Eyal Bitton
Cantor, composer, lyricist.

Charity is Never an Option

Charity is never an option; it’s always an obligation.

Can you name the rabbi who made that statement?


Okay. It’s a trick question. It wasn’t a rabbi. It was Paul Stanley, frontman of the truly spectacular and outrageously theatrical supergroup KISS – and my personal favourite musical act bar none. (You know, the group that wears face paint, breathes fire, flies through the air, has a ton of pyrotechnics, and authored that rock anthem “Rock And Roll All Nite”.)

The great Paul Stanley may not be a rabbi but he channels the ethical teachings of Judaism’s sages in his views towards charitable giving. Indeed, his statement is a reflection of the Hebrew word for charity, “tzedakah” – which actually means righteousness or fairness.

Paul Stanley (originally Stanley Eisen) was born with Level 3 microtia, a congenital deformity in which the external ear is underdeveloped. As a result, Stanley is deaf in his right ear. In conjunction with his support for Mending Kids, which provides financial assistance to children with microtia, he recently went to a hospital to visit a four-year-old Canadian girl who had had reconstructive surgery on her ear. In a subsequent interview, Paul made the statement quoted at the outset of this article.

Paul Stanley has spoken candidly about the emotional pain surrounding his deformity. In his autobiography, he recounts how neighbourhood kids would taunt him, calling him: “Stanley the one-eared monster.” Stanley never allowed the condition to prevent him from reaching the heights of success. Nevertheless, he carried the emotional scars well into adulthood. Despite being a famous rock star, his experiences of being physically different from others and from being bullied contributed to a sense of insecurity. Unsurprisingly, Stanley kept it a secret for many years. Coming to terms with his microtia was a journey of personal freedom.

Passover and Giving

As I celebrate Passover and contemplate the lessons of this ancient festival, I find Paul Stanley’s story and his comments on charity very poignant. Yes, the story of the exodus is about a national experience. However, an individual’s journey towards personal freedom is no less powerful or meaningful.

On the eighth day of Passover, we will read the following passage from the Torah:

Yet if there should be among you a needy man of any one of your brethren within any of your gates in your land which the Lord your God is giving to you, you shall not harden your heart, nor shall you shut your hand against your needy brother. You shall open wide your hand to him…

Deuteronomy 15:7-8

(Sephardim always include this reading on the eighth day of Passover; Ashkenazim include it only when the eighth day falls on Shabbat.)

The idea of being caring and responsible for each other is an important teaching of the holiday. It is not “an option”, as Paul Stanley correctly points out. The Torah doesn’t request it of us; it commands it of us. Opening one’s hand and giving to someone in need is, as Paul Stanley says, “an obligation.”

People who are in need aren’t always in need financially. Certainly, this wasn’t the case for successful rock star Paul Stanley. But it is worth reminding that the Torah speaks of a “needy” man, not merely someone without financial means. The emphasis is on being needy – and on the importance of giving to the individual in need. Giving does not have to be exclusively in financial terms; it can be an emotional contribution as well.

Giving Has Its Rewards

Paul Stanley added:

This old adage that you give until it hurts is a distortion of the truth. You give until it feels good.

In the same Torah reading mentioned earlier, which we will read at the close of this Passover, it says:

You shall freely give to him, and let not your heart be grieved when you give to him, for because of this thing the Lord your God will bless you…

Deuteronomy 15:10

In other words, giving is not without rewards. Paul Stanley means to say that, by giving, you gain something; you gain the satisfaction and pride in your ability to help others. The Torah addresses an agricultural audience and refers to blessings given to one’s land. In a modern context, the essential element of this passage in the Torah is that God blesses us. Just as the sentiment expressed by Stanley, by giving to others, we, too, benefit.

Giving and Yizkor

The eighth and final day of Passover is the day when Ashkenazim recite Yizkor, the memorial prayer service for the dead. We remember loved ones – family and friends – who have passed away. We also remember the Six Million who perished during the Holocaust.

Memory is a powerful thing. It can be a source of comfort. It can be a source of sorrow. It can be emboldening. It can be crippling. It can, and should, be a catalyst for good.

Isn’t it worthwhile to honour the past and those who lived before us by performing acts of goodness in this world?

When we lose someone we love, our world is shattered. Isn’t it a blessing to the memory of our loved ones to better the world and, in so doing, repair it? Those who have lost someone they love, those who have felt the pain of grief, know what it is to need. Those who have been in need in times of mourning know the value of those around us who have shown kindness, love, and caring through the act of giving. It can be freeing.

On Passover, on Yizkor, it is worth noting that giving to those in need is a noble and Godly way to remember those who have departed our world. And such an act of remembrance and righteousness isn’t an option; it’s an obligation.

About the Author
Eyal Bitton is the cantor of Congregation Neveh Shalom in Portland, Oregon where he incorporates Sephardi/Moroccan music, Ashkenazi music, popular adaptations, and original compositions into the service. As a composer and writer, his theatrical works have been produced in the US, Canada, Kenya, and China.
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