AJR Charity Forum: a Response

by Michael Satlow in


Roman coin hoard by Helen Hall via Wiki Commons.

Roman coin hoard by Helen Hall via Wiki Commons.

“Nothing is more marked in Rabbinic ethics than the stress laid on charity in every sense of the word.” So begins the chapter on charity in C. G. Montefiore and H. M. J. Loew’s monumental and influential collection, A Rabbinic Anthology (1938, p. 412).  Until a few decades ago, I doubt that many scholars would have argued with this sentiment.  Academic discussions of rabbinic (and by extension Jewish) views of charity have had a distinctly apologetic flavor, slipping seamlessly between criticism and caretaking.  This approach to charity was hardly unique; the same approach characterized much scholarship on rabbinic “thought.”  Yet while scholars were becoming increasingly careful to separate criticism from caretaking in other areas of rabbinic thought, it took a surprisingly long time for them to turn their attention to reappraising charity.

The authors of the essays in this series are much too modest.  I have enjoyed following their work for years and they, along with only a small handful of others (such as Tzvi Novick and Rivka Ulmer) have transformed the scholarly study of charity among Jews in Late Antiquity.  They have, and are, shifting the paradigm.  Unlike most previous scholars on the topic, they begin with a set of fundamental assumptions that have come to characterize much of the study of the rabbis of Late Antiquity.  The rabbis, all of these authors agree, must be seen as a (1) culturally embedded, (2) diverse group of (3) predominantly (but not solely) rich and elite men.  When applied to the issue of charity these yield an important set of new insights.  I will deal with each separately.

(1) Culturally embedded.  The rabbis did not operate in a cultural vacuum.  Prior to the fourth century they were familiar with and part of (at least in some locations) the wider cultural complex that we sometimes call “Graeco-Roman.”  After the fourth century, their cultural baseline increasingly became Christian, at least in the Palestine.  (These authors do not deal with potential Zoroastrian contact in Babylonia, which is an area ripe for exploration.)  For Wilfand and Gardner, Graeco-Roman models of poverty relief were at least as important to the rabbis as the Bible was in determining their own approach.  This conclusion is almost certainly correct and raises interesting issues about the role of reciprocity in poor relief. Among Roman society the poor were generally given support by virtue of their status as clients, whether of individual patrons or state institutions.  Poor relief created networks of obligations.  The rabbis do sometimes make a similar assumption although their web of reciprocal relationships also involves God, which can significantly complicate matters.  Madeline Kochen has argued for a model in which all ownership is seen as God’s and that the cries of the needy trigger a divine demand for their relief.  Whether right or not, the role assigned to God and how it relates to reciprocity demands further work, as does how these relationships played out (or didn’t) in Jewish society.

Gray focuses more on the Christian context.  Here the cultural context seems richer.  Early Christian literature discusses charity explicitly and extensively.  It thus provides structural and rhetorical models against which rabbinic literature can be based.  If the rabbinic (or Jewish) relationship with traditional Graeco-Roman models of reciprocity was complex, it was even more so for Christians, who for the most part were developing out of the Graeco-Roman cultural matrix.  Several scholars (e.g., Dan Caner) have tried to chart the new views of poor relief and they offer at least an interesting point of comparison to the rabbinic material.  Gray has already shown the usefulness of this literature for understanding the wider context of the (infrequently attested) rabbinic notion that almsgiving redeems one from sin.  At the same time there seems to be some kind of Jewish-Christian polemic around the issue of charity and poor relief. I would be interested to see how poor relief was yet another issue that Jews and Christians used to think about the Other, especially in light of the current scholarly interest on Jewish-Christian relations in antiquity.

These papers already make an enormous step forward in ceasing to ask simple value questions about the nature of ancient Jewish poor relief.

(2) Diverse group.  There is no single “rabbinic view” of charity or anything else.  Wilfand and Gray in particular have tried to better understand how and why different groups of rabbis have approached poor relief, often with exciting and compelling results.  According to Wilfand, Babylonian rabbis believed that God rewarded good people in this life with wealth.  For Palestinian rabbis, on the other hand, wealth and poverty were theologically neutral facts of life. In the last part of her paper Gray highlights the problem of how redactional issues impact our interpretation of our sources (particularly in the Bavli) and calls for more work on this issue.  Here there may well be a gap not only between Palestinian and Babylonian rabbis, but between the Bavli’s redactors and Babylonian amoraim. 

The upshot here is that we can no more speak of “the” rabbinic view of charity than we can of “the” rabbinic view of anything else.  Rabbinic views represented a range of opinions, even if we can see some of them cluster, and those opinions become even more diverse when refracted through the work of the literary redactors.  Even seemingly anodyne general statements about the great value that poor relief had the rabbis founder when encountering this variety.

(3) Predominantly rich and elite men.  According to the conventional narrative, the rabbis merely continued the biblical admonition that we must love and support the poor because God does.  All (Jewish) poor are equally worthy.  Yet, as Gardner argues, that really isn’t so.  The “poor” are often not the chronically destitute; they are frequently understood in (especially tannaitic) rabbinic literature as “people like us who have temporarily fallen on hard times.”  Most tannaitic discussions of charity, Gardner suggests, are best seen in an intra-class context with only minimal attention given to the chronically destitute.  The picture changes somewhat in the amoraic period, in which Wilfand and Gray see more diverse class representation among the rabbis.

The rabbinic discussions of poor relief in this regard raise two further research avenues.  First, these authors pay little attention to gender.  There is some evidence in rabbinic literature that almsgiving had a different resonance when given by men and women, and the entire issue could be analyzed through the lens of gender.  Second, while our authors briefly mention issues of power (especially as developed by Peter Brown) much more work can be done on this issue. 

Gray, Gardner, and Wilfand have done an enormous service to scholarship by opening this new avenue of research.  When seen together they provide the outline for a research agenda that hopefully will attract many fellow-travelers.

Dr. Michael Satlow is Professor of Judaic Studies at Brown University. 

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