Torah of Money: Spiritual Self-Interest

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TORAH OF MONEY: Spiritual Self-Interest

In his recent book, Shared Dreams: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Jewish Community, Rabbi Marc Schneier tells of rabbis whose brave participation in the civil rights movement ranged from being beaten and arrested as a Freedom Rider (Israel Dresner) to speaking at the 1963 March on Washington (Joachim Prinz). These men (women were not ordained before 1972) were inspired by the unabashedly righteous nature of the struggle. "My feet were praying," Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said about marching from Selma to Montgomery in 1965.

These rabbis' actions expressed more than their idealism, however. The restrictions toppled by the movement were also barriers to Jewish advancement into the upper echelons of American society. Today, when that advancement is essentially a done deal, what self-interest remains to motivate Jewish social action?

In a previous column, we proposed a new highest "Ninth Degree of Tzedakah" (expanding Maimonides' traditional eight), which we defined as partnership with non-Jews, based on Jewish values. While there is certainly a "community relations" aspect to this concept, more important is the spiritual self-interest: the authentication of Jewish values so that Jewish identity becomes central, rather than peripheral, to our daily lives.

Tzedakah has always been seen by Jewish tradition as the principal training ground for spiritual consciousness--as a mitzvah that awakens our souls to the humanity of others, to the ties of community, and to the reality of our partnership with God. To apply this mitzvah to non-Jews is hardly a novel concept, either. "The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt," says Leviticus 19:34--with numerous verses reiterating the idea. Rabbinic teachings associate it with sanctification of God's name: in the Palestinian Talmud's Bava Metzia, Rabbi Simeon ben Shetah returns a lost pearl to a non-Jew and declares that he "would rather hear `Blessed be the God of the Jews' than gain any profit in this entire world."

Modern Jewish institutions generally have pursued the Ninth Degree of Tzedakah only inadvertently--by accepting federal funding, which requires them to offer services on a nonsectarian basis. During the past three decades, however, a number of Jewish philanthropies have been established with the explicit purpose of mobilizing Jewish money to assist non-Jewish communities. By capitalizing on the universalist orientation of most American Jews, these foundations do groundbreaking tzedakah--and by rooting their work in Jewish values, they revitalize Jewish identity. …