The American Jewish community has been lauded in many circles for its generosity. Jews gave 12% of all charitable gifts over $1 million in America in 2001-2003, despite making up less than 2% of the population. And it’s not just the wealthy among us. Although there has not been a great deal of comprehensive research, it seems that American Jews generally give away around 1-2% of their incomes, putting our community squarely in line with, or slightly above, the national average. We have much to be proud of.
But how are we measuring up to the expectations and moral imperatives of our tradition?
The Shulchan Aruch, the basic authoritative code of Jewish law, puts it like this:
The amount of giving [that is required]: If the giver can afford it, he must give according to the poor person’s need. If the giver cannot afford it, he should give up to a fifth of his wealth. This is the greatest way to fulfill this commandment. The average way to fulfill this commandment is to give a tenth of one’s wealth.
There you have it. The basic Jewish requirement is that we give until we meet the needs of the poor. If we can’t afford to do that, we should give at least 10% of our income to support the impoverished. Twenty percent is ideal. Anything less than 10% is considered an “evil eye”—a miserly way of acting, which will bring bad luck and misfortune. In short, the levels of giving for which we have been patting ourselves on the communal back are considered totally sub-par by our religious tradition.
These numbers may strike us as rather shockingly high. Ten to 20% of our income to tzedakah?! Impossible! This demand becomes even more daunting if one reads on in the Shulchan Aruch and realizes he is talking about poverty relief only—not synagogue dues or religious education, which must be paid for from a different part of one’s personal budget—and remembers that this text was written in a period when the Jewish community generally had much less disposable income than it does today.
But it pushes us to imagine: How different would our lives look if we had to make do with 10% less? And what would be the impact if, as individuals and as a community, we pushed for 10% or even 20% as our tradition urges? What could be accomplished with that money?
While it might be easy to simply write off this demand as untenable, we can learn from this text the wisdom of setting the bar high, even impossibly so. Our tradition demands that we make ourselves uncomfortable by giving more than we think we can. We are called on to reach deep and to dream big about what we can change in the world by making financial sacrifices. Only when we have truly pushed ourselves in these ways can we be fully proud of ourselves and our communities for pursuing the Jewish path of justice.