By H. Eric Schockman
There is no word in the Hebrew vocabulary for ‘charity’ in the modern sense. The word used is tzedakah, which literally means ‘righteousness.’ Tzedakah is not an act of condescension by the affluent toward the needy; it is the fulfillment of a moral obligation. Injustice to humanity is desecration of God. Refusal to give charity is considered by Jewish tradition to be idolatry. Albert Vorspan and David Saperstein, Jewish Dimensions of Social Justice, UAHC Press, New York, NY, p. 93.
Many of us have had the opportunity to volunteer at a food bank, participate in a canned food drive and donate funds to a local feeding program, but our acts of charity only help so much in the big picture. How can we proactively solve the hunger epidemic plaguing 38 million Americans, including 14 million children?
God commands us in the Torah to perform acts of tzedakah, acts of righteousness and justice, 36 times, more times than that of any other commandment. Justice, in this sense, is our collective pursuit to finding the long-term solutions to ending hunger. We need to help people become self-sufficient and give them the tools necessary to do so.
MAZON, as the organized Jewish community’s response to the hunger crisis, is consumed with exploring the difference between charity and justice. As Vorspan and Saperstein noted, there is no word for charity in Hebrew. Taking inspiration from Judaism and its focus on justice we seek to explore the underlying reasons behind the hunger problem. Not just the how’s, but the whys. MAZON also believes that food banks and other emergency food providers have an obligation to use their status and visibility to educate their supporters about the role and limits of charities in feeding hungry Americans and encouraging them to advocate for federal nutrition and assistance programs.
Federal food programs, especially food stamps, are our nations frontline defense against hunger with the ability and capability to reach far more hungry and at-risk families than charitable programs. Food stamps allow individuals to become self-sufficient. Studies state that 40 percent of food stamp recipients leave the program within four months; half within six months. Each dollar spent in food stamp benefits generates about $1.84 in economic activity. If $5 billion a year was spent on food stamps and other nutrition programs, we could cut hunger in half within two years.
It is our moral and religious mandate to fight for justice and advocate on behalf of hungry families. Together with private charity, the government and our voices as advocates can bring hunger to an end. We have to bring tzedakah to the world.
Questions for thought, discussion, by Rabbi Shai Gluskin: