A disclaimer, before we begin.
I do not speak for all Jews, most Jews, or any facet of the Jewish religion at large. Judaism is famously based on debate and, as a result, is famously diverse and even contradictory within its thoughts and beliefs. Anyone claiming to speak for more than themselves, then, does so at their own peril.
So, with that said: I wrote this and I think it’s good.
These are thoughts, then- nothing more, but crucially, nothing less either.
There’s an old joke from the incomparable Big Book of Jewish Humor that Freud and I both have a fondness for.
A schnorrer (Yiddish term for beggar) came to visit a rich man, who was so moved by the man’s story that he gave him twenty dollars. An hour later, walking on the street, the rich man wandered into a restaurant and was astonished to see the schnorrer feasting on bagels and lox.
“What chutzpah,” said the rich man. “Is this why I gave you twenty dollars — so you could go out and eat bagels and lox?”
“Now just a minute,” replied the schnorrer. “Before I came to you, when I didn’t have any money at all, I couldn’t afford to eat bagels and lox. Now, with God’s help, I can finally pay for this nice breakfast, and you come in here and tell me I shouldn’t eat bagels and lox. So tell me, please, when can I eat bagels and lox?”
It’s the italics that sell it.
Freud had a fascination with Jewish jokes involving the schnorrer, a beggar figure in traditional old-country Judaism who is often the hero/anti-hero on the paradigm. What’s interesting is that the schnorrer isn’t idealized – he’s rarely noble, and is often a crass trickster. But, Freud notes, the joke follows the dark, subconscious assumption of Jewish religion and culture that this beggar is entitled to his money and his humanity.
When we critique him getting bagels and lox, suddenly it’s flipped on ourselves. The assumption, to answer his question, is that the beggar should never have bagels and lox: but what began as a piece of plain cold logic suddenly takes on a personal, tangible sheen. How dare we take this simple pleasure ourselves but begrudge it to another, and, with that parallel drawn, many more uncomfortable ones follow.
The joke, then, is about exploring our subconscious truths in contrast to our daily actions.
This isn’t an article about historical Jewish humor (although, maybe it should be) or about the psychological implications behind it (though it could be.) It is, instead, a small exploration of what giving means, or means hypothetically, within the Jewish religion.
There’s no exact Hebrew word for charity.
There’s a word for mandated giving, of course, and righteous giving at that, called Tzedakah. You may have heard it. There is similar a word for a righteous commandment or requirement called a Mitzvah.
It’s colloquially referred to as a good deed. But it’s also an order, an imperative, a job assigned as the cost of a soul.
Both Tzedakah and Mitzvahs have a requirement attached, a nagging mandatory exhale that reduces the self-importance of the act. To uncomfortably paraphrase Chris Rock, you don’t get a cookie for doing things you’re supposed to do- in Judaism acts of giving are tinged with the faint praise of the expected.
That can be a gift. When we have no path, no purpose, we form our own. America is a land of great ambition, but that burns inward. We worry and obsess and feel anxious, inferior, desperately striving, and all that reflects a cultural narcissism that I, if we’re honest, embody more than most.
To have some calling outside ourselves can be a burden. But it can also free us from ourselves, and allow us to rebalance and calibrate to a better whole.
Religion is the opposite of cool.
Organized or not, it’s lame. It’s bound in dusty rules and obligations. Some are outdated, some dangerous and cruel, but some merely chafe at our instincts for the self. Who cares about Kosher? Why shouldn’t I eat bacon?
So I do.
That’s why ‘spirituality’ is so popular- it’s a journey of the self, a pursuit of ones own truth. And, while that is great and admirable, isn’t there a space for the larger? For the communal, for the universal, for limitations and laws? Isn’t there some innate desire for purpose that conflicts with absolute freedom? Some truth that demands the subjugation that we, as free souls, flee from?
Religion is often about personal obligation and communal rules. Some are stale. Some are outright dangerous. But does that mean that we’re free, purely free, to a void of meaning to craft our own?
Maybe. Maybe not.
But it’s worth considering. What moral standards are worth being bound to, even when inconvenient?
Some aren’t. I don’t keep keep most arcane laws. But there are ones feel bruise the periphery of your soul when neglected.
That might not be for you. But it’s worth a passing moment of your thought, if nothing else, and that’s all this site can promise.
You might hate this article.
I do, a little. It’s not a feel-good piece, it’s imposing, it’s a little self-righteous and smarmy and I sound like a dick.
But maybe something here will stick.
I wrote this, after all, because something stuck with me. It’s why I wrote this article, why I started and stopped, began and erased this document a half-dozen times before I sent it.
I had a class, a strange class, where I first came face to face with my own hypocrisy and what it felt like to live openly, selfishly, without laws or bounds.
I was in sixth grade, and we had a Rabbi speak to our class. He was a gentle man, unusually so, the type that gave the aura that let you smile like sharks. Sixth graders, after all, are bloodthirsty. We can smell weakness and we gossiped, passed notes, smiled and laughed.
A substitute, at times, is the darkest pleasure.
Well, this Rabbi had a hand-out and a quiet voice. I read the packet because I read things- it beat listening- and breezed through it. The article was about a different Rabbi, one who’d given away everything for an oath of poverty. He was American and wealthy and knew, in one of those perfect moments, that his money could save so many more lives if it was out of his pockets.
So this Rabbi from the article devoted all his money to those who needed it. He sold his house to fund clean water initiatives abroad. He cancelled his son’s college fund to provide medical care in India. He sacrificed his American life because, he reasoned, that life had the lives of others bound up in its excess.
Our guest speaker asked what we thought about this. We were polite and supportive. Tepid applause, from those who’d paid attention. Good for this rando, we thought. Rah rah rah.
Then the Rabbi asked if we would do this ourselves and suddenly, backs bolted up.
It was a thought experiment, of course. We had no money worth having, but we had our lives- good, comfortable lives- that we guarded jealously. What we had supported in the abstract, suddenly and violently, turned repulsive in our mouths. We backtracked, retracting praise and weighing, obstructing, ignoring and denying.
He had us go around, one by one, explaining, as best as we could, why we refused.
You’ve never seen kids try harder.
Social Darwinism was alluded to, though not in those words. Trickle-down-economics were paraphrased, hashed out for the first time by nervous, wealthy kids. Questions of fairness were brought up, and every effort was made to rationalize the unquestioned underbelly of our lives.
When it was my turn, I kept it simple.
“I don’t want to,” I said.
That was it. I was exhausted, intellectually. The other kids, smarter and motivated, fell face-forward in their excuses. A few kids cried, soft leaking tears on red faces, and many more argued until they fell silent. The room was exhausted and so was I.
All I had left was my unpleasant truth.
The truth held no weight. I wouldn’t fight it with my own. Facts or no, imperatives or otherwise, I didn’t want to give.
The Rabbi nodded. He seemed sad- gentle men often seem sad- but he nodded to me, and to nobody else.
“Because we don’t want to,” he said. He paused with that, and opened his mouth as if to say something. He thought better of it though, and he shook his head again.
He let out a little sigh, a sad smile, and then, again, no smile at all.
Class ended, and we walked to recess a little bit slower.
Being ordered to do good is a contradiction. It violates free will. Doesn’t obligation bleed morality?
It’s a real concern, but it’s also a cipher for another, simpler truth.
We don’t like rules.
First, selfishly, it’s distinctly un-American to be forced to do something; freedom means freedom to and freedom from including freedom from those nagging moral imperatives. The American Dream, after all, is accomplishment. In a world of self-focused ambition, morality is a hobby at best and an inconvenience at worst.
Second, even worse, we don’t want to.
We don’t! It’s an understandable and universal truth, as uncomfortable as it is, that helping people is hard and often unpleasant. It is. So we obstruct our duty to give us distance. We rationalize, explain, and ignore and do anything we can to avoid coming face to face with a human challenge: do we do good or do we not?
That’s a human and difficult choice, and one I choose the latter on almost every time. I do. So do you. That’s human weakness, selfishness, wrapped in ambition and more. But to deny that unpleasant truth, doesn’t help.
We should do more and we don’t.
That might be hypocrisy, but life is complicated and living is flawed. There’s logic, the American instinct and the self-centered we all follow. It’s okay. It’s human. It’s even necessary. But, while accepting that- and you should accept yourself, your needs and wants, absolutely- think of something more. You can, at least, elevate yourself by deigning to find something else, something additional, to find a voice inside you that expects more than the merely expected.
You don’t have to be perfect. You don’t even have to be that good.
But you can be better, an expanded, yearning form of self. And that duality, at least, is worth a thought.