Thursday, May 24, 2007

Do You Get Credit for Enabling Good Deeds?

Does one get credit for enabling another to do a good deed? If so, how much?

The question as it was presented to me was as follows: who is given more "credit"? The one who gives charity, or the one who asks for charity, thereby providing an opportunity for the giver to give?

According to basic Jewish philosophy, charity is a good deed. It's one of those natural enough concepts that doesn't really require Jewish law to explain; it's self-evident and natural moral sense.

But according to a popular socialist Jewish philosophy, money is distributed unevenly precisely for charity to be given. You may think you work hard and earn the money, but God allots how much you're going to earn at the beginning of the year.

This doesn't mean that you can sit at home and do nothing, waiting for the cash to roll it. It's more like a retroactive prophesy; God knows how much you're going to work in the next year, and what calamities and windfalls will befall you. Therefore, do your best, have faith, and let God take care of the rest. This includes the amount of charity that you're going to give.

Under this philosophy, you are simply the caretaker of money that isn't really yours. It "belongs" to the poor person, and was given to you simply so that you can give it to them. Which kind of short-changes, in my opinion, the goodness of charity.

But enough about charity; what matters to me is the idea that the poor person enables the giver to give. Forget the fact that he is the recipient and beneficiary of this giving. What, exactly, is the measure of worth of this enabler's deed? More than the doer? Less than the doer?

My response to this was that the next time my father asked one of his children to get him a chair, I'll turn to my brother and enable him with the opportunity to do the good deed. Ha ha. Of course, in this situation, everyone knows that I'm just being lazy and forgoing to do the good deed myself.

But what if I've done this good deed for ten years straight, and my brother never did it once? Isn't there actually something to be said about allowing my brother to do it, thereby fostering a relationship between son and father that I've already established?

And how about when you teach your children to be good, or when you reform a criminal? Don't all of the good deeds they do as a result of your training somehow reflect back on you? In this case, of course, you are increasing the number of good deeds being done, as opposed to forgoing one yourself and allowing someone else to do it, as in the brother paradigm.

Frankly I find the whole good deed calculus to be rather distasteful. Once you are aware of doing something as a good deed, and not simply through the motivation of the Other, you are then doing the deed in order to receive the "reward". That's when the anti-altruists descend on you, claiming that all doers of good deeds really do it for the reward, and not because that are actually good people.

What if you knew that something you knew to be a good deed - such as charity - would ultimately be punished by God, instead of rewarded? Would you still do it? If you can't answer yes, then what exactly is your morality?

There's a classic Hassidic story about a Rabbi who sends his pupil to find an etrog for him and tells the student to pay any price. The student finds only one vendor, who demands all the heavenly reward that the Rabbi will get for using the etrog. When the student returns and relays the cost, the Rabbi thanks the student and says that all of his life he has been worried that he does the commandments for the sake of reward, and for the first time he knows for sure that he will not be doing so.

One subverts the point of this story by thinking that the Rabbi surely will get some reward for his devotion nonetheless; after all, heavenly reward is not a zero-sum game.


No comments: