Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Street charity

There was a post about a week ago on Freakonomics on economics of street charity, in which five panelists were invited to comment on this question:

You are walking down the street in New York City with $10 of disposable income in your pocket. You come to a corner with a hot dog vendor on one side and a beggar on the other. The beggar looks like he’s been drinking; the hot dog vendor looks like an upstanding citizen. How, if at all, do you distribute the $10 in your pocket, and why?


The post got 175 comments. No one thought it worth mentioning that New York, with a population of some 8 million, is a magnet for immigration both from overseas and from within the United States -- that is, that it attracts large numbers of people who may have no local connections and not enough of a financial cushion to see them through to employment in one of the most expensive cities in the world. New York is also the city with the largest Jewish population outside Israel -- yet no one mentioned Maimonides.

Religious Jews take the requirement of charity (tzedaka) very seriously, so that one never sees homeless people in extremely religious communities; a Jew who has nowhere to go can turn up at a synagogue and be offered help among the members of the community. Maimonides (1135-1204) analysed the various degrees of charity in his great codification of Jewish law, the Mishnah Torah; the following is the translation of Jonathan J. Baker, copyright 1990, 2003:

Eight Degrees of Charity:
Rambam, Hilchot Mat'not Ani'im 10:1,7-14
(Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Gifts of [that belong to] the Poor)


1) We are required to take more care about the mitzva ["command"] of tzedaka [Tzedaka, unlike "charity" (from Gk. karitas, "love"), is the Jewish legal requirement to do rightly with your fellow person -- that is, to support him when he is in need.(Deut. 15:7-8)] than for any other positive mitzva. For the mitzva of tzedaka is the sign of the righteous descendents of Abraham our father, as "[God] has made known to him [Abraham], so that he shall command his sons to do tzedaka." {Genesis XVIII:19} The throne of Israel is not established, nor does true faith stand except through tzedaka), for "through tzedaka will I [God] be established." {Isaiah LIV:14} And Israel will not be redeemed except through tzedaka, for "Zion will be ransomed through judgment and returned through tzedaka." {Isaiah I:27}

7) There are eight levels of tzedaka, each greater than the next. The greatest level, above which there is no other, is to strengthen the name of another Jew by giving him a present or loan, or making a partnership with him, or finding him a job in order to strengthen his hand until he needs no longer [beg from] people. For it is said, "You shall strengthen the stranger and the dweller in your midst and live with him," {Leviticus XXV:35} that is to say, strengthen him until he needs no longer fall [upon the mercy of the community] or be in need.

8) Below this is the one who gives tzedaka to the poor, but does not know to whom he gives, nor does the recipient know his benefactor. For this is performing a mitzva for the sake of Heaven. This is like the Secret [Anonymous] Office in the Temple. There the righteous gave secretly, and the good poor drew sustenance anonymously. This is much like giving tzedaka through a tzedaka box. One should not put into the box unless he knows that the one responsible for the box is faithful and wise and a proper leader like Rabbi Hananya ben Teradyon.

9) Below this is one who knows to whom he gives, but the recipient does not know his benefactor. The greatest sages used to walk about in secret and put coins into the doors of the poor. It is worthy and truly good to do this if those who are responsible for collecting tzedaka are not trustworthy.

10) Below this is one who does not know to whom he gives, but the poor person does know his benefactor. The greatest sages used to pack coins into their scarves and roll them up over their backs, and the poor would come and pick [the coins out of the scarves] so that they would not be ashamed.

11) Below this is one who gives to the poor person before being asked.

12) Below this is one who gives to the poor person after being asked.

13) Below this is one who gives to the poor person gladly and with a smile.

14) Below this is one who gives to the poor person unwillingly.




The self-supporting hot dog seller of the Freakonomics example may, for all we know, be selling kosher hot dogs thanks to a timely loan from the Lubavitch. Those who, like me, would prefer not to live in a religious community, whether Jewish or of any other denomination, must ask ourselves why we cannot match their achievement in looking after the weakest in society.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

Perhaps elsewhere the Rambam touches on how the relationship of one to another affects one's willingness to give, wherein "another" is one's fellow commuter(s) on the downtown local during rush hour --- but I doubt it. That is, a subsequent point to ponder --- or maybe it's just an observation --- is how our generosity is mitigated by the given social context of an encounter with the less fortunate. All I can say for sure is that big-city livin' offers up fertile ground for inquiry of this sort, if you're so inclined, even if there aren't too many who step across the divide between this thought and that action. Then again, the MTA now posts signs which encourage charity --- only elsewhere, just not on its own trains and buses.

Ithaca said...

I suppose one's feeling is that there would be fewer people on street corners if they could turn up somewhere and be sure of being helped (I know there are soup kitchens and the like but if one is feeling somewhat the worse for wear they might be hard to deal with). I knew a chaplain who had worked in NYC and said people often turned up at the church asking for money; he never gave them any money, but he would talk to them. I would not like to say (quoting the Rambam) that hardheartedness is ONLY to be found among the gentiles, but that seems unhelpful.

Anonymous said...

This chaplain-friend of yours --- he would talk to them, or talk Jesus? Those folks at Freakonomics have got me so enraged I now find myself giving dollar bills to anyone who asks. Another related big-city development, this one much more recent: Save the Children finally has realized that ignoring the "adoption" pitches of its sidewalk volunteers is nearly impossible when they are actually themselves African refugees. The kid on my corner is from Ghana. If only I were less Woody Allen, more Mia Farrow. Though I can certainly say that now, when I've got an ice cream cone in hand, I walk the other way. . . . what a despicable world.

"Post-Google" by TAR ART RAT said...

the third time after reading this post it occured to me: duh, buy a hotdog and give it to the homeless guy.
now I should check freakonomics to see hom many times that same conclusion was reached...
giving to the homeless is a strange issue, however in Berlin it seems that one is rarely asked for spare change, whereas in seattle if I gave to every person who asked, it would've been 1/3 of my paycheck...

Ithaca said...

I don't think my chaplain friend talked about Jesus. My chaplain friend is a talkative guy and assumes other people like to talk too -- if you're down and out and homeless, to his mind, your real problem is not needing a meal, your problem is having no one to talk to.

It's quite hard for me to talk to people, hard to deal with the mechanics of getting by (negotiating bureaucracies, dealing with lawyers, accountants, agencies, landlords, utilities people), so in some sense I see it other way around: you often end up with no place to stay and no money because your social resources ran out. Living on the street is hugely expensive in terms of social resources, so you are not necessarily going to be desperate for human contact.

TAR ART RAT -- quite a few people did say they would buy a hot dog and give it to the guy, and then other people said indignantly what if the guy is vegetarian... but you're right about Berlin, the only time people ask for spare change is when they're selling Motz.