Toying with justice

Quite a number of years ago, when our children were very young, we stopped purchasing multiple gifts for them during Hanukkah, as we grew wary of the materialistic influence of the American winter holiday season upon them. Motivated as well by a desire to teach our kids about the mitzvah of tzedakah, giving to the poor and needy, we participated with them in Toys For Tots, a Christmastime gift donations program for poor children sponsored by the United States Marine Corps. Toys For Tots collection bins are located in supermarkets, malls and toy stores throughout our region in upstate New York, particularly at the big box giant, Toys R Us.

We would all walk into the store, spend a couple of hundred dollars on toys and school supplies, and conveniently place them in the bin on our way out. The toys would go to needy local families identified by schools and social service agencies. As my children grew older, and in recent years began leaving home for college, coordinating schedules for this annual mitzvah shopping trip became almost impossible. As a result, I began to leverage filial guilt to levy my kids’ gelt, hard earned from their grandparents, which I used in their behalf to buy our donations.

This past holiday season, I gingerly suggested to my children, now ages 23, 20, and 16, that I would love for us to perform this mitzvah of tzedakah together, having missed the opportunity for us to all be in the same place in the recent past, and with two of them at home during Hanukkah. Much to my wife’s and my pleasure, all three are involved in some kind of activism or community service. They were all busy during Hanukkah, either at home or away at school, but they readily agreed to my plan.

“Great,” I announced joyously, “We’ll head out for Toys-R-Us one night during Hanukkah.”

“Uh, Abba,” my son replied, “Why do you want to give your money to some big-box, corporate giant like them? If you’re trying to perform an act of tzedakah, why not buy the toys from more socially responsible toy makers and retailers?”

For a moment, I was silent, as I forced my tongue to stay in my mouth and not blurt out something about political correctness and mis-ordering of priorities. After all, the whole point of this outing was to help poor kids, not make ideological statements. Then, carefully choosing my words, I questioned the importance of where our toys came from, emphasizing instead that getting them to needy kids was what mattered.

My son was having none of this. He laid out for me some of the potential problems with supporting multi-national corporations like Toys-R-Us, from suspect relations with child-labor-abusing toy producers overseas to the insidiousness of ad campaigns that teach kids to equate acquisitiveness with self worth. I was stunned and unsure how to answer him. Whether or not he was right about this specific retailer (my subsequent research revealed that he was partly right), his reasoning made sense to me. Jewish law unequivocally condemns mitzvah ha-baah al yedei aveirah, the fulfillment of a religious obligation through engaging in or abetting sinful behavior. By this logic, purchasing toys retailed under unjust circumstances is merely toying with justice, no matter how many poor kids those toys make happy and regardless of the technical legality of selling those toys on the market.

“Well, what if we went to that more upscale toy store down the road and chose toys whose producers have better social and environmental ethics records?”, I asked him.

“That’s a much better idea,” he declared. “What better way to give tzedakah while also upending the system?”

Thus, we bypassed all the cheap stuff at Toys R Us and trudged off one night after dinner to this other store, where we purchased half the number of items for the same amount of money. Like supermarkets that cater to the socially conscious, this novelty shop held the A list of ethically sourced items that, ironically, no poor person could ever afford. Irony of ironies, the store was not actually collecting for Toys For Tots, but the Starbucks next door was. Talk about helping others while feeling like a cog in the corporate system.

I felt our decision was well founded, until I started thinking more about it in the days that followed. A friend of mine who is a longtime social activist gently chided me when I told him what happened and about my misgivings.

“Your kids are right! What else is tzedakah about if not doing the right thing?”

Nonetheless, some questions nagged at me. What if Toys R Us or some other big box store were the only game in town? Would we still not buy toys for those poor kids, for the sake of ethical consistency and purity? Further, is buying toys from Toys R Us really using the wages of sin or ill gotten gain to do something good? While the circumstances of toy production might be circumspect, my money was earned honestly and gainfully, from a synagogue no less. Finally, given the tight interdependence of local and global markets, how far can one take the quest for morally pure purchases? At some point along the line of production and sales, anything you buy will have been sourced or processed in some way that someone will condemn as morally repugnant.

I have come to accept that my son’s moral position about ethical sourcing is correct, but I have modified it somewhat, based upon two other teachings from Jewish law. The first is the idea of distinguishing between lefi meshurat ha-din and lifnim meshurat ha-din, the letter of the law and the spirit of the law. The narrow, technical letter of the law might not forbid me from purchasing or taking donations of toys of questionable ethical provenance, if by all applicable laws I am permitted to buy them, specifically because the purchase allows me to engage in a mitzvah such as helping the poor. However, the spirit of the law dictates that I make every effort to seek out purchases and donations whose sourcing is ethical. This conforms much more fully with the tradition’s aim of making us holy people devoted to justice and righteousness in our everyday behavior.

The second, related idea is Maimonides’ application of this letter/spirit tension to his renowned hierarchy of values concerning giving tzedakah. In the tenth chapter of “Laws Concerning Gifts To The Poor”, in his Mishneh Torah, he develops eight levels based upon his reading of earlier Talmudic sources. The highest, most ideal level is giving a poor person a loan or a job. This helps a person to achieve financial independence while also preserving her dignity. The lowest, least ideal level is giving less than you can, only when asked by the poor person, and grudgingly.

Our immediate sense is that this lowest level shares nothing with the highest form of giving, and it should be utterly condemned. I suspect Maimonides would not disagree, but consider the point he is making about giving to the poor by placing it on the list. Should you be a nicer person who helps those in need, graciously and for the right reasons? Yes, and that is why giving insufficiently and in a mean spirit is the lowest level. However, it is still considered an act of tzedakah because the point of giving is to help the poor, not to make you more whole hearted or feel more righteous. Comparing grudging philanthropy with philanthropy gained from ethically dubious sources is admittedly problematic. However, my point in making it is that while purchasing from Toys R Us for poor kids might be comparable to giving at that lowest level, it is giving nonetheless, even though finding alternative sources of funding is ethically preferable.

None of what I have written above justifies taking money from a source whose unethical and unjust practices are beyond dispute, even for the purposes of giving to tzedakah. We should not have to become a conscious part of someone else’s moral money laundering, even in order to help others, unless that money is part of a larger act of legal restitution or teshuva – repentance – on the part of the donor. (Think, for example, about American states using money gained from lawsuits against cigarette companies, to educate people about staying healthy.)

In the latter part of the book of Exodus, God calls the Israelites to donate their precious goods and services for the building of the Mishkan, the desert sanctuary. God specifically asks kol asher yidvenu libo, every person with a willing and generous heart, to make the donations, for this is the ideal way to build a sense of common purpose and investment among the community of donors. Donating to help people in need can be the same thing: an opportunity, first of all, to help those needing our help; yet also an opportunity for us the helpers to give in the proper ethical and spiritual frame of mind.