The eighth degree of charity

How does one tread the line between compassion based on plain human decency and meek surrender to the incessant demands to be generous?

How does one ensure that children do not starve, that widows, old folks, the sick and the lame are being looked after without giving sustenance to those who feel they are entitled to public largesse for no other reason than the simple fact of their existence on this planet? Where does one find a moral compass and guide? 

We are constantly bombarded by images of dirty and starving children, playing around what appears to be contaminated drinking water sources. How long does it take to install a tap? To build a school? To lay an irrigation system? To spread a bit of petrol on the swamp surface to kill malaria larvae? I remember these ads since 1978 – the year we came to Australia. Children in the old charity ads grew up and changed, but the problems remain the same. These problems persist with depressing regularity, claiming our efforts, resources, attention, compassion and decency. We continue giving aid to countries with abysmal human rights records, so nothing changed there either. We have one of the most developed social security services in the world and we pay baby bonuses, schoolchildren bonuses, giving money away to buy pink batts whether they are needed or not. After all – we are rich! The rich must pay! Oh, brother. 

In one of my first pieces for Quadrant Online I wrote about the help, which the capitalist West gives to various tyrants, including North Korea. In it, I posited a question of moral responsibility for giving aid and succour to a tyrannical regime, helping it, in effect, to survive and oppress its own people. We continue to provide the North Korean psychopaths with aid, rewarding them for – for what? In effect, we are held to ransom, so they will not use their nuclear devices against us. As a result we give the North Korean regime tacit permission to oppress their own people, thus putting us in cahoots with the oppressors. 

Mistake me not – I am not just going on a tangent, ranting and raving about some obscure foreign policy issue – it has a direct bearing on what is happening in our country, because the same cognitive model is applied to our internal affairs. Judge for yourself – with our welfare system we have created an underclass of citizenry, which does not have a concept of earning a living, whose children are going to be on the dole, generation after generation. Similarly, we have made overseas “consumers” feel entitled to receive aid from capitalists without changing a tap, year in year out, in the ads soliciting money from us. 

My concern stems from the disaster I see unfolding in Europe, especially in Greece, where the Greek government has, for years, sustained an unsustainable bureaucratic apparatus and given out generous amounts of EU largesse to its citizens in order to stay in power. Now the whole Greek state is on the verge of default and collapse with serious consequences for the rest of the world. We have a government, of a similar political persuasion, which squanders money like there is no tomorrow and for the same reason. 

It seems like a pattern, which is present throughout the West: conservative governments patching up the budget holes left by their social-democratic predecessors’ generosity and kind-heartedness. When the safe amount of budgetary surplus is achieved due to diligence, saving and hard work, the electorate, judging that the time for a splurge has come, turfs conservatives out and brings in social-democrats again. The social-democrats, being what they are, oblige – and reward the electorate with alacrity. The whole cycle begins again. 

There is something inherently wrong in giving money away without a thought for what it does to the giver and receiver. While no reasonable person would let a child starve or a temporary unemployed person’s dignity be trampled upon, charity or social security or alms or tzedakah – whatever you wish to call it, cannot be, should not be given to sustain the perception of indefinite entitlement, especially if it is a reward for something, which should be done anyway, like earning a living. 

The Jewish medieval sage and physician Maimonides, known to his contemporaries as RAMBAM, an acronym of his Hebrew name, wrote a treatise on giving tzedakah (charity, obligation) to the needy.

He wrote:

There are eight degrees in the giving of tzedakah, each one is higher than the one before:

to give grudgingly, reluctantly, or with regret;
to give less than one should, but with grace;
to give what one should, but only after being asked;
to give before one is asked;
to give without knowing who will receive it,
   although the recipient knows the identity of the giver;
to give without making known one’s identity;
to give so that neither giver nor  receiver knows the identity of the other;
to help another to become self-supporting, by means of a gift, a loan
    or by finding employment for the one in need. 

(From MISHKAN T’FILAH: A Progressive Siddur, Central Conference of American Rabbis, New York, 2010)

I suspect there are similar provisions in Christianity, which stipulate similar parameters on alms giving. Since the basis of Western European culture is , essentially, based on Judaeo-Christian precepts like this one, should not we take heed and concentrate on the eighth degree of charity?

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