A t the end of August, I presented the URJ Elul Mitzvah Challenge. 1 This challenge was a great way to tune in to the work of Cheshbon Nefesh, the reflective work/self-examination and get ready for High Holy Days. The videos in this Challenge could be great inspiration, but
I worry that in making videos about our good deeds, we could slip from helping the world into stoking our own ego. The potential exists for it to become an activity of self-promotion not focusing on Tikkun Olam. In response , I offered a D’var Acher, an alternative approach to the same concept. 2 I thought that it was important to transform thoughts of Chesbon Nefesh into actions of repairing the world and healing hurts. At the same time, I wanted to support the efforts of the “36 Rabbis Shave for the Brave” and the St. Baldrick’s Foundations, raising money for research into finding cures for childhood cancers. So rather than acknowledging one of these acts of change or turning with a video, I proposed setting aside our pocket change Tzedakah to mark these acts.
Shortly after I offered my D’var Acher, Mindy Pollack, our Education Director, sent me this article. 3
What an amazing Jewish values question: Is money for medical researchtzedakah? Here is the issue– Tzedakah is the value of creating a just and righteous society where everyone has their basic food, water, shelter and space needs met. One refrain in our liturgy says it so well, “no one will be hungry or homeless, every one will be free.” (Gates of Prayer for Young People page 142). Medical research is not feeding or sheltering. It is not actually directly being used for a particular person. It is tzedakah to provide medicine and care, but something different to spend money to do science that creates the medicine or treatment. As the article notes there is another layer to the discussion.
The lower someone’s socioeconomic level, the less access to newer and more effective treatments. This is precisely counter to the value of tzedakah. How much money goes to medical research that someone who is poor, in need cannot use!?
After reading the article I will admit, I agreed with the argument. Money for medical research is at best problematic to call Tzedakah. BUT, I wasn’t completely settled with that answer. From Moses seeking to heal Miriam, to Rashi’s choking on matzah Talmud commentary, to Jonas Salk’s development of the polio vaccine, Jews have been focused on the fragility of the body and how to preserve and restore health. In fact, in Jewish law, Pikuach nefesh– the saving of life-trumps all other religious obligations.
I can appreciate the argument that giving money toward medical research is not technically Tzedakah. Yet, there is plenty of evidence in Jewish life that giving money toward medical research fulfills a primary Jewish value. So where does this leave us? We have a true machlochet-dialectic debate that sets boundaries, acknowledges majority and minority opinions and helps refine values. Not only do we prioritize competing Jewish values, but broaden our approach. Even as we choose one value over another, we maintain our connection and understanding with the “minority/losing” position. It creates the opportunity for a both/and. We have to both do act of Tzedakah and give money to medicalresearch. In a recent meeting to organize an Interfaith Relay for Life team, Debbie Segal, Doy Demsick and I had this conversation. The local American Cancer Society sends the Relay for Life funds to the national organization for research funding. As we participate in this effort, can we find other ways to generate funds and energy for caring for those who have cancer on the Treasure Coast?
This is Rabbinic debate at it’s best. It’s balancing two values. We have to prioritize or start with one, but can we be flexible and creative, as individuals and a community to offer the appropriate due to the values that “lose out”? As this New Year begins, let us revel in these kinds of debates and discussions. May we take time to sit with others, wrestle with our values, study our tradition and harness the energy of these interactions to do fantastic acts of healing and caring, reaching out and repairing to bring real Shalom to our world.
Rabbi Michael Birnholz