Good timing. Just as I’ve started this blog I came across a description of charity (the Hebrew word tzedakah) by the 12th century Jewish scholar and physician Maimonides
Maimonides wrote a code of Jewish law, the Mishnah Torah, based on the Rabbinic oral tradition, and he described charity from the least to the most honorable as follows:
8. When donations are given grudgingly.
7. When one gives less than he should, but does so cheerfully.
6. When one gives directly to the poor upon being asked.
5. When one gives directly to the poor without being asked.
4. When the recipient is aware of the donor’s identity, but the donor does not know the identity of the recipient.
3. When the donor is aware of the recipient’s identity, but the recipient is unaware of the source.
2. When the donor and recipient are unknown to each other.
1. The highest form of charity is to help sustain a person before they become impoverished by offering a substantial gift in a dignified manner, or by extending a suitable loan, or by helping them find employment or establish themselves in business so as to make it unnecessary for them to become dependent on others.
This got me thinking about what motivates people to give. I asked this question of someone today and she said that people give because they want to see an impact, want to see a positive change in the world. I think that is true, but there’s more to it than that. People give for lots of reasons, many laudable, some base.
Maimonides suggests that all giving is not equal, that the motivation behind the gift has some moral content. My reading is that the greatest gifts are those that create a relationship of equals between the donor and the recipient. Otherwise, the gift can create subservience or obligation, can undermine the dignity of the recipient, and can keep the recipient subjugated to the giver and in a constant position of need. This means that we, people in a position to give and people who encourage other people to give, need to think about the power dynamics that we create, and about ways to make the dignity of the recipient paramount in everything we do.
What about times when it’s better not to be anonymous, when a gift can be a signal? There are times when putting one’s name on a list of donors, on the side of a building, or on the name of the world’s biggest Foundation, can be important as a statement about what can be accomplished with great wealth – a statement that can inspire others to act. Or a gift can make you part of a group of like-minded people, who are coming together to make a change in the world.
I don’t know how to unpack the moral pieces of this puzzle, but I think it’s worth some more thought. I’d love comments on this one in particular.