The Ethics of Giving: Jewish vs. Non-Jewish?


Q: My wife and I disagree about charitable giving. I believe most of our charitable dollars should go to helping our own Jewish people; she wants to give to local non-Jewish groups, like the homeless shelter and food bank. What’s the magic formula about Jewish v. non-Jewish giving, according to Jewish law?

A. Nothing magical, but the Talmud actually does give us a formula for prioritizing our giving. It’s in Bava Metzia, page 71a, where Rabbi Joseph states that, in lending money, Jews take precedence over non-Jews, the poor over the rich, your relatives over the general poor of the town, and the local poor over the poor of another town.

That’s all fine and good, but what happens when we live in a more assimilated society, one where the lines separating Jew from non-Jew have blurred considerably?

If one gives significant sums to cancer research, who’s to say that donation won’t help Jews? Of course it will. So will the food bank, the homeless shelter, and, even indirectly the donation to earthquake victims in Haiti (look at how Israel’s humanitarian image was enhanced). Rabbi Josh Feigelson adds that technology has also made this a much smaller and more interconnected world. The Talmud (Gittin 61a) also makes it clear that, for the sake of peace, we are bound to provide for both the Jewish and non-Jewish poor and infirmed.

So what’s needed is a new formula, one that takes into account traditional Jewish values and dramatically shrinking world.

Here are some guidelines that might help:

• Since family comes first, give first to those causes that have the greatest impact on your family. If a loved one has Alzheimers, give to something like the Alzheimer’s Association. The fact that both Jews and non Jews will be helped is an added bonus.

• If there is a Jewish angle to a general cause, consider it. If your thing is a universal cause like environmentalism, you can give to groups that promote those values prom a Jewish perspective, like COEJL or Hazon.

• Give to local homeless shelters and food banks, but give also to organizations that support the homeless and hungry in Israel, like Yad Eliezer, and to those like Mazon, that help to feed Jews and non Jews everywhere, including possibly in your hometown.

In this shrunken world, all philanthropy, like politics, is local. We feel the pain of those suffering half a world away; and as we’ve seen with the gyrations of the stock market following the riots in Greece and the international havoc created by the ash cloud in Iceland, there is no escaping that interdependence.

So the magic formula isn’t so much about where you give, but that you give. Wherever you contribute, the donation will, in the end, help you. As the Talmud states, “When someone gives even the smallest amount (a prutah) s/he is privileged to sense God’s presence.”

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman is spiritual leader of Temple Beth El in Stamford, CT. Read his blog here, and follow him on Twitter.
Have an ethical dilemma? Email Rabbi Hammerman at

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