Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Naivete & Tzedaka

(Picture by A. Clarke)

"Mark" and "Uncle Dave" came over to the more affluent section of town each afternoon with the hopes that kind-hearted college students would be sympathetic and give them a dollar here or there. As a somewhat naive college freshman who had never lived in a big city, I was somewhat intrigued by their humor and easy going nature. I don't exactly remember the details of how it all started now, however, I spent countless nights that first semester sitting out in front of the record store with these two African-American homeless men keeping them company as they begged for spare change.

Aside from all the jokes we would tell, there were times when they told me about things they witnessed the previous night in the crime-ridden section of the city, or things that had happened in the abandoned building where they and many crack addicts would sleep at night. Now as I am writing this, I recall that there was even one time when Mark and I took the subway over to his neighborhood to go to a movie there together. After buying him some fried chicken for dinner later that night, I remember walking past the crack addicts before I got back on the subway and returned to the safety and security of my college campus.

Our friendship became strained as the months went on. There were times when he called my dorm room in the middle of the night and asked me take money out of the ATM for him because he was in trouble. Although I agreed and went and got him $20 from the ATM on one or two occasions, on other occasions I lied and told him that I did not have any money because I felt that I was being used. I felt guilty afterwards, nevertheless, I started taking alternate routes so I would not need to go by the record store and could avoid him.

I returned to campus the following year school year and I noticed that only "Uncle Dave" was still out in front of the record store; still attempting to dance like James Brown while singing a medley of R&B songs. When I asked him were Mark was, he replied that Mark was sent to prison over the summer for armed robbery. (Ironically, Mark had always said he was the clean one and candidly told me that Uncle Dave was a heroin addict.)

Reflecting upon that time in my life, I can now see that that my understanding of the concept of tzedaka displayed a certain element of naivete. Tzedakah is ultimately about the giver and not the receiver, however, if we don't investigate whether the people we give tzedaka to are truly worthy, then are tzedaka may not truly be tzedaka.


At December 2, 2008 at 9:29:00 AM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

very good. my mentor is danny siegel ( www.dannysiegel.com ) and he has for more than 35 years been teaching people the halachot relating to giving tzedakah.

nothing is as important as making your tzedakah shekels be used in as an efficient and effective manner. for an organization to be run inefficiently (by paying too much rent, high salaries, too much for fund raising, etc.) or to be run ineffectively (by not serving the population that they say they are serving or not accomplishing various goals, etc.) is basically stealing from the very poor people your tzedakah money is intended for. (see "al tigzol dal, kee dal hu" - mishlei 22:22 and the various comments on it, paticularly bamidbar rabba 5:2)

and so, that is what i do for a living - i check out places to be sure that they are tzedakah worthy.

also of interest: read arthur kurzweil's article about giving to beggars:


arnie draiman

At December 2, 2008 at 10:09:00 AM EST, Blogger Neil Harris said...

Wow. I think your kindess to both men showed them more dignity than they probably had seen in quite a while. There's an element of tzedakah in that as well.

At December 2, 2008 at 11:22:00 AM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I completely agree with Neil. And in general, this is a tricky thing. I strongly disagree with hyper-investigating the cause, and reject that interpretation of the halacha. We spoke about this before: http://asimplejew.blogspot.com/2007/01/question-answer-with-chabakuk-elisha.html

But here’s the short versian of the “CHARITY DOCTRINE ACCORDING TO ME” (feel free to take it with a grain of salt):

1.Responsible Charity Through Common Sense: It’s important that we use that 5TH chelek of Shulchan Aruch at all times, and this is certainly true when it comes to charity. In this case, I would have to say that while homeless people are certainly deserving of charity, proper caution must be taken as these people are often dangerous and generally not prone to good decision making. There are certainly better ways to help the homeless then giving them a $20, and one should definitely not give them their phone number, address, etc. That said, I find it hard to come up with a rational saying that a person who helps someone is doing something against halacha.

2.Presumption of Legitimacy: If it smells like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s probably a duck. Most charities are legitimate causes and are more-or-less beneficial. Once again, common sense must be used: Look for signs of legitimacy/illegitimacy. Assuming that the charity of choice has some verifiable elements (people who are familiar with the cause or signatures of authorities for example), I believe that any assistance given to the cause is a mitzvah. Obviously, if you are making an extra large donation, it would make sense to make sure that you find the charity truly worthwhile.

3.Give: The main thing is to give. For those who don’t give to a cause because they claim that the halacha doesn’t want them to, I ask: Are those intentions pure? Could it be that we just don’t like to give to more charities? And really, why make the issue into a halchaic one anyway? Is the goal to help people, or is this a game in which we try to die with the most halacha points so that we collect the big prize behind door #1? Isn’t that a bit infantile? Most of the time we hide behind some halachic shelter just to feel legitimate about not giving. Let’s be honest: if someone doesn’t want to give, so don’t give, but don’t blame the halacha.

I really think that the bottom line is, if you can help someone in need you should do it and worry about if later – in the interim people are in need and you can help them. Might there be better ways? Perhaps. And if you really care, then peruse those better ways.

At December 2, 2008 at 2:16:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm not an expert, but I think you can make a very good halachic argument that you shouldn't give any money to people whom you know or strongly suspect are addicts, because there's no way the money is going to do anything positive for them. Giving them healthy food, if they'll take it, would be hard to argue with.

The best thing would be to give to a local organization providing direct aid to the homeless, like a homeless shelter or food bank or mental health resource center. I agree with C.E. that we probably don't need to do that much investigation, as long as we make sure the organization is legitimate and not engaged in something that's going to do more harm than good. After all, we have an obligation to help the poor of our city first, and the homeless are among the poorest of the poor, so even if it's not the best homeless organization in the country, it probably deserves our support. (Ideally we should also concern ourselves with the less visible poor, like orphans or the mentally ill or the working poor, who are suffering but aren't out there on the street begging).

When we're giving aid to specific causes in other localities, like international aid or charity in the land of Israel, there are usually going to be tons of organizations, with widely varying methods and effectiveness, and this is where it would be very useful and appropriate (and perhaps required) to do some research into what is the best organization. There are already organizations that quantitatively analyze charities and give them a certain number of stars or whatever based on this. Of course there is a limit to the usefulness of such analysis, and if we have reason to believe that a certain organization is very good, then I don't think there's anything wrong with giving to it. For example, I give to American Jewish World Service, which is a highly transparent organization that is highly ranked by charity sites for being well-run and effective and so on. But I also give to the $ local major foodbank, which I know relatively little about. I also give to Breslev Israel/Chut Shel Chessed, even though I know next to nothing about how they dispense charity, just because I trust that these are good people who are going to do their best to use the money effectively for tzedakah and Jewish outreach.

At December 2, 2008 at 5:49:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A policeman advised me against giving to panhandlers as he has had to help many victims of assault by panhandlers.

There are much better ways to give tzedakah.

Also, see this article on how panhandling has been a serious scourge in US cities:

Professional Panhandling Plague:
A new generation of shakedown artists hampers America’s urban revival.


At December 4, 2008 at 11:22:00 AM EST, Blogger Long Beach Chasid said...

Its really sad that we think we have the ability to understand a whole persons essence by the 30 seconds you scan them up and down with our eyes.

Who are you to decide if someone is an addict or what they are going to do with the money?

Its a dollar. Even if you gave the same guy a dollar every day you are allowed to handle money that still comes out to less than $300 a year.

I know for most people $300 is not even 50% of what you are required to give.

A Rebbe once said that Hashem makes dishonest beggers so we aren't held accountable for rejecting the honest ones.

Even if someone is an addict they have to at some point eat food or drink some water or they will die. Its not hard science.

So what if this addict needs some food this time around?

If you are all on such a high level that you can see the whole picture, thats amazing and I even such holy insight into the world.

As for me, ill just risk giving a dollar and performing a mitzvah with Joy.

The Baal Shem Tov says that when you give tzeddakah you create the holy name of Hashem.

The Yud is the money The Hey is your hand the Vav is his arm extending and the Hay is his hand receiving.

If you see a homeless many run with joy to perform the mitzvah before he has to degrade his dignity in asking.

who knows, that "crack addict" could be Elijah HaNavi.


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