Tuesday, November 16, 2010

It Shouldn't Be a Secret

The "it" to which I am referring is chesed (kindness) and/or tzedakah (charity).

When TH and I decided to join a Modern Orthodox (MO) shul (synagogue) here in NYC, I thought a number of things would bother me, chief among them the mechitzah (divider between the men's and women's sections) and associated non-participation of women in the service. What I was not expecting, though, was to be so disturbed by the shul's approach to chesed and tzedakah (I am using these terms more or less interchangeably).

I admit there is a certain amount of understandable culture clash on this subject between Orthodox and non-Orthodox shuls. I grew up Reform, and the Reform Movement very heavily emphasizes social justice. At the shul where I grew up, there was always one, and most often more than one, tzedakah project going on at any given time. The youth group volunteered at a food pantry, many of the holidays were accompanied by food and/or money drives of some sort, the shul had a partnership with a school in a disadvantaged neighborhood, etc. The Solomon Schechter school I went to also had frequent tzedakah projects, although I have to admit that without one particular, somewhat strange, rabbi, who started a social action committee and spoke in his classes and at davening (prayers) with great passion about the importance of helping the poor, I'm not so sure we would have gone beyond the occasional food drive.

At our MO shul, however, there is . . . nothing. Well, not quite nothing, because there are announcements every week urging us to engage in bikkur cholim (visiting the sick). The sick in question, though, are members of our own shul. The "nothing" refers to what we do for those sick and/or poor people, Jewish or not, who are not members of the community.

I have a few caveats here: First, it is a small shul, both in terms of its space and in terms of its population. It has no religious school, although there are Shabbat morning services for kids. One of the rabbis works for very little money and has a fairly demanding day job. It is not very organized. Second, I realize that many of the "tzedakah hours" my Reform Temple performed were on Shabbat. As a youth-group member, I was driven, along with the other members, to the food pantry on Saturday morning, while the adults were still in services. All of the rituals, including daily minyan (services), that people in the shul have to do of course takes time away from potential tzedakah projects.

But, fundamentally, neither of these are acceptable excuses. If a MO Jew can look at a Reform Jew and say, "You are mechalel Shabbos (desecrating the Sabbath) when you drive to do acts of chesed on Shabbat morning," that same MO Jew should consider whether he or she really thinks that Orthodoxy has a monopoly on Torah. The Torah "speaks" in pretty absolute terms about the need to pursue justice (Deuteronomy 16:20) and to help the widow, the orphan (or fatherless), and the proselyte (Deuteronomy 10:18, e.g.). If MOs want to claim a monopoly on Torah, I think they have the responsibility to follow all of it (with the exception of the laws only applying to Beit Hamikdash, of course), not only the strict ritual parts. If they are willing to admit that other Jews may pursue Torah in their own way, they might want to see what they can learn from those other Jews.

Don't get me wrong here. I am Shomeret Shabbat and (mostly) kashrut, and I wish that many more Jews were as well. I just think it shouldn't have to be an either/or in either direction.

You might ask, "Katrina, what is all this about the post title and secrecy?" The answer is that, a few Shabbatot ago, I asked a few friends of mine and TH's, also pretty recently married and without kids, whether they agreed with me that the shul should be doing more tzedakah. One answer I got shocked me: "I'm sure that many people in the shul perform acts of chesed regularly; you just don't know about it." On the one hand, I believe she is correct. But the premise is crazytown. Tzedakah should be a secret? The shul (and especially the rabbis) have no duty to (at the minimum) urge us to do tzedakah and (even better) organize, or urge others to organize, tzedakah projects in which everyone is urged to participate? The rabbis give hardly any mussar (moral instruction) from the bimah (pulpit), but maybe in this case, for the sake of Torah, they can make an exception.


Sunkist Miss said...

One answer I got shocked me: "I'm sure that many people in the shul perform acts of chesed regularly; you just don't know about it." On the one hand, I believe she is correct. But the premise is crazytown. Tzedakah should be a secret?

I sounds to me that its not so much a collective decision that tzedaka should be secret. I grew up with many conservative & reform Jews who participated in group tzedaka and chesed projects, but we also did stuff on our own at home, and we certainly didn't adverstise that. (After all, you don't want to be "showing off"). The weird thing, in this case, is not that people are privately doing acts of tzedaka. Of course they are. Rather, the weird / problematic aspect is that there is not *also* some communal effort going on -- that would be made public so that people can participate collectively.

katrina said...

Right, SM, that's what I mean. That personal acts of tzedakah should render communal efforts unnecessary--that is what I call crazytown.

elf said...

What she said.