Thursday, November 16, 2006

Reform Charity 2

In my last post I brought up the topic of Millennium Park, and how Reform Jews made a major contribution to the project. A Jew with a Torah, Torah and more Torah ideology cannot accept big time Jewish money being spent on (gevald) a park. The money could have been spent on Jewish education and the Jewish future, and was spent on flowers. My view is this: Charitable impulses are not easily divisible. The feelings of benevolence, responsibility, and a desire to leave a permanent legacy are virtues that find different outlets, depending on the person’s culture and history

The Pritzker family was one of the more prominent donors. Let’s just say hypothetically a significant percentage of the money the family donates to charity each year goes to non Jewish causes. The existence of a counterfactual….they could have, might have, should have given the money to Jewish causes does not diminish what they do. The money is not any Yeshiva’s money, and they have taken nothing away from any Jewish institution. Their donations are good and charitable deeds, even if ‘we’ know they might have done something better with their money. The money was used for charities that are noble and good, be they culture, medicine, the environment. And for doing a good deed they deserve our praise and admiration. If all or almost all of a donor’s money goes to non-Jewish causes, then I would say what the donor did is a good act, though he did not do anything special for the Jewish people and is lacking in his commitment to the Jewish people with respect to his charitable donations.

By way of contrast with the Millennium Park case was the announcement by Moshe Hier of the Wiesenthal Center in L.A. that he was going to raise $700 million dollars to build a Center for Tolerance in Jerusalem. Most of the money was to be spent on a magnificent building, created by the world famous architect Frank Gehrie. I say even if the $700 million would have been otherwise spent on private trinkets, once the money has been donated it is now tzedakah (charity) money, and Rabbi Hier is the trustee. Does any rational person believe we should first spend $700 million of tzedakah money on a building as a hakdamah, a prolegomena to bringing together 20 Arab and Israeli kids in a room to talk about tolerance and peace? Even if he raised some of the money by promoting the building, it is his responsibility to use the money to benefit the Jewish people by actually promoting peace and tolerance between Arabs and Jews. The Arabs will undoubtedly find the ultra- opulent hyper- modernist building inappropriate, and one more example of Western cultural imperialism and the megalomaniac grandiosity of American Jews. They would have a point.

The situation with Jewish humanitarian charity would be different if the following were true: It is morally wrong for a Jew to give a substantial amount of money to non- Jewish humanitarian or cultural causes. Even if halacha would say it is wrong, it is irrelevant to Reform Jews who do not accept halacha as sovereign. A case must be made that it is morally wrong. I am not certain, but I don’t believe it is morally wrong. On three of the leading secular moral theories, utilitarianism, Kantian forms of social contractualism and virtue theories using money for universal type charities is permitted and maybe even required.

The Hebrew University philosopher Avishai Margalit has tried to sketch a set of universal moral principles that might entail it is morally preferable for a Jew not to spend his charitable contributions on the art museum or world hunger, while recognizing the duties we all have to our neighbors, countrymen and fellow human beings. His philosophy is a working out in a more abstract and universal way of the Talmudic dictum that the Jewish poor of your city take precedence over the poor of some more distant city. His idea is to single out the kinds of "thick" relations we can call truly ethical from thin relations that we call moral. Thick relations, he argues, are those that we have with family, friends and neighbors, our tribe and our nation--and they are all dependent on shared memories. But we also have "thin" relations with total strangers, people with whom we have nothing in common except our common humanity. Even if such a view is accepted, the most that could be said is that Jewish charities can have a certain precedence. It is permissible to give greater weight to the needs of one’s own tribe over those of more distant tribes. It would take a special kind of Puritanism to condemn a man for doing a good deed, because he might have done an even better deed.

A N.Y. Times reviewer of the coffee table souvenir book Millennium Park did voice an implicit and cutting aesthetic criticism of the sort of public charity involved in building the park. He said ‘’…a park financed by donors given the power to select objects and artists will look very different from one in which aesthetic or social concerns predominate from the first. It will tend to be less a unified landscape than a series of detached vignettes - in effect, naming opportunities.’’ He is right on. At the same time it is unrealistic to expect a small group of donors to give so much money without asking for some recognition. I believe most Chicagoans are delighted with the new space, even if it means having to say ‘’Meet you at the Pritzker Pavilion. We’ll walk through the Lurie Garden, over the BP Bridge and on to our destination The Joan W. and Irving B. Harris Theater for Music and Dance.’’

Here is one last example: Margo Pritzker has sponsored and funded a new scholarly multi - volume edition of the Zohar. I am impressed with Mrs. Pritzker’s dedication to Torah and kabbalah. In comparison to the totality of the Pritzker family charity I would conjecture the sums involved are small. Yet the benefit to the world of Torah and scholarship is immense. I can’t exactly say why, but I find this particular project an especially happy development. Perhaps it is related to the historical connection between the spread of esoteric ideas and the arrival of the Messiah (kehshahyafutzu mayonosechaw chutzah). The Assyrian Dictionary Project at the U. of Chicago took close to a hundred years before it was completed. I hope the Zohar project under the able direction of the co-chairs Rabbis Arthur Green and Yechiel Pupko and the heroic diligence of the translator Daniel Matt will be completed quickly and in our time. Here we have an example of Reform charity that does not directly benefit the material needs of the Jewish people, but furthers the more abstract ideal of knowledge of Torah.

I say JUF, Millennium Park, the Zohar Project are all praiseworthy, all acts of charity and beneficence. I will try to offer a more philosophical argument for my view that charity to non-Jewish causes is praiseworthy even from a Jewish point of view in tomorrow’s post.


At 2:58 AM, Blogger TM (Jewlicious) said...

We've tackled this issue in the past at Jewlicious a number of times, but like you I think my thinking about this is still evolving because this is a complex and difficult issue to master.

After all, when the average cost of sending a child to Hebrew Day School is $10-12k/year and this form of education is a strong barrier to intermarriage and assimilation, wouldn't it be prudent for many benefactors to subsidize Jewish day schools instead of museums or university buildings?

Of course, the answer is in the affirmative. However, if they are not giving to Jewish education, it is because the Jewish community has not made a compelling case that their money will do more good educating Jewish young than letting art patrons or a general university student body enjoy the subsidies. In other words, don't blame the donor, blame us for not making a convincing presentation.

At 5:55 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Have you taken the mbti or any related tests? Are you an INFJ?

At 12:29 PM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

anonymous 5:55...I am, though it makes me somewhat uncomfortable as a hard nosed Freudian to be in the same Jungian space as Mother Teresa and Shirley McClaine. On other tests I score OXFC= ornery, xenophobic, farbissen with charedi biases. It depends on what I had for dinner.

tm... I was aiming for the most minimal point that a Jew gets some credit in the way Jews do mitzva accounting for being a humanitarian. I like everyone else wish they would take greater responsibility for the Jewish future.The situation is similar to a rich Jew whose charitable contributions go to Jewish causes but could do a lot more.

At 1:41 PM, Blogger jewish said...

JUF has raised around 80 Milliion annual7 in its regular campaign the past few years. Depending on the season and level of warfare in the region, around 60 Million for Israel Emergency Campaign.

I'm sure when you add in the additional funds raised through government grants and contracts for social services (which do not necessarily benefit Jews alone) the number grows significiantly, but $800 Million seems high. Maybe a typo?

At 2:21 PM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

Jewish...Sorry. I am talking nationwide, you, I believe are talking about Chicago. I sould have said the United Jewish Communities . See here:

I am open to learning more about the exact figures.


Post a Comment


Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home