Today is the first minor fast day I'm ever fasting for. It's the 17th of Tammuz. (3 weeks until Tisha b'Av, the saddest day of the Jewish calendar!!! Woohoo!!!!!)
I never had a good reason for not fasting on the minor fast days before; it always seemed to me to be the biggest gap between Judaism the way I wanted to practice or felt I should practice, and the way I actually did. Interestingly, two days ago, I was reminded that the rabbi who is my yeshiva's chair in Jewish law actually thinks that the minor fast days are optional rather than obligatory in modern times (scroll down to the paragraph beginning "It therefore"). But I decided to fast today anyway, taking this summer in yeshiva as an opportunity to try on mitzvot (commandments) that I've never really tried or taken seriously before. (Plus, everyone else is doing it...) I have, unfortunately, learned today that a "half-day" fast, especially in the summer when it's hot and when sunset is late, is not much easier than a full-day one. And I even had a second dinner and half a gallon of water at 11pm last night!
So we had a short day in yeshiva today. Morning services were at 9:00am and we ended by 2:15pm. (Our usual "short day" of the mid-week, Wednesday, is 8:30-4:00. Tomorrow, though, is a full 7:30-9:00 schedule to make up for lost time.) And, speaking of mitzvot I've never really taken seriously enough before, we had a 3-hour shiur (lecture, in this case interspersed with partnered learning time) on tzedakah (often, though perhaps poorly, translated as "charity"). Tzedakah is a frustrating topic for me for multiple reasons:
- 10% of your income, even post-tax, is a LOT of money to give up compared to what you might otherwise do and compared to what your peers probably do
- Jewish life is expensive enough as it is, with communal centers in high cost-of-living areas, expensive kosher food, and for those of us with kids, extremely expensive education
- Too many conversations on tzedakah end with the moral: "No matter what you're doing, you should do more", which is a guilt-inducing conclusion I've really come to hate
This conversation today raised some interesting questions, but unfortunately didn't deviate from that script enough or reach any of the conclusions I've been wondering about. (For example: I've chosen a job in my profession that pays me less than I could perhaps make elsewhere. I've done this because I like working for a poverty-fighting organization more than a stereotypically money-grubbing company. What effect does this decision have on my 10% tzedakah obligation; does any of the salary I've "given up" count? For another example: rather than calculating 10% of post-tax income, can one count 10% of pre-tax income and subtract the portion of tax money that goes toward certain causes, and if so, which causes and how much does that total?)
I did reach one conclusion that seems valuable, though: If you throw away all of the numbers involved in the tzedakah conversation (10% as a minimum, 20% as a maximum that may have been appropriate in rabbinic times but may be too low now?), it's still the case that the amounts we're talking about are significantly, significantly higher than the 1% (or even much less!) that a lot of people donate to the needy. It's worth having the conversation to push people's usual giving levels significantly higher, whether they reach 10% or 20% or not. If you're in the 1% category (and I probably am), then you've got plenty of room to do better.
Or not. One member of the faculty said to me, after the shiur was over, that he thinks taxes have completely eliminated the obligation for tzedakah. It's an even stronger statement than my wondering about what percentage of taxes "count". More food for thought...
Food. Dammit. I'm thirsty.
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