Let's assume for argument's sake that I am a well-to-do person living next door to a poor family who apparently can't keep bread on the table without outside assistance. In other words, let's simplify the world artificially so we can take a look at how charity is done today in comparison to wisdom on the subject from Maimonides, a Jewish philosopher of the 12th Century.
We Canadians are said to be charitable people, after all, but like the Jewish community of Maimonides' day, we ponder the difference between charity that is self-serving and charity that is truly sincere and of maximum benefit to those who receive it.
So how do I best help the poor family next door? It's not cut and dried, is it? If that family is headed by a ne'er-do-well who will take any gift straight to the pub, the situation will obviously be different from the case of a family where parents are trying hard but are unemployable for health or fitness reasons. And then there's every other possibility between the two.
Maimonides ranks different ways of delivering charity as follows:
- The highest level of charity is where the donor and the receiver know each other and the donor partners with the receiver to take actions that will enable the receiver to become self-sufficient. It's similar to the current adage in NGO circles: Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for life.
- If this is not possible, the second level of charity is to give to reputable charitable funds that administer aid to the poor but where the donor and receiver do not know each other.
- A third level—according to Maimonides—is to give anonymously to the poor. This might take the form of dropping off a basket of produce at night while the family is asleep. The anonymity indicates that the gift is not given out of self-interest.
- Maimonides' fourth level has the receiver know who the donor is, but the donor is unaware of the identity of the beneficiary. Food aid during a famine with the name of the donor stamped on the bags of grain might qualify here.
- The next level of charity is the giving of a gift to the poor family without being asked. The donor senses the need and goes over with hundred dollars for groceries, for instance.
- The sixth level has the poor man ask me for help and I gladly give him hundred dollars for groceries.
- Giving gladly to the poor man but giving stingily (say twenty dollars when hundred is barely reasonable) qualifies as number 7 in Maimonides' catalogue.
- The lowest form of charity is the grudging, stingy gift.
Maimonides had neither a tax deduction to contemplate in all this, nor could he have envisioned a time when most charity would be state-administered. Revisiting his thoughts on charity in his time—or lack thereof—can help us clarify our own responses to the cries for help that come to us on a daily basis, as they no doubt did to Maimonides. His list contains a curious mixture of piety and practicality: this consideration we have in common.
The big difference, maybe, I guess, is that Maimonides was writing about life in a community that contained both the well-off and the poor; in our day the separation of wealth and poverty is so complete that the haves need never rub shoulders with the have nots.
It's too easy today to fall routinely into Charity Number Seven, or Eight.