Question: A very Orthodox man came to our door collecting for a school which helps special needs children in Israel. I asked if the institution were Zionist; he said no, so I would not give a donation. Was I right to stand by my political principles or should I have set them aside and given something?
Rabbi Naftali Brawer
Naftali Brawer is the CEO of the Spiritual Capital Foundation.
Let’s assume for a moment that instead of it being a special needs school, it was an ordinary, non-Zionist school; would you ask the same question? I suspect not. Charitable givers are perfectly within their rights to discern which organisations get their hard-earned money. If as an ardent Zionist, you disagree with what is being taught in a non-Zionist school you are under no obligation to fund it.
Your question arises because the school serves special needs children and no one feels comfortable turning away the especially vulnerable. Still I don’t think this emotional element should change the equation. Education is not ideologically neutral. Education systems impart certain values while rejecting others. If you don’t share the values of the school in question there is no reason for you to support it financially, regardless of whether the pupils have special needs or not.
If, however, the man at your door was collecting for a non-Zionist soup kitchen to feed the hungry, or a hospital to heal the sick, it would be a different story. Food and healthcare are ideologically neutral. Even if the institution itself is ideologically aligned, hunger and illness are not. Imagine what kind of world we would live in if the starving would have to profess ideologically correct views before becoming eligible to receive aid.
The phenomenon of door-to-door collections for charities in Israel — a prevalent practice in north-west London — raises a broader question; to what extent is one obligated to give to the needy of another community, especially when there are demands from one’s own local community?
Maimonides rules that one’s own community must always take preference in the same way that one’s needy relatives take preference over non-relatives. Given the enormous need within our own communities, how can one ever justify giving anything to the needy in Israel, or in another country for that matter?
Rabbi Yechiel Michel Epstein raises this unattractive possibility in his halachic work Aruch Hashulchan. He observes wryly that every rich man has numerous poor relatives, so what is a poor man to do if he doesn’t have a rich relative: starve? He interprets the law of precedence to mean that one should give more to those closest but that one should always make sure enough remains to give something to non-relatives and the needy who live further afield..
Rabbi Jonathan Romain
Jonathan Romain is rabbi at Maidenhead (Reform) Synagogue.
Congratulations on the way you handled the person initially. When faced with an unfamiliar charity, some give without thinking and support a group about which they do not have any facts and might not assist if they did.
Others refuse because they do not recognise it, or are too embarrassed to ask questions. It is much better to engage with the person (a genuine collector will always be pleased to tell you about the cause) and find out what it is trying to achieve.
As for your subsequent reaction, there are two aspects. First is the general principle of responding to those in need, which is central to Judaism. It is rooted on a personal level in the command to “love your neighbour as yourself’ (Leviticus 19.18): if you yourself were impoverished or ill or vulnerable, how would you like people to act towards you? That should be your guideline whenever dealing with others.
The importance of giving lies in the very term we use: whereas the English word “charity” carries the sense of a beneficient decision that is especially noble, the Hebrew term for it, tzedakah, — literally means “righteousness” and carries the sense of a basic obligation incumbent on everyone. It is a duty, not a good deed.
But the rabbis also say that there is a limit to giving, and you should not hand over so much that you become dependent on others yourself. It follows that there is a right to say “no” to some charities, and there is no blanket obligation to give unreservedly.
This is the second aspect to charity, deciding which causes to support and which not to help. Some might simply decide to back the first two or three charities a day which approach them. Others will prefer causes with which they have a personal connection, such as a relative suffering from cancer. Others will avoid those which they consider are lower priorities or with which they disagree, either in principle or because of the way they operate.
Thus your decision is perfectly acceptable but with two caveats: that you should turn down the person politely —refusal need not be accompanied by rudeness — and that it should not be an excuse for avoiding your duty to give to charity. So ensure that what you withheld from that particular collector, you give to a cause of which you do approve..