Hebrew School

Jew, Where’s My Karma?

Last night, the Six Points fellows gathered for a talk with Aaron Dorfman, Education Director at American Jewish World Service. AJWS gives money to charity projects throughout the developing world, and offers Jews and non-Jews the opportunity to volunteer in Asia, Africa, and the Americas.

Dorfman began the talk by laying out a hypothetical challenge for giving. We were presented with two scenarios, the first being that you receive a mailing asking you to send $100 to starving children in Africa. In the second scenario, you are driving along in a nice car, the one luxury item you can afford. You’re somewhere out in rural New Jersey and spot a bird-watcher who’s bleeding profusely. Without medical help, his leg may need to be amputated. The cost of helping the man is nothing, but his blood will ruin your treasured vehicle’s upholstery, costing you $5,000. The question: Between the two, where would your money go?

Most folks in the room agreed on the latter. I did not, though to be honest I was not about to go for the $100 option either. The question seemed overly theoretical, and the assumed reliance on the paradigms of charity and morality too thorny. Morality in a capitalist society, I argued, is a commodity to be bought and sold. Since commodities are beacons of status, why not make the larger expenditure if you can, especially if it means you get to keep the nice car? From a different angle, which as a result of affect will seem to taste better: a $100 bottle of wine, or a $5,000 one?

While my weltanschauung was seen as overly cynical– and it may have been– I could not doubt the truth in it.

In essence then, the questions for me in this engaging conversation revolved around the conceptions of right and wrong in contemporary society, and, for what it’s worth, happening to be Jewish at the same time.

While there’s nothing particularly “Jewish” about giving to charity, it’s clear that the Jewish communities of the United States came into the giving game under a particular set of historical circumstances. I’m no scholar in the history of this sort of thing, but a unifying ideology behind contemporary Jewish philanthropy would have stemmed from the Jews’ experience in World War II and the Holocaust. Jews did their best to help their brethren out of war-torn Europe, to get to Israel, to get to New York. (The universal operative expression for this phenomenon at the time was indeed, “They’re starving back in Europe.”) In the ’60s, Jews gravitated towards activism, supporting civil rights, the New Left, and the radical left.

Perhaps unsurpisingly, as Dorfman illustrated, the authority of Jewish scripture on these matters is fairly indeterminate. One Talmudic passage states that Jews should take care of themselves before helping others; another states that Jews should be indiscriminate when aid is needed, if only for peace. And Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in The Dignity of Difference, opined:

David Hume noted that our sense of empathy diminishes as we move outward from the members of our family to our neighbors, our society and the world. Traditionally, our sense of involvement with the fate of others has been in inverse proportion to the distance separating us and them. What has changed is that television and the Internet have effectively abolished distance. They have brought images of suffering in far-off lands into our immediate experience. Our sense of compassion for the victims of poverty, war and famine, runs ahead of our capacity to act. Our moral sense is simultaneously activated and frustrated. We feel that something should be done, but what, how, and by whom?

Dorfman, in his work at AJWS at home or abroad, concluded that the best outlook to maintain was one of “productive discomfort.” By this, I think he meant the will to move forward and act while maintaining a critical recognition of the multifarious nature of disasters like famines, tsunamis, earthquakes, and systemic poverty. (How one copes in this type of work environment is beyond me; I didn’t have a chance to ask.)

And we can’t doubt that Jews, as well as really anyone, will continue to act by virtue of a sense of compassion, inspired by what they see. They will continue do so regardless of the abstractions of morality, the presence or dearth of crocodile tears, the motivation– selfish or selfless– of such acts. Nothing wrong with that. But viewing the world through the eyes of a benefactor at some point belies a more pressing need– in both the “developing” and “developed” world– for more structural change. An ideology of cynicism on that front may prove more deadly.

Thanks to Aaron for closing out Shavuot with an evening of highly stimulating discussion. Check out his article on the topic here.

* * *

John Lennon, “Nobody Told Me,” from Milk and Honey

Everybody’s talking and no one says a word
Everybody’s making love and no one really cares
There’s Nazis in the bathroom just below the stairs
Always something happening and nothing going on
There’s always something cooking and nothing in the pot
They’re starving back in China so finish what you got

Nobody told me there’d be days like these
Nobody told me there’d be days like these
Nobody told me there’d be days like these
Strange days indeed — strange days indeed

Everybody’s runnin’ and no one makes a move
Everyone’s a winner and nothing left to lose
There’s a little yellow idol to the north of Katmandu
Everybody’s flying and no one leaves the ground
Everybody’s crying and no one makes a sound
There’s a place for us in the movies you just gotta lay around

Nobody told me there’d be days like these
Nobody told me there’d be days like these
Nobody told me there’d be days like these
Strange days indeed — most peculiar, mama

Everybody’s smoking and no one’s getting high
Everybody’s flying and never touch the sky
There’s a UFO over New York and I ain’t too surprised

Nobody told me there’d be days like these
Nobody told me there’d be days like these
Nobody told me there’d be days like these
Strange days indeed — most peculiar, mama


2 Comments so far
Leave a comment

I am concurring big-time with your observation about morality in a capitalist society being turned into commodity, even one that could reinforce one’s status, like an expensive car.
I find it surprising and questionable that the traditional ‘good Samaritan’ story was used as the more inconvenient/more expensive form of charity.

Comment by Taylor

Hi Taylor,
You’re right… It’s definitely a particular story meant to convey something– less of a question than a certain answer, I guess.
Thanks for the ‘ment!

Comment by David

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