#elxn42: The Essence of Charity

As a bit of a theology nerd I was excited to hear that Nigel Wright, the Prime Minister’s former chief of staff, cited the Bible in his testimony in Mike Duffy’s trial. When Wright personally reimbursed Duffy for $90,000 of expenses the disgraced senator had to repay, he wanted it kept private—because, he said today, of Matthew 6:

1 Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven. 2 So when you give to the poor, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be honored by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. 3 But when you give to the poor, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your giving will be in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.

In the context of his previous statement, that he paid Duffy out of “obligation”, one is reminded of the Jewish mitzvah of tzedakah, or charity. Mitzvah, while often translated as “good deed”, actually means “commandment” or “religious obligation”. And privacy and anonymity are an important part of tzedakah—the Talmud says that someone who gives tzedakah in secret is better than Moses.

It’s not just about motivation—i. e., ensuring that the donor isn’t just doing it for an ego boost. The more important principle is to preserve the dignity of the poor. This priority is enshrined in the biblical commandments, tucked away in the dead boring parts of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, that farmers should not harvest their entire field, but leave a corner behind for the poor to harvest themselves. From this a vast array of rabbinical laws, interpretations, and anecdotes proliferated: the poor should not have their time wasted waiting for help; one must avoid humiliating the recipient at all costs; someone should not have to sell off their assets or the tools they use to make a living in order to be considered eligible for aid.

The way anonymity preserves the recipient’s dignity is made explicit in the medieval philosopher Maimonides’ ranking of eight levels of tzedakah. The fourth heighest level of tzedakah is when the recipient is unknown to the donor. The third level is when the donor is unknown to the recipient. The second level is when neither the donor nor recipient know who each other is. And the absolute highest level of tzedakah is preventing a person from becoming poor in the first place, by giving them a gift or a loan or helping them find work.

When Jesus was alive, none of this had been written down yet, or codified so precisely; it was a tumultuous period when rival sects and academies were still battling it out. Judaism (as we know it) and early Christianity would each coalesce later. To take Jesus’ view of charity in context, one should also consider the Jewish version, which reflects one of the traditions that existed during his time. Anyway, this is all to say that he probably called people hypocrites not just because they gave alms to feel good about themselves, but because they embarrassed the poor as well.

It is in this light that we should see Nigel Wright’s generous gesture towards Mike Duffy. Repaying $90,000 would surely have put the senator in poverty, probably requiring him to sell off some of his assets. This would not have escaped the press, who would glory in his humiliation. By paying Duffy, Wright intended to allow him to maintain his self-sufficiency. And by requesting secrecy, he stayed true to the spirit of tzedakah—acting selflessly, out of obligation to the Prime Minister God. It is only a mark of our fallen times that this deed landed him afoul of the Criminal Code. Would that we all, Christian, Jew, and otherwise, had such a commitment to charity.

Blessed in the city: charity, justice, and the budget

Blessed shall you be in the city, and blessed shall you be in the field. (Deuteronomy 28:3)

It is curious that God’s revelation tells us that the fullness of humanity and of history is realized in a city. We need to look at our cities with a contemplative gaze, a gaze of faith which sees God dwelling in their homes, in their streets and squares…In cities, as opposed to the countryside, the religious dimension of life is expressed by different lifestyles, daily rhythms linked to places and people. In their daily lives people must often struggle for survival and this struggle contains within it a profound understanding of life which often includes a deep religious sense.

…On the one hand, there are people who have the means needed to develop their personal and family lives, but there are also many “non-citizens”, “half citizens” and “urban remnants”. Cities create a sort of permanent ambivalence because, while they offer their residents countless possibilities, they also present many people with any number of obstacles to the full development of their lives. This contrast causes painful suffering. (Evangelii Gaudium, paras. 71-75)

If there is any meaning we can take away from the big Budget Committee meeting falling smack dab in the middle of Hanukkah this year, it’s that, after a certain point, doing more with less requires a genuine miracle. As we Torontonians have been reminded, there is simply not enough money to go around. We must choose what to keep and what to cut. Partly this is an exercise for pencil-pushers and infographic designers. But it is also a call to us to articulate a broad, long-term vision of what a city should be and of city-dwellers’ obligations to each other.

Over the past few years of following the budget process, I’ve watched two divergent visions struggle for supremacy. At heart each embodies a different value: Charity vs. Justice. For me it is difficult to disentangle these words from their religious roots — and I think it’s unwise to do so, because the lens of religion permits us to see the true relationship between them. Which I’ll get to. But now: budgeting!

There are some whose goal is to cut spending and shrink government. This is a short-term sort of plan that favours paying off loans instead of making investments, and demands flatlined budgets, which are essentially cuts. For a city department to achieve 0% increases when prices gradually inflate requires putting off projects and new hires, lowering service standards, raising user fees, and falling behind on the least urgent matters, in the hopes that there will be an influx of purified oil cash before the crisis point. Unless there is a change of administration, the cash is never coming, and the system exists in a long drawn-out state of crisis: overcrowded, aging transit; a lengthening waitlist for increasingly dilapidated affordable housing; parents struggling to find daycare.

As government shrinks, it effectively “downloads” social services to non-profit enterprises (churches, charities, food banks) and individuals (couchsurfing because you can’t afford rent, getting a neighbour or relative to watch the kids, asking friends or family for money and personal favours). Rather than being supported through taxes, these “services” are reliant upon grants and fundraising. This is Charity — a fundamentally individualistic, precarious, pity-based model where the privileged benefactor donates to a deserving recipient (whether a person or an organization) out of the goodness of their heart.

In opposition stands a vision of growth and abundance. This is advocated by those councillors who often argue that in one of the richest countries in the world, no one should have to go hungry or homeless. Instead of relying on “means tests” to efficiently portion out access to city services — school breakfasts, recreation programs, childcare — to the most needy, we could work towards a system where these are accessible to everyone. The City is uniquely positioned to take on big goals like these, having excellent financial standing (which makes it cheap to borrow money) and a large tax base.

This approach necessitates selling people on the long-term benefits of investing in social programs and infrastructure rather than short-term savings (“you’ll save $60 a year”). Long-term savings are less tangible, but much greater: the value of an education at a library or in a rec centre; the damage that doesn’t happen when our water infrastructure can cope with floods; people being able to go to work or school because they have daycare taken care of; the shelters we don’t have to open because more people have adequate housing.

The first step is recognizing that widespread inequality is injustice — not just an accumulation of individual moral failings or bad choices. Justice means that we give up our right to determine who “deserves” basic human needs. Justice calls on everyone to pitch in as neighbours helping neighbours. This is not a virtue; it is an obligation, and it must be unconditional.

You can do both justice and charity, obviously — but many people do charity and think that, because they’ve chipped in, there is nothing further they have to do. The ultimate goal of justice, on the other hand, is to render charity unnecessary.

Charity is often associated with religion: tithing, food drives for Christmas, the Salvation Army and all that. This irritates the fuck out of me because justice, as I’ve described it, is also a religious activity, born thousands of years before anyone could even conceptualize “secularism” or became an “activist”. It just happens to be hidden in the really boring parts of the Bible and the Talmud that nobody reads! Look how all these rabbis interpreted these verses about farming to talk about how your income/property doesn’t really belong to you — part of it belongs to the poor, and if you withhold it (or only distribute it preferentially, or make it difficult for them to get) you are basically stealing what is rightfully theirs. (This is echoed by the early Church Father John Chrysostom, who Pope Francis quotes in his recent Evangelii Gaudium: “Not to share one’s wealth with the poor is to steal from them and to take away their livelihood. It is not our own goods which we hold, but theirs.”)

In the Jewish tradition tzedakah is the word for both charity and justice, and Maimonides’ account of the eight levels of tzedakah makes clear that the highest forms of charity are justice. The very best kind of tzedakah is preventing someone from becoming poor in the first place, finding them a job, or becoming their business partner. Next is “to give to the poor without knowing to whom one gives, and without the recipient knowing from who he received”. And so on; you can read the link yourself. He works off the same principle as the other sages: the dignity of the recipient is paramount.

What does tzedakah look like in our city today? At its lowest level it is a cold, hungry, desperate person asking people coming out of the Tim Horton’s for change, and people giving them money just to get rid of them. Slightly above that is a school breakfast program coordinator pleading for funding at a Budget Committee meeting and Doug Ford cutting them a personal cheque. Above that would be situations where certain facilities or services are marked out as “for poor people” or require a “means test” to access — the Welcome Policy, TCHC, Priority Centres. Above that I would say is a city that can provide basic needs for everyone, and where receiving city services is not obvious nor shameful. That would be only the first step to a city that prevents poverty before it starts, and it’s such a lofty demand that any further steps are in the realm of science fiction, not policy.

If charity and justice are ultimately two ends of an ascending scale, why stop halfway, acting on only the individual and not the societal level? And if we really ought to work towards a society that prioritizes not just the physical well-being but the dignity of the most marginalized, why insist on ways that maintain the gap between the haves and the have-nots? That might get you tax credits and personal satisfaction, but it’s no way to build a city.

Isaiah said it best:

No, this is the fast I desire:
[…] To let the oppressed go free;
To break off every yoke.

It is to share your bread with the hungry,
And to take the wretched poor into your home;
When you see the naked, to clothe him,
And not to ignore your own kin.

[…] [Then] the Lord will guide you always;
He will slake your thirst in parched places
And give strength to your bones.
You shall be like a watered garden,
Like a spring whose waters do not fail.

Men from your midst shall rebuild ancient ruins,
You shall restore foundations laid long ago.
And you shall be called
“Repairer of fallen walls,
Restorer of lanes for habitation.”

This passage expresses my approach to the budget, and city politics as a whole, in a nutshell: true city-building starts from the bottom up.

Kosher in Space

So, as I was discussing with jhameia the other day, this comment about triffids in a thread at james_nicoll’s reminded me of the kosher imaginary animals post at Jeff Vandermeer’s and got me thinking about the kosher status of alien life.

I found a mention on TVTropes:

In one episode of Babylon 5, Ivanova’s childhood rabbi visits the station, triggering a brief discussion of the difficulty of determining the kosher status of non-Earth food. The Rabbi’s conclusion is that anything not mentioned in the Torah was probably OK, but he isn’t certain. Or maybe he just wasn’t too strict in his beliefs and wanted to try the food. The creator discussions mention that they would have loved to do more on it but didn’t really have time. Ivanova, the only Jewish regular on the show, solves it by not bothering to keep kosher, though she probably wouldn’t have on Earth, either.

The question must have come up in science fiction elsewhere, but I’m not well-read enough to know. Nor, unfortunately, am I knowledgeable enough about Judaism to say whether any religious authority has already addressed it. I would love to learn more (any relevant resources appreciated!). For the moment, though, I can take a stab at outlining the preliminary issues.

The first problem is whether extraterrestrial life can exist at all–which seems like a matter of simple fact but does have deeper theological implications. If you believe that humans are the centre of the universe and God created everything simply for our sake, why should there be life elsewhere? Alternately, you might think the existence of alien life would imply multiple creations–a heresy, maybe, and therefore an impossibility. This argument is going to blow up in your face sooner or later, which I think most Jewish thinkers recognize, arguing that nothing says God didn’t create life on other planets as well.

Now that we’ve got our aliens, the next question is that of personhood. Eating humans and eating pigs are both wrong, but surely cannibalism is wrong not because humans are treyf [non-kosher], but because humans are persons. The existence of aliens raises the possibility of non-human persons. If aliens count as persons, presumably it would be impermissible to eat them for the same reasons it is impermissible to eat humans; thus kosher status is only relevant if the alien is not a person.

I can imagine that it would be incredibly difficult for humans to determine whether an alien is a person. Even if they think and feel, the way they think and feel will be completely different and perhaps impossible for us to recognize. The criteria which spring to mind–sapience, sentience, motility, language–are all horrendously inadequate, and throughout history have been instituted by the powerful to deny personhood to the powerless. It’s all very fraught. Maybe one should avoid all alien food, just to be on the safe side.

But for the sake of argument, let’s assume that this insurmountable problem has been surmounted, and there is at least one sort of extraterrestrial lifeform that can be safely categorized as a non-person. The next question is whether we could eat it at all. For all we know, it would be so chemically different we would be unable to digest it, which would render the whole debate academic.

So let’s posit–wow, there’s a lot of assumptions here–that we could. It’s delicious, nutritious–but is it kosher? How the hell would you go about applying the criteria of kashrut to a species that arose from a separate evolutionary process and is beyond all earthly taxonomy? There would be no fish or insects, to say nothing of hooves, milk, or gizzards, and ecological niches would vary wildly as well.

There are two boring solutions here. One: everything is kosher, there being no laws against it. Two: nothing is kosher, there being no laws for it. Having gone this far, though, it’d be a shame to take an easy way out. I would like to think that in some far future where humankind is scattered across the galaxy, there is an interstellar bureau of kosher and halal inspectors, writing up reports and keeping up-to-date with the ever-multiplying opinions and guidelines from religious authorities. A hell of a lot of paperwork if the guys back home discover some new alien spore and suddenly the kosher status of every food product off Gliese 581d is revoked due to “possible contamination”. There’s boring bits, sure–hotel rooms and warp lag, grumpy supervisors, the often monotonous stream of factories and labs that feed the human diaspora. Still, it’s a great job. Constant change of scene. Boldly certifying what no rabbi has certified before. It would make a great story. Hint, hint.