Why does Tzedakah Gets More Attention that the Other 612 Mitzvot?

As a participant in many liberal Jewish communities, I frequently witness tzedakah as a commonly articulated value, sometimes at the expense of many of the other commandments. The introduction of a 'mitzvah' or 'tzdakah' project in the process of becoming b'nai mitzvah was a positive advancement as it helps immerse students in some of our communities core values. However, mitzvah in this context almost exclusively means voluntary civic engagement and/or monetary contributions to a worthy cause. This loose definition of tzedakah, often paired with g'milut hasadim, is used to define the word 'mitzvah.' Coming of age marks both ritual and ethical responsibility for Jewish youth. However, while many thirteen year olds will gladly donate hundreds of dollars from their gift money, it would be unusual in a liberal context to recommend that these students have responsibility for other mitzvot, like lighting Shabbat candles or cleaning the house of hametz for Passover.

While there are many sociological factors that influence the emphasis of tzedakah as the mitzvah par excellence, there is also textual evidence for this trend. In imagining the biblical reality, our community places a 'preference' for mishpatim - God's laws that can be understood through human reason, over hukim, rules that are beyond human comprehension. Although all mitzvot are supposed to be 'equal,' feeding the hungry can seem at least more immediately urgent that ensuring that flax and wool are not mixed in one garment. We know that ethical treatment came through loud and clear through the voice of the prophets. This is illustrated by Isaiah's famous plea: "This is the fast I desire: To unlock fetters of wickedness, And untie the cords of the yoke, 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" (Isaiah 58:6). Rabbi Mark Washofsky answers that Reform Jews have always emphasized the message of the prophets. He explains, "That message calls us to a life of social action, a never ending effort directed toward mending the world, of transforming our communities into places of justice and compassion for all" (Washofsky, 297).

From the rabbinic times, we have textual proof that ethical practices were observed while ritual observances were put aside. Later in our tradition, Midrash on the Song of Songs presents this imbalance in the context of the relationship between God and ancient Israel. In response to the verse, "I sleep but my heart wakes." The midrashist teaches, "The congregation of Israel said to the Holy One, 'I sleep' in my neglect of the ritual law, but 'my heart wakes' for the practice of loving kindness"(Shir Hashirim Rabbah 5:2) .While dismissing or neglecting ritual law is problematic, there is precedence for the elevation of ethical commandments above the ritual. While the Midrash from the Song of Songs teaches us that Israel preferred the ethical commandment to the ritual one, several rabbinic texts suggest that God too valued tzedakah as unique among all the mitzvot.

There are similar traditions in both the Babalonian Talmud and the Jerusalem Talmud that address the value of giving and/or good deeds in comparison to other mitzvot. In the Jerusalem Talmud, the following assertion is made, "Tzedakah and acts of kindness are the equivalent of all the mitzvot of the Torah" Pe'ah 1:1. The Babylonian Talmud offers a slightly variation as Rav Asi is cited as having said, "Tzedakah is equal to all the mitzvot combined" (Bava Batra 9a). The elevation of tzedakah in our rabbinic texts suggests that voluntary giving was a crucial institution in Jewish communal life during their times. While there are some difficulties that result from prioritizing one mitzvah above all others, the liberal community's focus on tzedakah is supported by rabbinic tradition.

Called to be a 'light unto the nations,' there is great pride in the Jewish community that our people have gained a reputation for our commitment to creating a more equitable society. We should celebrate that social justice is backbone of liberal Judaism. However, it cannot be the entire skeleton. Like any other mitzvah, there is a certain responsibility to study the intricate rules of when and who should give to whom and how much, and the answers are complicated. Giving money to any cause that asks is valuable, but if not tied into our communities' value system, may feel more like a secular civic duty than the fulfillment of a mitzvah. While a mitzvah done without intention is still fulfilled, this is not the ideal. The Misnah instructs us to "Be strong as a leopard, light as an eagle... to do the fill of your Father in Heaven" (Pirkei Avot, 5:20). If tzedakah is the mitzvah that is equal to all others, then not only is there an elevated expectation of generosity, but there is all the more reason to give with joy and to discuss our giving with children as we are sanctified by fulfilling the commandment to give.

Early Reform Judaism gave weight to actions for the sake of human beings above action for the sake of God. While ritual law was deemed irrelevant and anachronistic, the prophetic imperative served as an appropriate, modern Jewish raison d'Ítre. In an address on social justice, Kaufman Kohler declared that the objective of the modern Jew was to "help in the redemption of the world by righteousness is his messianic mission." In the pursuit of justice, the Jewish people were to serve as "the very banner bearer of idealism, to command the world's admiration and emulation" (Kohler).

While there is merit to idealism, the artificial rift between ethical law and ritual law has left its marks on the generations. One explanation for the prioritization of tzedakah is that "the ethical principles of Judaism have a self-evident value that the more particularistic parts of Judaism do not" (Schwarz and Messinger, 7). While pursuing social justice is a high and valuable ideal it must not preclude other Jewish observances.

As a mitzvah, tzedakah is a sacred act. There is value in acting on values of our tradition, and tzedakah is a meaningful access point that connects us to our tradition. Recognizing that many of the humane acts we do are mitzvot can connect us with our tradition without compromising the effect we make in the world. These caring acts have their own merit as mitzvot. Acts of kindness (g'milut hasadim), visiting the sick (bikur holim) and welcoming guests (hachnasat orchim) each stand alone as treasured traditions of the Jewish people. Just as religious acts such prayer and Torah study cannot be combined into a single category, so too humanitarian acts cannot be condensed to fit under the title of tzedakah. Awareness of the diversity of terms encourages us to engage in a wider spectrum of compassionate acts while also connecting us to our sacred traditions.