By Ann Comer-Woods
University of British Columbia Associate Professor Gregg Gardner opened his talk, “Excavating the Foundations of Charity in Classical Jewish Texts,” with a PowerPoint slide displaying a large bronze donor recognition plaque on the wall of the largest Jewish day school in Vancouver. “Anyone who has set foot in a Jewish school, synagogue or community center is surely familiar with bronze plaques like this one,” he told the full crowd that gathered at Sainer Auditorium Jan. 22 for the annual Klingenstein Lecture on Judaic Studies.
Gardner, who holds The Diamond Chair in Jewish Law and Ethics at UBC, delved into a historic interpretation of the roots of Jewish charity that date back 2,000 years. “The propensity to recognize benefactors has a long history in Judaism. This norm, which was adopted and adapted from the ancient Greeks, is testified quite early,” he said.
Noting that the only surviving piece of the first synagogue in Jerusalem is a stone plaque bearing the temple benefactor’s name, he pointed out that archaeologists have discovered the stone floor remnants from a number of ancient Jewish temples that were inscribed with benefactor names and descriptions of their benefaction.
During the 12th century, Jewish philosopher and Torah scholar Maimonides, “envisioned a ladder of charity that ranks the various forms of giving and places anonymous giving near the top.” As a result of his outsized influence, according to Gardner, anonymous giving has become “a well-known ideal in Jewish communities.“
Noting the centuries of tension in Judaic culture between anonymous giving and giving that receives public acknowledgement, Gardner said: “Poverty, charity, and motivations for giving are undergirded by the broader issue of the role of money and wealth in religious traditions. Despite the importance of the role of wealth in religion, the topic remains understudied for the ancient world.”
Gardner then delved into the roots of charitable giving with the early harvesters’ practice of leaving produce in the corners of their fields for the poor. He then explained the early rabbis’ concepts of the soup kitchen and the communal charity fund, which are social inventions that live on today.
Gardner closed with the story of King Munbaz, a first-century Syrian monarch who depleted the family’s wealth to save his subjects from starving to death during a famine. When his brothers challenged him, he cited six biblical blessings that were rewarded for charitable acts.
As Gardner pointed out, Munbaz’s story played an important role in Jewish tradition by equating charity with righteousness. The king rejected earthly acknowledgements for his generosity because he sought “intangible treasures that were accessible only in other worldly realms. These included treasures of soul, access to the world to come, and other rewards that were typically part of a system of divine justice.”
Gardiner was introduced by Professor of Religion Susan Marks, who holds the Klingenstein Chair in Judaic Studies at New College.
— Ann Comer-Woods is director of marketing and communications at New College of Florida.