Plough Logo

Shopping Cart

  View Cart

Subtotal:

Checkout
a city street

How Much Should I Share With the Poor?

Three ancient faiths propose radical answers to inequality

Amanda Abrams

2 Comments
2 Comments
2 Comments
    Submit
  • Caleb Guard

    I appreciated this balanced and thorough piece. It challenged my giving, but also reaffirmed my faith.

  • metin erdem

    We need to love our neighbors..not only to love but also help them when they are in need. We should do this secretly. It should be between you and God. Only God and you can know the help you do for your brothers and sisters... We can not sleep in peace in the nights when your neighbor is hungry. It , the help doesnot need to be money or property only. It can be your love to your brothers and sisters. I believe that everybody can do something to each other. Everybody can help eachother. If you are not rich enough you can share your heart with your brothers and sisters. Then you should not expect anything from your brothers or sisters. You will be rewarded by God.

If you’re a privileged person, what’s the right way to respond to poverty and inequality? I’ve struggled with that question for most of my life. Years ago, living in Berkeley, California, I was asked for money on a daily basis by the numerous homeless people lining my route to campus, and it flummoxed me: What was the best thing to do? A friend said that the Torah counseled each person to give a shekel – about twenty-five cents – to anyone who asked, and that felt like solid guidance; I followed it for years.

But in this age of inequality, that advice doesn’t go nearly far enough. The question has never left me: What should I be doing for those less fortunate than me, short of giving away everything I have? It’s something more and more of us are grappling with as the income gap continues to widen, but it’s not a new quandary; inequality is as old as humanity, and even in biblical times the issue of how to treat the poor was a crucial one.

Ancient books, those associated with Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, have answers to this age-old problem. These texts have collectively guided billions of people for millennia through the thorny terrain of having enough while others suffer in poverty; they must have clear guidelines for behavior, I figured – even for nonreligious people like me.

And indeed they do. In fact, I found after reading and talking to scholars that the issues of wealth and poverty take up a huge amount of space in the Torah and Talmud, the New Testament, the Koran and the Hadith.

But it isn’t always easy to glean straightforward conclusions from these texts. First of all, they’re old: all of the writings of the major holy books of the three Abrahamic religions were composed somewhere between 1100 BC and AD 1100. Interpreting them for modern life can get complicated, and different scholars and religious leaders take radically different approaches. Second, most of the books are collections of multiple voices that frequently contradict one another, so it’s not always possible to arrive at a single meaning.

That’s particularly true with Judaism, whose texts have been subjected to an enormous amount of analysis and questioning. What’s clear, however, is that Jewish law mandates a powerful sense of responsibility towards poor people. “You shall not harden your heart, and you shall not close your hand from your needy brother,” reads Deuteronomy 15:7, a sentiment repeated often in the Hebrew Bible.

“It specifically refers to the person asking for help as your brother,” notes Jill Jacobs, a Conservative rabbi who is the author of There Shall Be No Needy: Pursuing Social Justice through Jewish Law and Tradition. “You should act toward them as you’d act toward anyone in your own family.”

Some of the recommendations are very specific. For example, Leviticus 19:9–10 demands that farmers leave some of their harvest in the fields for the poor to gather. Over time, that prescription morphed into a tradition called tzedakah, which requires that Jews give at least 10 percent of their incomes to charity if they can afford to do so. (In comparison, Americans gave an average of 3 percent of their incomes in 2014.) Tzedakah is related to the Hebrew word for “justice,” and many Jews consider it a moral obligation. And no, taxes don’t count, adds Jacobs.

But for those who might struggle to meet that 10 percent minimum, don’t sweat it. Poverty is not glorified in Judaism, and people shouldn’t make donations they can’t afford. 

Another specific instruction in the Torah: When someone asks for money on the street, give them whatever it is they need. “Or just give something,” says Jacobs. It may not be possible to give everything they’re asking for, but Judaism teaches that it’s important not to ignore them. “It’s about cultivating a sense of obligation towards people,” she says.

This feeling of personal duty to help the poor is central to Judaism, says Michael Broyde, a Modern Orthodox rabbi and a law professor at Emory University’s law school: “You bear an obligation to work tirelessly for the indigent, either by campaigning the government or doing your best to make it better.”

This responsibility extends to the whole Jewish community, says Jonathan Cohen, the dean of Hebrew Union College, the primary seminary for Reform Jewish rabbis. “It’s a communal obligation, a communal approach to poverty,” he says – all members of a society must contribute in helping its poor residents.

Islam is very similar to Judaism in this regard. The two religions share clear frameworks for behavior, along with specific instructions. And the Koran and the Hadith frequently bring up the importance of reducing inequality.

“Social justice and equality are the distinctive message of Islam,” says Ovamir Anjum, a professor in the department of philosophy and religious studies at the University of Toledo who specializes in classical and medieval Muslim texts. He quotes verse 59:7 in the Koran: “Let not wealth be concentrated among your wealthy.” Just about every chapter in the book includes multiple references to giving away money or helping the needy, including inheritance laws that prevent the accumulation of wealth. 

“There is quite a bit of emphasis on the risks of wealth,” says Khaled Abou El Fadl, a professor at the UCLA School of Law and a leading authority on Islamic law. “There’s an idea of the impoverished and the needy and the indigent being entitled to your wealth in a moral sense – that the money is not really yours. God has entrusted you with it to test you, to see if you’ll dispense with it where it belongs, or just with consumption and egocentric purposes.”

One built-in method for redistributing wealth is zakat, the religion’s equivalent to Judaism’s tzedakah. One of the five pillars of Islam (praying five times a day and fasting during Ramadan are two others), zakat mandates that Muslims give away 2.5 percent of their income and liquid assets to charity. Many mosques have a zakat fund or maintain a list of needy potential recipients.

Zakat is required, but any giving beyond that is called sadaqah. It comes from the same word as Judaism’s tzedakah, but sadaqah refers to voluntary charity. For those with money, sadaqah should be a charitable donation equal to a fifth of their wealth, but it can also be any good deed one does, from smiling at a stranger to planting a fruit tree that others will enjoy. 

Muqtedar Khan, a professor of political science and international relations at the University of Delaware, tells a story about how one of his neighbor’s cars was totaled. Khan’s wife was out of town, and her car sat unused in the garage while the neighbor’s son went carless. “It occurred to me that maybe the car in my garage might not belong to me, but might belong to my neighbor,” says Khan. This was an issue of sadaqah – a good deed that was potentially going undone. He felt compelled to offer the car to his neighbor, who ultimately said she didn’t trust her son with any car, and Khan was off the hook.

The story doesn’t feature poverty exactly, but it illustrates Muslims’ perspective on the complicated ethics of having something that others need. It’s not without significance that Khan’s story features a neighbor: according to the rules of sadaqah, one’s family – immediate and extended – has priority, and neighbors are next in line. “He is not a believer whose stomach is filled while the neighbor to his side goes hungry,” reads a hadith.

Judaism and Islam instruct their followers to help others and do good within reason and without impoverishing themselves. The New Testament describes an obligation much more radical.

Neighbors get a lot of attention in Christianity, too – as in “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself,” from Mark 12:31. But Christianity is not like Judaism or Islam in its recommendations about helping those in need. Where the other two religions instruct their followers to help others and do good within reason and without impoverishing themselves, the New Testament describes an obligation much more radical. Sell all you own, give it to the poor, and follow me, says Jesus to a rich young man in a biblical scene featured in the gospels of Matthew, Luke, and Mark. That’s one of Christianity’s key messages, and it’s a completely different approach than tzedakah, sadaqah, or zakat.

“The premise that righteousness leads to long life, prosperity, and success” – an idea found in the Torah and the Koran – “is profoundly challenged if your messiah dies young and violently and as a criminal of the state,” says Luke Timothy Johnson, an emeritus professor at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, a former Benedictine monk, and the author of Sharing Possessions: What Faith Demands. It’s clear, Johnson says, that the New Testament demands that Jesus’s followers share their possessions.

Beyond that, however, Christians disagree about how to respond to Jesus’ exhortation to give away everything they own. Some suggest that giving alms may be enough. 

Richard Hays, a theologically conservative New Testament expert and a professor at Duke Divinity School, argues that there is a basis in the New Testament for the latter approach. In 2 Corinthians, Paul is traveling around the Mediterranean, gathering funds from Christians there to give to the poor in Jerusalem. “He’s not saying they had to abandon all possessions, but rather must share in an equitable way,” explains Hays.

But the seeds of a more radical approach certainly lie within the New Testament. Reverend Liz Theoharis, the co-director of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights, and Social Justice at Union Theological Seminary, views the New Testament as an anti-poverty document, one that calls on its followers to work to create a new world and a new system.

“The heart of the gospel is about a liberation movement. It’s meant to be interpreted literally, but also metaphorically,” says Theoharis. “I think it is about my individual actions – giving time and money, when I have it – but it’s also being a part of something that has the potential to radically transform society in the image of what God wants society to be.” In other words, Theoharis sees being a Christian as a vow to use one’s luck and wealth to make a better world – ultimately, not very different from some interpretations of Judaism or Islam.

To be fully engaged with life is to constantly grapple with the question of what’s right.

The three religions’ directives, it turns out, are far from a set of simple moral instructions, a series of boxes to be ticked off. As Stephanie Ruskay, the associate dean of the rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary, puts it, “You’re not required to finish the work, but you’re not able to not participate in it.” Ruskay is speaking in regard to Judaism, but her words could apply to all three religions, which teach that to be fully engaged with life is to constantly grapple with the question of what’s right.

Aside from the question I began with, I’m struck by how preoccupied these books are with issues of poverty and generosity. In the enormous number of words each devotes to issues of helping people, they implicitly acknowledge that life is unfair. But that does not make it all right to stand by as people suffer. How much more suffering could be relieved if every follower of these three great religions would put their teachings into practice?


Amanda Abrams, a freelance journalist based in Durham, North Carolina, writes for the Washington Post and the Daily Beast.

Poor child wearing a threadbare green shirt
2 Comments