According to Judaism, philanthropy is not an option but a duty ― a duty to God and to one’s community. It is forbidden to avert one’s eyes from someone in need, and help should be given in the way that most preserves the dignity of the individual receiving the money. Philanthropy is not only an obligation of the rich who can afford to give millions, but even one who receives tzedakah himself should still try to give anything that he can. The fulfillment of the obligation to give tzedakah and support others in need is part of each Jew’s task to continue to perfect the world that God created and create a moral and just society, thus no one is exempt.
The Jewish view of philanthropy as an obligation is intrinsically different than that of most other religions. The basis of this disparity is the Jewish concept of a mitzvah, a commandment. The etymological origins of the words charity, from the Latin caritas, affection, and philanthropy, from the Greek philo, love, illustrate that the prevailing view in the Western world is that the basis for charity is love. Charity will be instigated by feelings of love or compassion for an individual or a cause. In Judaism, however, it is a mitzvah, a commandment, to give a certain percentage of ones income to charity. It is best if this money is given with love and compassion, however lack of emotion does not preclude the obligation to give.
Why should a person have to give money if he/she does not feel emotionally compelled? The answer can be found by examining the Hebrew word for charity, tzedakah . The root of tzedakah is tzedek , meaning justice. When I give 10% to 20% of my income to a worthy cause, it is not benevolence but justice. Why is it justice to give my hard earned money to someone else? Ultimately all of the money that I earn comes from God, and therefore if God instructed that a percentage of the money be given to others who deserve it, to do so is not only a moral imperative, but a legal imperative. I must recognize the needs of others and open my hand to them.
Nevertheless, Jewish sources recognize that to give of my money to those in need, recognizing that I do not have total dominion over it, is tremendously difficult. That is why the Talmud says that tzedakah -charity, is the most powerful force in the world, so great that it can even save one from death. One sage was so overcome by the power of tzedakah that he declared that its reward is equal to the reward of all of the other commandments combined.
The power of tzedakah reaches its greatest heights when it is done in the way that preserves the dignity of the receiver to the utmost. True justice cannot be achieved by denigrating others. Maimonides, a great medieval philosopher and codifier of Jewish law, delineated eight levels of giving charity reflecting the principle of human worth. The highest level is to provide someone with a job or interest-free loan that will enable him to help himself and maintain self-respect. One rung below that is to give money in a way that neither the giver nor the receiver know of the other’s identity and in this way, the receiver will not need to be embarrassed. The lowest level of giving is to give with an uncheerful face. Above that is giving less money than asked for but with a pleasant expression. We can infer from this that according to Maimonides, the attitude and the way the tzedakah is given is even more crucial than the exact amount of money. Maimonides also specified that one should give locally before one gives globally. It is our responsibility to ensure that those in our families and communities are provided for before we can look beyond that.