy at the bottom end of your list of priorities should still receive something. So, for example, if you have £100 to give away this month, £50 could go to your children’s school, £25 to a Jewish care charity, £15 to an international Jewish organisation, and the final £10 for projects in India and Africa.

In the 1970s, the then Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Yehuda Unterman presented darchei shalom as much more than a facade of good PR: “Lately it has become customary amongst our teachers to state that there is no real obligation towards bettering the life of non-Jews…” he wrote, “and there is no need to encourage the community to support non-Jews with tzedakah and kindness, for any such acts are only done for the sake of darchei shalom and thus have no real source in the Torah law. Therefore we must define the true concept of darchei shalom. It is not just a means to keep Judaism safe from non-Jewish hatred, but flows from the core ethical teachings of the Torah.” (Shevet M’Yehuda, 70).

Rabbi Unterman’s original approach leads us to a clear conclusion. Even in the privacy of our homes, without the worry of causing animosity, the ethic of darchei shalom should still encourage us to give to non-Jewish charities.

Rabbi Moses Feinstein, the great legal authority of the past generation, wrote, “the laws of priority in giving refer solely to communal monies, whereas individual donations can be given to anyone we deem to be in need.”(Iggeret Moshe, Yoreh Deah 1:144). The final choice rests in your hands.

Natan Levy is rabbi of Shenley United Synagogue and head of the Jewish Responsibility Unit at the London School of Jewish Studies

    Last updated: 4:16pm, January 21 2010