Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Maimonides Eight Degrees in NYC...

As a Jew obsessed with social justice, I wonder alot about Maimonedes's "ladder of tzedakah", an eight level list, given in descending order, of the best ways to give tzedakah (charity). The eighth level, doing something to help someone become self sufficient, is the highest one and the one I usually think about. Walking a picket line to help on a strike, helping someone build a union for themselves, working in solidarity with international labor struggles are all ways to help people becocme self sufficient.

But being in my home, NYC, has made me think about level 7 the past few days. As translated on My Jewish Learning, the seventh (and penultimate) principle is:

A lower standard of charity is one in which the benefactor has no knowledge of the recipient and the latter has no knowledge of the individual source of charity—matan b’seter [“giving in secret”]. This is practicing the mitzvah of charity for the sake of the mitzvah [since the benefactor has no benefit, social or egoistical]. Such charity is like the courtyard in the [ancient] Temple where the righteous used to place their donations secretly and the poor would benefit from them in secret. Similar to this secret courtyard is the act of one who puts his money into the charity box [or funds].

Now, here in the five boroughs, a likkel while after this was originally written, it seems a little odd to me. I don't know if Maimonides was considering a world in which hundreds of thousands would live together, that the person in the street that needs a hand would not be a stranger to us, so it would be better to give in secret... but to me, when I see someone who needs something, it seems to me to be more dignified, respectful to know that person. A lot of us in this big town spend a lot of time lost in our own world. in our own thoughts, not necessarily wanting to speak. As someone who's done social justice activism and political work, I know how people try so very hard to avoid my gaze, to avoid that eye contact that might encourage me into believing I can engage them. I can only imagine what someone who's stuck asking people for money or food or a swipe of their metrocard must feel. For every person that actually engages them, there must be dozens that look away.

And its easy to give a quarter, a dollar by rote. It's a lot more difficult to acknowledge that person as another human being, because doing so forces to consider so many questions: how do we live in a world where this can happen to another human being? why am I blessed to have a warm bed and a cute girlfriend to go back to? do I have enough money to get through tomorrow? could this be me tomorrow?

So I try to introduce myself. And get the other person's name. Because to some people, that person is just a bum who needs a job. To me, that person is another human being with a piece of G-d in them, like all of us. They deserve a fair shake just like all of us. And they deserve to be recognized as another human being. So giving to that person without them knowing you and vice versa results in the very shame Maimonides wished to avoid.

Something to think about as I climb into Knucklehead's bed. And we all climb into our beds.


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