In my journalism practical this week, my class began a new section of our course entitled Community Partnership. As part of this section, we were asked to join one of three community projects introduced to us in class and with whom we will work once a week until the end of the semester. The lecture itself was a mixture of awkwardness, apprehension and excitement as twenty-odd university students floated around the room to meet the individuals involved in the various projects. While my class and our course are by no means religious in any respect, the activity reminded me of a concept which is central to Judaism, and particularly to many Jews: charity.
Gimilut chassadim, or the giving of love and kindness, refers to pretty much any act of charity from visiting the sick and elderly to assisting a fellow student with their shopping bags and helping the less fortunate. The Torah (old testament) gives the doing of good deeds as a positive commandment, saying that Jews should do such deeds without hesitation or any expectation of anything in return. The Talmud, a religious Jewish text which captures in writing thousands of years of oral tradition passed down by the great Jewish rabbis of history, goes on to the state that there are three pillars which hold up the Jewish world: prayer, religious study and charity (gimilut chassadim).
One opinion proposes that charity is greater than all other commandments combined, and that a Jew who fails to meet their charitable obligations is equitable to an idol worshiper. This, of course, is one of the worst consequences for a Jew, as idol worship is listed as one of the three sins forbidden by the Torah under any circumstance including the threat of death. With the exception of these three negative commandments, all other commandments may be breached if in individual is under the duress of death. For example, while a Jew may not eat pork, should one hypothetically find themselves stuck on a desert island with only a pig to eat, we are told that we may eat the animal to preserve life. As forlorn as this particular opinion is, it is likely an exaggeration designed nonetheless to instill in people the importance of charitable work.
We also see mention of the importance of charity and acts of kindness in places other than the Torah and Talmud.
Jews believe that G-d keeps a tally of every person’s actions during the year. On Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, He reflects on each and every person’s year (and preceding years) and makes a judgement regarding the direction of their incoming year. An individual who has engaged in positive actions will be rewarded in the coming year (or years), while people who have sinned will find a year of punishment and negative consequence for their actions. For most individuals, their judgement will be based on a mixture of the good and bad deeds they have performed over the year. It is a rare occurrence, we learn, that an individual is an entirely good or bad person.
Ten days after Rosh Hashanah, on Yom Kippur (considered the holiest of days on the Jewish calendar), our fates are sealed by G-d and await our progression through the year. This, effectively, allows us ten days to repent for any sins we have done and improve or change our behavior in order to amend the judgement waiting for us in ‘heaven’. Traditional prayers and texts read at this time of the year tell us that there are three things which can one can do which, done effectively, have the ability to change G-d’s judgement: repentance, prayer and charity. This, again, emphasizes, the power of charity in the world.
Learn more about Yom Kippur here.
While different Jews have different practices regarding and means of going about charity, a common standard among more traditional or observant communities is that an individual will give 10% of their income towards charity. This is done most often by the giving of donations to communal charities or to their local synagogue, which will in turn distribute the money among those in need within the community. This is not the only manner in which one may perform charitable acts, yet it has become the norm for individuals who are not in the position to actively and personally contribute to individuals around them.
Many great Jewish learners, including Maimonides, have agreed that one of the best kinds of charity is that which is done under the cloak of anonymity. People who are sickly or in need of financial help are already compromised and may experience humiliation or embarrassment in asking for help. Therefore, by performing acts of charity for such people while remaining anonymous, one does an additional good deed by saving them from further embarrassment of seeing their ‘helpers’ in public.
While the topic of charity may seem straightforward and simple in real-life, its’ importance is highlighted within Judaism and extra meaning given to it as a result.
Regarding the experiences I face in my day-to-day life, I of course realize that these Community Partnerships are designed to benefit and develop us as journalism students as much as our input will benefit those we work with. It is ironic that I have long been struggling with increased separation from the values and principles of Jewish life which I learned growing up, and this week I found inspiration in the simplest of lectures. For too many months I have prioritized university work and other commitments over the developing of my relationship with my religion. Therefore, I feel that this assignment has come at an opportune time to remind me of my background and the things which are of true importance to me as a Jew. Indeed, a few months ago I would have never believed that university – a symbol of all things areligious in my life – would become such a strong reminder of this and yet, here I am, doing the best kind of work there is.