Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Judaism and Christianity on Giving

In my last reading of Joseph Telushkin's A Code of Jewish Ethics, Volume 2: Love Your Neighbor As Yourself, I noticed differences that Telushkin highlighted between Judaism and Christianity.

Jesus told the rich young ruler to sell all that he had and give to the poor; Judaism, by contrasts, recommends that rich people give 20 per cent of their income to charity, and it does not think that people should become poor themselves in their efforts to help the poor. Christianity tends to emphasize the attitude behind giving, whereas Judaism maintains that giving even with a less-than-enthusiastic attitude is good because at least the poor are being helped. Telushkin tells the story of Dennis Prager speaking to groups of high school students and asking them which is better: A person who gives the poor $5 with a compassionate attitude, or a person who gives $100 because he didn't want to be bothered and wanted the poor person to get off his case. Most of the students answered that the guy who gave the poor person $5 was better. Prager then asked them which the poor person preferred! The students hadn't thought of that!

Jesus stressed the value of giving anonymously. While there is a Jewish aphorism in the Babylonian Talmud about the value of anonymous giving (Baba Bathra 9b), Judaism also holds that there is value to giving not being anonymous. When we are helping a friend, there are times when we should not do so anonymously because of the importance of letting our friends know that we care about them. When giving is not anonymous but rather is public, people can identify heroes in a world that desperately needs heroes, and that can encourage the people to give themselves. And the chance that a person will be acknowledged for his giving will encourage giving, which will help the poor. Telushkin tells a story about how he one time was criticizing rich people for having buildings named after them, and a rich person told Telushkin that this is no different from Telushkin having his name on the front covers of his books rather than writing them anonymously: both are seeking recognition.

Things are more complex than the "Judaism vs. Christianity" comparison suggests. For one, many Christians don't take seriously Jesus' exhortation to the rich young man to sell all he that has and give to the poor, for they hold that Jesus was telling only the rich young man to do this, not all of humanity (though Jesus in Luke 12:33 tells his disciples to sell what they have and give alms). Second, not all Christians require that giving always be anonymous. I once attended a Messianic Jewish service in which the rabbi was talking about the story in Numbers about representatives from each tribe of Israel coming forward before the entire nation and donating their gift. The rabbi asked us how we would look if our giving were on a large television screen for all to see. Would we look generous, or stingy? (After that manipulative service, I'd rather not give anything at all to that congregation, to tell you the truth.) In any case, the rabbi was highlighting that the representatives' giving was not secret but was before the entire congregation.

What I like about Christianity is that it says that even a poor person who does not give a whole lot but gives something is loved by God, and God appreciates that gift. At the same time, I think that there are areas in which Judaism is more practical and realistic: it acknowledges that people are not perfect----that they don't always have the right attitude and that vanity may play a role in what they do----and it seeks to make the most of that rather than beating people over the head for their imperfections.


  1. "The students hadn't thought of that!" And then they apparently didn't think that the compassionate giver would also be more generally on the side of the poor and be working towards a juster organisation of society, whereas the one giving so they wouldn't be bothered any more would likely be scheming ways to get the poor off his back permanently, and not by means the poor would like.

  2. I agree that compassion is important. I think that what's important from Dennis Prager's point is the need to think about the poor person, not just the giver. I had a recent experience that reinforced this to me. Some right-winger was ranting against welfare programs and was saying that voluntary charity is better than involuntary charity and that involuntary charity doesn't count with God because it's forced and doesn't come from a good attitude. I replied, "But I'm sure that the poor appreciate the involuntary charity." This guy wasn't even thinking about the poor, but only about the spiritual condition of the giver.


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