At the Intersection of Jewish Texts & Philanthropy

Everything old really is new again.

Many Jewish funders seek a greater context for their philanthropy. Their Jewish identity informs their philanthropy and makes it more impactful, but sometimes funders look for a deeper understanding about what it really means to give.

As it turns out, some answers have been available to us for centuries. That’s part of what’s behind JFN’s three-part webinar series that explores what Jewish texts have to say about the inherent responsibilities about giving. The Torah, Talmud, and latter-day rabbinic commentaries offer many entry points to discuss giving in ways that have surprising applications for modern philanthropy.

We began to explore that on Nov. 17 with Rabbi Shai Held, the Co-Founder, Dean and Chair of Jewish Thought at Mechon Hadar. His presentation, “Between Philanthropy and Kindness: Judaism’s Two Paths to Generosity,” cogently laid out how the mere act of giving often isn’t enough.

Among those Held cited was Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler, who wrote the tenets of tzedakah date back to Genesis, where human beings were effectively granted “the sublime power” of giving by G-d.

“What I think Reb Dessler is saying here, that is extremely moving and powerful, is that what it means to be created in G-d’s image is to be created with the capacity for and the purpose of giving, just as G-d does,” Held said during his webinar. “We are created to be givers. His argument is that this is the first claim the Torah makes about humanity. To be human, is to give. And conversely, implicitly, is the claim that to refuse to give is to actually go against our own nature.”

For the next webinar, on January 20, we’ll be joined by Dr. Elana Stein Hain, Director of Leadership Education at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, who will talk about “The Recipient of Charity: From Object to Subject.”

Much of the Jewish discourse about philanthropy centers around the donor. In this webinar, however, Hain will examine how Judaism conceives of the recipient of charity, not only in terms of rights and responsibilities, but more fundamentally in terms of their identity as an active subject.

The final webinar, on March 3, will be led by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, the distinguished author, philosopher, former Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, who currently holds professorships at New York University, Yeshiva University, and King’s College London.