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Beggars: To give or not to give?

Should we give charity to anyone who asks or donate to organizations that help the poor?

Today’s Jam

I am spending a year in Israel on a fellowship program for recent North American college graduates. The experience has been very rewarding thus far, as we study, tour and learn about the history and culture of this vibrant, storied and complex society. One issue that I face almost daily is how to interact with the many beggars I encounter on the streets of Jerusalem, our home base for the year. Should I try and give a small amount of money to several different people, give only to those I see regularly in my neighborhood or perhaps bypass the beggars altogether and donate instead to organizations working on local poverty issues?

David Jaffe says…

e.David Jaffe

The most useful frame I’ve encountered for thinking about this very practical dilemma of dealing with beggars is what philosophers call act morality and agent morality.

According to act morality, we judge the righteousness of an action by its consequences. In your case, whatever type of giving will lead to the greatest alleviation of poverty would be the best thing to do. My assumption is that giving to an organization that dedicates all its energy to helping poor people will probably do the most good.

According to agent morality, we judge the righteousness of an action by its impact on the “agent,” in this case, you. The best action is that which helps you become more generous and loving. According to Maimonides, in his commentary on Pirkei Avot, if one has $1,000 to give away it is better to give one dollar to 1,000 people than to give $1,000 to one person. The act of giving 1,000 times will actually make the giver into a more generous person even though the one person who received the $1,000 would benefit much more than all those people who received one dollar.

When I’ve been in similar situations interacting with beggars, I’ve chosen to carry a bag of small change with me and give a quarter to everyone who asks. We are not going to alleviate poverty in our cities or raise anyone out of poverty either by giving to beggars or making a small donation to a nonprofit organization. To accomplish this goal, we need to address the systemic causes of poverty. In the meantime, by giving to each person with a smile we can change ourselves and brighten the day of someone who is clearly having a hard time in life.

Rabbi David Jaffe is the Mashgiach Ruchani/Spiritual Advisor at Gann Academy where he created and runs the Chanoch LaNa’ar initiative. He is also the Founder and Dean of the Kirva Institute. His teaching, organizing, writing and consulting explore the intersection of moral-spiritual development and ethical action in the world. He is currently working on a book about the inner-life and social activism to be published in 2013.

Noam Zion says…

Noam Zion

While David offers a helpful conceptual framing and a sensitive response to your dilemma, I want to stress in somewhat stronger terms why I think we should not give money to beggars in the streets of Jerusalem, my beloved home city.

According to various classical Jewish legal sources (please see my reading of several of these texts in the comments section below), the poor — even the nonresident poor — have a right to an allowance centrally collected and regulated for what they need (“kupah,” communal chest). It is unjust, however, to support beggars who subvert this system or take from it and also seek handouts on the street. Further, indiscriminate begging can deplete the public’s motivation to give to important charitable organizations and thus decrease the total resources available for the needy.

So rather than giving token offerings to the many beggars you encounter, go online, research several local charities and make regular donations to the best of them. And if you ever become a permanent resident of Jerusalem, please pay your taxes (the contemporary kupah) and lobby for excellent municipal welfare programs (today’s version of “tamhui,” communal kitchen).

It is true that Maimonides teaches, “You are forbidden to turn away empty-handed the poor who ask [for help]. Even if all you give is one string of figs — do not return [the face of] the downtrodden in shame” (Psalm 74:21) (Gifts to the Poor 7:7). I agree with David that one can give the poor something symbolic with a smile; but please do not give too much, especially at the Kotel, where many beggars do not even look for work to support themselves because of their religious ideology that commends those who express their trust (“bitahon”) in God by relying only on God’s open hand and on you, who willy-nilly serve as God’s bank manager in this world.

Noam Zion is a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute, where he is part of the New Paths: Christians Engaging Israel team; He and Rabbi Mishael Zion are the authors of “A Night to Remember: The Haggadah of Contemporary Voices” and the Hebrew Halaila Hazeh haggadah, which are sequels to Noam Zion’s bestselling “A Different Night: The Family Participation Haggadah,” popularly known as “The Hartman Haggadah”

Now, what do YOU say?

How have you interacted with beggars, whether in Jerusalem or any other city? Would you carry a small bag of change with you daily, as David suggests? Do you agree with Noam’s claim that giving small gifts directly to the poor on the streets diminishes our motivation to donate to tzedakah organizations? Are there other elements to this case that you wish to raise? We welcome your thoughts in the comments section below.

And of course, if you have a dilemma you’d like us to address in the Ethical Jam, send it to EthicalJam@timesofisrael.com

Ethical Jam is a project of the Center for Global Judaism of Hebrew College, Newton Centre, Massachusetts, which is working to create a rich pluralistic discourse on issues of vital concern to the Jewish community and to the world at large.

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About the Author
Ethical Jam presents contemporary ethical dilemmas and the responses of Jewish thinkers from across the world Jewish community. Ethical Jam is a project of the Center for Global Judaism (CGJ) at Hebrew College in Newton Centre, Massachusetts and of the Times of Israel, and was created by CGJ’s director Rabbi Or Rose and Hebrew College president Rabbi Daniel Lehmann. It is edited by Rabbi Sue Fendrick, Editor at CGJ. (Illustrative ‘thinking woman’ author photo via Shutterstock.com)