Some Reflections on Tzedakah

Re: Numbers 16-18:32

The passage speaks of the origin of the priesthood, and of the tithe. Interestingly, it initiates as a revolt against the authority of Moses and Aaron. A priestly tribe is therefore designated by G_d through the blossoming of one of the 12 tribal staffs, and this tribe (the Levites) in essence defends Moses and Aaron from popular revolt. The tribe has to set themselves apart, to be especially holy, serve the tabernacle, and in exchange are given 1/10 of the wealth of Israel in the form of a tithe.

The discussion today centered on the question of the purpose of the tithe. Was it equivalent to charity, or really to be more accurate in the translation of the word Tzedakah: righteousness? The word for tithe that is used in the passage is: כָּל-מַעֲשֵׂר which derives from the word for 10. צדקה, or Tzedakah, although a requirement in Jewish culture to give to the poor, widows, and orphans, probably has a distinct cultural origin.

Off the cuff, I reflected that after the decimation of rebellious families by earth-swallowing, and then 14700 by the plague, the people of Israel might not have been in a mood to hear about tithes, which were in effect a way of associating value with community in the form of taxation.  As a secondary thought to this, there was the matter of taxation of those in need, where giving to the community would have meant even less of an ability to participate in the community as anything other than the generally unwelcome beggar (although one notes that in Jewish culture, the beggar can be traditionally invited to the wedding as the first mitzvah of the new soul created in marriage).  The tithe probably did not come from Egypt, because during a time of escape from slavery, they would not have brought that cultural remnant of oppression with them. Instead, my gut instinct said that it was a return to a more ancient Jewish practice (the giving of the 10th). The leaders were looking to establish as law, something from their ancient heritage, but instead of associating it with kings, they wanted to associate it with G_d and holiness, protection of the sanctuary, and the covenant, of their strength, and social order.

This hypothesis was supported somewhat later by some old testament research that addresses 3 incidents: Cain and Abel, and then Melchizedek, and finally Jacob’s covenant with G_d, discussed by Snoeberger.

So, there are 2 questions that evolve naturally from this discussion:

1) Why does G_d need money?

2) Where does Tzedakah fit into all of this?

I think that one answer to the first question that makes sense in the context of priests, may be that since the priests are an intermediary role, they have to function in a human context where value is commonly associated with currency.  Although G_d can work without the priesthood, I think that humans have a difficult time living with any level of agency in a world where G_d is constantly acting to solve every problem without them.  So, to continue to operate in a paradigm where we can influence the world around us, humans learn to negotiate in human ways.  It becomes somewhat more democratic to adopt this perspective than to say someone else is going to solve every problem.  This does not mean that G_d’s work cannot be performed through human ways, it just means that one has to cultivate a special relationship with G_d in order to knowingly do G_d’s work with humans.

Since the tradition of giving the 10th to G_d apparently predates the priesthood, the original explanation may involve a conceptual reorientation where one sees G_d as the provider, and the act of returning a portion of the wealth to G_d, becomes an act of acknowledgement that one will never take the provider role from G_d, by becoming too self-sufficient.  G_d will always be given more.

As for the second question, the obligation to do righteousness which is an ancient tenet of Jewish faith, may come from the legal tradition established first with the 10 commandments, and later with the 613 mitzvot.  It is a mitzvah in itself, but it reflects a very ancient concern with justice, and creating a just society.  Thousands of years of judicial precedent, carefully considered and documented by the priests who executed it, initially fortified by the threat of social exile or death if one did not obey, eventually internalized into 2 distinct concepts: obedience and Tzedakah.

So, those are, I believe, the distinct cultural origins of the concepts of Tithe and Tzedakah.  How does one make these relevant to today’s culture which is much more fluid and tolerant?

The way that I think about it, the tithe is the expression of common goal and defense of the community.  Tzedakah is the expression of humanity: our willingness to acknowledge the human, animal, and environmental capacity to suffer, and our desire to heal that suffering when it occurs.  The first is a more public action, the second can be more private.

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