Sermon: Shabbat Re-eh – 15 August 2015

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 18 August 2015

There was a report in the Daily Mail a while ago about a garden party in aid of charity that had been held by a Mrs Williamson in the grounds of her 17th Century Manor House near Cirencester.  Fifty guests had attended the garden party which had featured a Jazz Band and which was intended to raise money for Marie Curie Cancer Care, Macmillan Nurses and the Cirencester Cottage Hospital.  The reason why a report of the garden party had reached the Daily Mail is because of the actions of Costwold District Council.  The Council demanded, as is their right, that Mrs Williamson buy a public entertainments licence to cover the jazz band at the garden party – at a cost of £170.   The thing is that the garden party had raised £160 for the worthy causes – so at a stroke all of the proceeds were wiped out and Mrs Williamson was left £10 out of pocket – seething with anger and with her finger poised to ring the Daily Mail and blow the whistle on the mean spirited actions of Cotswold District Council.

The question is though – who was mean spirited here?  The Council for applying the law or Mrs Williamson and her guests who in the delightful setting of a manor house enjoyed a tea party and music and succeeded in contributing a pathetic average of £3 per head to the combined causes of the  relief of cancer, support for families of cancer patients and even their own healthcare.  The afternoon raised from fifty of them less than many would expect to spend on a single meal out.

In Britain today, according to Ross Clark, writing in the Spectator, it seems that the better off you are the less you feel the compulsion to support worthy charitable causes.  Research from the Institute of Fiscal Studies shows that the poorest 10% of British Society gave an average of 3% of their income annually to charity.  The richest 20% meanwhile managed to give away an average of only 1% of their income.  We should bear in mind that these percentages inevitably include causes that are registered charities which are really to the direct benefit of the giver, and not particularly for the good of others, like Synagogue Subscriptions and entrance fees to places like Kew Gardens and London Zoo so even 1% is an overestimate.

Leaving aside the differences within our society, as a country we don’t do very well as a place of charitable care for others.  Charitable giving in the USA is currently at about 2% of national income with Israel as the world’s next most generous country at around 1.5%, in Britain it is only 1% – proportionately half as much. (Elisabeth Eaves in Forbes 26/12/2008)

Ross Clark points out that if you look around you in any British village, town or city you will see the results of a feeling of deep obligation to give to others in the past – the hospital foundation stones showing how they were endowed by this or that worthy Victorian, the parks donated by industrialists for the enjoyment of all, the schools once set up for the education of poor children, which now, retaining their charitable status have become public schools for the privileged.

Why has Britain become a nation that does not give?  Might it be that we do not feel a personal responsibility to help others because we believe that our taxes are doing that for us – the government supports those in need on our behalf, we might say.  To an extent of course this is true – but then over the past twenty five years or so the percentage tax take especially from the rich has been reducing, even if not from the poor.  Yet our rate of giving voluntarily has also been reducing.

Rabbi Israel Mattuck, the founding Rabbi of British Liberal Judaism, published his book “Jewish Ethics” in 1953 – not long after the Welfare State had begun to try to bring to fruition its promise of cradle to grave care for every British citizen.  In this book he grappled with the question of whether the Jewish duty to give Tzedakah, to give I won’t say Charity for reasons that I’ll come to in a few moments, was fulfilled in a welfare state by simply paying our taxes.   He concluded that one aspect would be fulfilled through taxation in a welfare state which lived up to its promise.  That is the duty of society collectively (Jewish Ethics, 1953 p111) to support the poor and the care for the health of all – similar to that which Jewish communities used to fulfil by holding various community funds.

But he was certain that even in a perfectly operating welfare state – and now sixty years on we know that that perfection was never and presumably will never be achieved – the duty on the individual to give Tzedakah will never be removed.   As it says towards the end of out Sedra Re’eh today Deuteronomy (15:11)  “For the poor shall never cease out of the land; therefore I command you, saying, You shall open your hand wide to your brother, to your poor, and to your needy, in your land.”  This we must note was said in the Torah by God to the Children of Israel at the most optimistic time in their life as a people – as they were about to enter the Land of Milk and Honey, their promised land.  The one which our part of the portion said that they were about to inherit. If even the Land of Milk and Honey cannot eradicate poverty and need – what hope the British welfare state?

The evidence of our eyes makes it quite obvious that even in a prosperous country such as our there is yet need and poverty, there is illness unrelieved, there are people who need help, care and companionship, there are needs which disconnect people from society which will never be met fully from tax raised funding, there are needs in the Jewish community for care which we cannot expect others to exclusively fund for us.  And if this is the case within our own country – how much more so for people living in countries without our resources, for the poor of the developing world, for those whose countries cannot provide even the safety net that means no one starves in Britain.

Tzedakah is not Charity – given from the heart out of a caring and compassionate response to needs.  Rather it is the response of a Jew to injustice – to the need to restore balance in our world – as Maimonides wrote in his Guide for the Perplexed – “you bring to each worthy thing that which it deserves and so to provide for every entity that which befits it”.  A Jew should not rest until no one has slipped through the net.

There have been a number of attempts to codify just how much we should give –  the rules in the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch say “between a tenth and a fifth of a person’s capital and income” Few if any of us would have a chance of measuring up to that.  Don’t despair:  There is a minimum figure that derives from the portion that we will hear on Yom Kippur Afternoon – Kedoshim.  There we will be commanded to leave a portion of our field for the poor, the stranger and the Orphan to glean from – our harvest, our wealth and indeed the capital value of that field, our asset – do not belong to us – they form the basis of what we owe to others in Tzedakah every year.

The Rabbis of the Talmud were not happy to leave it at this – they wanted to find a figure that we should consider as the minimum pe’ah – the minimum corner of our capital and income that should be left for the others in order to try to restore some balance in society – they came up with the figure of 1/60th or 1.7%.  That is the minimum that we owe to others each year if we are serious about fulfilling the mitzvah, the Jewish duty of Tzedakah.  Just going back to the figures that we heard before 1.7% is rather more than the richest 20% of British society actually give each year to others.

Has each one of us fulfilled this obligation – have we given to relieve poverty?  Have we given to relieve suffering from illness?  Have we given to help others to benefit from causes which we believe in?

Last year the Institute of Jewish Policy research included a section on the charitable giving patterns of British Jews in their general survey of the community (Jews in the United Kingdom in 2013 pp28-32).  They asked nearly 3500 British Jews what they gave in the past year to Tzedakah. The answer they got was that 70% had given less than £500 over the year, 37% had given less than £100.  They also discovered in a previous survey (Patterns of Charitable Giving among British Jews 1998, p1) that the extent to which you feel Jewish has a remarkable effect on charitable giving – the median donation to charity for those who defined themselves as more British or as equally British and Jewish was £100 which for those who felt more Jewish than British is was £200.

Tommorow we enter the month of Elul.  It is time to ensure that we are embarking on the process of self assessment which enables us to know to what we should confess this Yom Kippur.  Will we need to confess to having fallen short of the obligation of giving Tzedakah?  On our Spiritual self assessment form have we got to 1.7% – at least – or if we have not, can we make ourselves and the poor and the needy of the world – and God the promise that next year 5776 – we will?