The Way of Tzedakah: Love as Justice
In this fifth unit the mitzvah of tzedakah will be explored in the thought of Rabbi Sacks. For Rabbi Sacks, tzedakah is based on four core concepts, each of which will be fully explored in the unit: Judaism’s approach to the ethics of material wealth, responsibility as a value and calling for every Jew, tzedakah as a vehicle for spiritual and moral growth, and finally the value that is at the very core of the concept of tzedakah in Jewish thought and practice, the dignity of the human being. For Rabbi Sacks struggles to find an appropriate English translation for the Hebrew word tzedakah. Some translate it as charity, yet the root of the word has the meaning of justice. For Rabbi Sacks, neither is sufficient because conceptually tzedakah encompasses both of these ideas, despite their seeming contradictory nature. Justice is dispensed by a judge or a king, and charity is a gift of love given by a parent. But God plays both roles in our life, Avinu Malkeinu, and tzedakah asks us to relate to our fellow human as both as well. Hence the title of this unit. Tzedakah is love as justice.
There are two kinds of mitzvot. There are the commands of self-restraint that hold us back from damaging the human or natural environment. And there are the positive commands of love, for the world as God’s work, and for human beings as God’s image. Of the second, the greatest is tzedakah: love as justice (sometimes translated as ‘charity’).
The world is not always just, or equitable, or fair. Our task is to make it more so, by helping those in need, sharing some of what we have with others. This act of sharing is more than charity. It is a recognition of the fact that what we have, we have from God, and one of the conditions of God’s gifts is that we ourselves give. That way we too become like God, ‘walking in His ways’.
The market creates wealth: that is its virtue. But it does not necessarily distribute it in such a way as to alleviate poverty, granting everyone the means of a dignified life. That is its weakness. There are two possibilities: either abandon the market, or mitigate its negative effects. The first has been tried, and failed. The second can be done in two ways: through the government (taxation, welfare) or through individuals. Governments can do much, but not everything. Tzedakah is Judaism’s way of saying that each of us has a part to play. Every one of us must give.
Tzedakah means both justice and charity, for we believe that they go hand in hand. Justice is impersonal, charity is personal. We call God Avinu Malkenu, ‘Our Father, our King’. A king dispenses justice, a parent gives a child a gift out of love. That is the meaning of tzedakah, an act that combines both justice and love. Giving to others is one of the most beautiful things we can do, and one of the most creative. We create possibilities for other people. We soften some of the rough edges of the world. We help alleviate poverty and pain. We give God the sacrifice He most desires of us: that we honour His image in other people.
Nothing more marks Judaism as a religion of love than its emphasis on tzedakah. We do not accept poverty, hunger, homelessness or disease as God’s will. To the contrary, God’s will is that we heal these fractures in His world. As God feeds the hungry, so must we. As God heals the sick, so must we. We become good by doing good. We walk in God’s ways by acting out of love.
The educational aims for this unit are for students to:
- understand Judaism’s approach to material wealth, including the difference between ownership and possession, and the responsibilities that come with being guardians of God’s gifts.
- consider in a practical and theoretical way the value of responsibility and how tzedakah is an expression of that.
- comprehend the value of dignity for all humans, its relationship to all human beings created in the image of God, and why this value is central to Judaism’s approach to tzedakah.
- consider how the mitzvah of tzedakah as well as being concerned with relationships and the human other, can also be a vehicle for spiritual growth connecting us to God.