Two Jewish philanthropists were overheard disagreeing about how to give charity.
“I only support Jewish causes — the Jewish people need our help more than anyone else in the world,” Cohen said.
“But what about the tsunami in Japan, the earthquake in Haiti? What about all the worthy local charities that are fighting to cure cancer and support the arts?” Bernstein argued. “Aren’t we responsible to give our share to general society just as much as everyone else?”
“Those causes are important,” Cohen conceded. “But who will support Israel and all the Jewish institutions if not us?”
“Well, the United Way is doing great work for the entire community,” Bernstein said, “and I’m not willing to siphon my charity dollars from them and give to a parochial charity that only helps a small segment of the population.”
They went back and forth for some time and ended up in a stalemate, each one believing that his moral code was superior. Actually, recent patterns of large philanthropic gifts from wealthy Jews have been favoring the more universalist attitude of Bernstein over the Jewish particularlist Cohen for several years. Jewish charities have been hurting because many Jews no longer feel that their primary allegiance should be to the Jewish community, but rather to the world and humanity at large. Who’s right?
This thorny moral dilemma was voiced centuries ago by two sages of the Palestinian Talmud. Rabbi Akiva and his colleague Ben Azai once challenged each other to find the one sentence in the Torah that encapsulated the most important Jewish value. Rabbi Akiva found the verse in our parashah (Leviticus 19:18). “Love your neighbor as yourself,” said the rabbi, is the greatest principle of the Torah. Ben Azai disagreed. “This is the book of the chronicles of mankind … who was created in God’s form” (Genesis 5:1) is an even greater principle, he argued.
Why didn’t Rabbi Akiva subscribe to Ben Azai’s beautiful idea of viewing all mankind as being in God’s image? Was he simply too cynical to believe that this motive was sufficient? I think it’s more than that. The word “neighbor” (re’a), which appears in the verse, “Love your neighbor,” is a word that specifically refers to one’s fellow Jew. Rabbi Akiva believed that while it was important to respect every single human being because of his or her Divine stamp, it was more important to make one’s fellow Jew the primary object of one’s affections and kindnesses.
Ben Azai disagreed and felt that the Torah wanted the Jewish people to show compassion to all the people of the world. He focused on Genesis, which addressed mankind before there ever was a Chosen People, when all people were part of one big family of creatures with a Godly spark.
It would appear that while the Palestinian Talmud accepted both views, the more authoritative Babylonian Talmud rejected Ben Azai’s position and embraced Rabbi Akiva’s. There may be two reasons for this: Firstly, the Babylonian sages were more realistic about relations between Jews and non-Jews in the world of the fourth and fifth centuries, when these texts were being compiled. Jews were persecuted and tortured so often by non-Jews that it was virtually impossible to identify the “image of God” within our cruel tormentors. Ben Azai might be well and dandy for a perfect world, but not in a world where anti-Semitism has run amok.
Secondly, the Babylonian sages might have been more pragmatic, realizing that if we don’t support the Jewish community infrastructure and the Jewish Diaspora population, the Jewish people as we know it runs the risk of becoming extinct. Showing compassion to the world is very important, but not at the expense of feeding hungry Jews. If we don’t step up, no one else will.
“If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” Hillel said. But then he added, “But when I am for myself alone, what am I?”
The tension undeniably exists for every single Jew. The dilemma of how to triage our precious charity resources must weigh upon all of us. For us to see the horrors of recent natural disasters in Haiti and Japan and do nothing is surely inhuman and un-Jewish. But to make Japan and Haiti our primary focus and to forget about Israel’s needs and the needs of our brothers and sisters around the world is to say that my brother and sister are no different from the stranger, and that, too, is wrong.
If we lose sleep over these kinds of things, that’s good. It shows that we still have a conscience and a soul.
Rabbi Korobkin is rosh kehillah of Yavneh in Hancock Park and provides synagogue services for the Orthodox Union.