Who are the real givers?
by Jonathan Rosenblum
November 15, 2002
It’s election time in Israel, and that can only mean one thing: Get ready for three months of chareidi-bashing. Current polls show the Shinui party led by Tommy Lapid, increasing its Knesset representation from 6 to 12 seats. The party has only one raison d’etre: stick it to the chareidim.
Still it was MK Ran Cohen of Meretz, the former champions of chareidi-bashing, who was first out of the gate in the anti-chareidi sweepstakes. Cohen found a way to attack Judaism that even Lapid did not think of. The latter must be kicking himself.
According to Cohen, it is a scandal that the chief rabbinate continues to destroy tithes from produce while Israelis are scavenging in garbage cans. Cohen found his usual ready allies in the media to help him expose this "scandal." Last Friday night, Channel One TV juxtaposed pictures of kashrut supervisors chopping up produce to those of hungry Israelis.
As Haggai Segal pointed out in Ma’ariv this week, Friday night has become the favorite time for anti-religious exposes. Religious Jews are blissfully unaware of the ambush that has been laid for them until Motzaei Shabbos, and by that time most of the pages of the Sunday papers are already in print trumpeting the perfidy of the religious and ridiculing the Torah.
It was Lapid who pioneered this technique. After the Dolphinarium homicide bombing, he spent all Shabbat bellowing on the airwaves about the scandal that the chevra kadisha would not bury non-Jewish victims: "Islamic Jihad strikes at the living, and the chevra kadisha strikes at the dead." Of course, neither the local nor international media made the slightest effort to check these charges – which were entirely false – before repeating them endlessly.
Cohen’s donning of the mantle of defender of the oppressed to ridicule the Torah has notable precedents. Korach showed the way more than 3,000 years ago. The Midrash relates that Korach performed a bit of street theater before the people: "There is a widow in my neighborhood who had a field. . . ." said Korach. "When she was about to harvest, [Moses] told her, `Give me the [gifts for the poor] – leket, shichechah, and peah. When she was about to store [the grain], he told her, `Give me [the tithes]: terumah, terumos ma’aser, ma’aser rishon, and ma’aser sheini.’ . . . The poor woman sold the field and bought two lambs. As soon as they had given birth, Aaron came and said, ‘Give me the firstlings.’ When she sheared them, Aaron came and said, `Give me the first shorn wool.’ She said, `I will slaughter [the sheep] and eat them.’ [But] Aharon came and said, `Give me the [priestly gifts of meat]. . .’
Finally, the poor widow grew so frustrated that she placed a ban (cherem) on all her property, forgetting that all banned property goes to the Kohanim. At the end of Korach’s tale, the widow was left weeping and penniless.
Korach, our Sages tell us, possessed fabulous wealth. Had he wished to help the widow of his fable he could have easily done so. His concern, however, was not with poor widows but only to mock the laws of the Torah.
And Cohen is his successor. First, he seems not to have checked his facts. Only 1% of produce today is separated as terumah and terumah ma’aseros, and that which is separated is generally taken from produce that would be unfit for market or human consumption. In Jerusalem, for instance, it feeds animals in the Tisch Zoo. (The whys and wherefores of these laws, and how our practice differs from that in the times of the Temple is beyond our purview.)
As Harvard President Lawrence Summers pointed out recently, when Israel is held to standards applied to no other country, and only Israel is subjected to divestiture petitions, in a world filled with state-sponsored savagery, we are dealing with anti-Semitism. Similarly, Cohen’s singling out of actions taken for religious reasons reveals his anti-Torah agenda. As Haggai Segal notes, thousands of chickens are destroyed in Israel yearly because producers have exceeded their allotted quotas, and farmers regularly destroy produce, in part to maintain market prices. Yet Cohen has never taken to the airwaves to decry these "scandals"; nor would he get a moment of air time if he did.
To believing Jews, Cohen’s summons to the rabbis to tell them how to dispose of tithes is laughable, roughly equivalent to someone viewing a washing machine for the first time and deciding that such a fine machine would be greatly improved by the addition of a steering wheel and a radio antennae.
In the system of tithes, Cohen sees only waste. Jews, however, have always seen them in the exact opposite fashion: as a guarantor of both individual and national wealth. In a play on the Hebrew etymology, the rabbis taught, "Tithe (aser) in order to become wealthy (l’hitasher). The idea is simple: When we use G-d’s gifts and bounty in the manner in which He has instructed us and for His purposes, He gives us more.
BUT one need not buy into the halachic system to realize how off base are Cohen’s efforts to contrast the indifferent halacha to his humanistic concern for the downtrodden. No society has ever succeeded in inculcating it its members a greater concern for those less fortunate than a Torah society. And the reason is simple. The halachah instills in its adherents an awareness that they are not the exclusive of owners of their property. Rather they hold it as trustees, subject to clear conditions.
When someone who views himself as an absolute owner gives away anything he feels filled with virtue, for he had no obligation to do so. When a religious Jew gives away 10% of his income, he is doing no more than G-d expects of him. Which one is more likely to give generously?
Political scientist Raymond Legge Jr. provides the answer. On the basis of a 1999 survey of the giving patterns of American Jewry, he concluded: "While social justice is a concept stressed most heavily by the Reform denomination, . . .the analyses indicate that in terms of financial contributions this group is least likely to practice it." Those who talk the talk of concern for the weaker elements of society, don’t walk the walk.
Orthodox Jews, Legge found, are 50% more likely to volunteer their time, than non-Orthodox. Nearly 14% of Orthodox contributed over $5,000 to a Jewish charity last year, versus 2.8% for Conservative Jews and 1% for Reform and non-affiliated. Orthodox Jews were even twice as likely as Reform Jews to contribute over $5,000 to a secular charity. These disparities become even more remarkable when one considers that the Orthodox are the least affluent sector of American Jewry, and most large Orthodox families stagger under huge tuition bills.
Legge’s conclusions hold true for Israel as well. Orthodox Jews, according to a Bar Ilan University study, give four to seven times what their secular counterparts do. A study by the Gutmann Institute, which is affiliated with the Israel Institute for Democracy, exposed the social conscience of those who define themselves as anti-religious. In this group, only 28% see helping others in need as a guiding value in life, and 88% oppose giving to charity. When Dede Zucker, who was thrown off the Meretz Knesset list for evincing insufficient contempt for chareidim, set up a free loan society patterned on those that proliferate in religious society, he found it difficult to explain to his friends the idea of giving on a regular basis.
Among haredim, by contrast, 90% view assisting others as a paramount value. Hundreds of thousands of dollars are raised regularly, in religious neighborhoods, for widows and orphans from bank orders of couples who are barely scraping by themselves.
Nor is money the only measure of concern. Each act of giving transforms a person until it becomes natural. For that reason, Maimonides taught that it is preferable to give one dollar to a hundred supplicants than $100 to one poor person. In my own neighborhood of Har Nof, the phone book lists nearly 200 free loan societies, covering everything from medicines to bridal gowns to brit pillows to bedwetting alarms to income tax advice to monetary loans.
In a serious moment, Sam Orbaum surely had it right when he wrote, "the charity, social consciousness, good deeds, communal welfare, and human kindness [of the haredim] may be unparalleled among the communities in this country. And he was not just referring to intra-communal giving. What triggered Orbaum’s tribute was the group of yeshiva students that rushed to donate blood when they learned of his need and a haredi health fund clerk who rushed vials of Orbaum’s blood after hours to a downtown laboratory to expedite the receipt of vital test results.
Before Cohen and his Meretz colleagues conduct any more demonstrations against the heartless rabbinate and cruel halachah, perhaps they should took take a little closer look in the mirror.
Related Topics: Chareidim and Their Critics
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