by Jessica Rosenberg
This post was written in response to a call for RG blog submissions on the topic of “Giving and Spirituality”. The prompt was: How does your spiritual or religious practice influence how you think about giving, how you give, how you share/talk about your giving, and who you give to? How does spirituality influence or guide your activism?
Join the dialogue! We’d love to hear your take on these questions. To submit to the blog, email [email protected]
I butter the bowl, rub the big ball of dough so it is coated, cover it with a clean cloth, and set the timer for an hour. I will have this hour, and then another hour after I braid the dough, to finish up the things of the week before shabbes* comes in. I sit down at the computer and open up the pages bookmarked, the starred emails, facebook posts: all of the money asks I’ve received for the week. I take out my debit card, and proceed to give.
My practice of giving money before shabbes did not start on purpose. Though it could have been either, it was not a Shabbat practice that I decided to take on, or money resolution that I made as part of a giving plan. It started slowly. About two years ago I stopped using computers on shabbes. I just can’t even begin to say how awesome it is. When I know I’m going to turn my computer off before sundown, it reshapes the afternoon before. I like to have things cleaned and organized before I turn my computer off. I think that my practice of turning my computer off for Shabbat and my decision to give money to anyone who asks started around the same time. In the past I might save fundraising emails for a while, look at them every few days, hem and haw, and then maybe give, maybe not, maybe it would be too late for the project. Now, every Friday afternoon, it is time to give to whoever’s asked me for money over the internet that week. I like it when the projects are really different (Radicalphabet poster project. Librarians and Archivists to Palestine. Community garden in a neighborhood my ancestors abandoned.) Often, after giving to projects I’ve been asked to give money to, I remember about a zine, a show, an event someone told me about that week and I seek it out, and give some dollars where I haven’t been asked.
I usually do this while the challah is rising, rising, and baking. Then I turn off my computer, clean my physical space, text my mom Good Shabbes, shower. I go to synagogue, to a shabbes dinner, welcome friends to my house for a shabbes meal. We light candles, reflect on the week, pick angel cards, sing, eat.
Giving money before Shabbat changes the way I enter into Shabbat. On Shabbat we take a day of rest from both the creation and destruction that fills the other six days. We stop trying to shape the world, we try to just live in it. And we get a taste of what Jews call ha’olam ha’ba, the world to come, will feel like. Many organizers and justice-oriented folks I know think of this as a taste of the world we’re working for. Sometimes it can feel absurd, as a wealthy, class-privileged, white person, to take a day off from working for justice, to try to live in justice for a day when I have so many of my needs met and so many people don’t. Having Shabbat is a practice of self-care that is part of seeing myself in struggle for the long-haul, lifelong. It makes me take seriously the ways in which I’m living in scarcity and confinement the rest of the week. But going into shabbes after giving money, and doing this consistently, helps me pronounce and articulate both the kind of 6 days I want to have, and how I want to enter into the 7th of rest: grounded in work to redistribute, to change the material conditions in the world, to make it so that all can have Shabbat, so that ha’olam ha’ba can come soon, in our lifetimes, for all.
My spirituality is my politics is my giving is my spirituality is my activism: we are all one. I am working to view my life as connected, one flowing thing and not discreet areas or actions. I am also always trying to view my life/person as connected to all the other lives/persons. The illusion of our separateness as individuals, the illusion of what we do in one area of our lives as separate from another: this is what we have to pray and organize to overcome. Capitalism (and race, gender, body supremacy) teaches us that I am separate from you, what I have is mine and not ours, that this earth is a thing I walk on, separate from me, instead of thinking of the earth as the stuff I’m made of. The stuff we’re made of. My theology is that the Divine is what connects us to each other and the earth. My spiritual practice is connecting to the Divine and increasing this Divinity, this connection, in the world.
This spirituality, when I am grounded in it and acting out of it, leads to my very best organizing and money giving. It leads me to give more money, more frequently, more happily, to projects and people that push my edges about where it is “safe” and “okay” to give to.
Judaism has a whole lot to say about giving money. After a few thousand years, our thinking on tzedakah is wide, deep and varied. Learning about tzedakah as a class-conscious wealth-redistributing anti-capitalist, I’ve uncovered revolutionary ideas that I want to integrate into my practice, as well as the roots of some classist and oppressive ideas about money that I’m trying to unlearn. I won’t try here to give a complete or unbiased explication of tzedakah, but I’d like to explain the parts of my practice and beliefs that have been influenced by tzedakah concepts.
First and foremost, the root of the word tzedakah is tzedek, which means justice, not charity. The word is used many different ways across time and texts, but it well within the bounds of the language to hold my tzedakah to a standard of: how does this further justice? The other fundamental thing to understand about Jewish conceptions of tzedakah is that it is a mitzvah. Commonly mistranslated as ‘good deed,’ mitzvah actually means commandment. Something we are obligated to do or not do. All Jews, regardless of how much money they have, are obligated to give money for tzedakah. I’m still in the process of trying to internally understand tzedakah as obligatory. Even growing up in a family and community that gave money openly and frequently, there is this modern feeling that it is a “good deed.” The texture of something is different when it is a commandment, when it is obligatory (then again, in neo-liberal? Libertarian leaning? Capitalist U.S.? It is almost impossible for me to gut-level deep understand obligation. Nothing here is obligatory. Freedom here means doing what you want when you want it). What I’m starting to understand about obligation is that you do it regularly, no matter how much you want to, and sometimes it feels forced and other times it come easily, but you do it like brushing your teeth, because it is done. No reward, no big deal, it is done.
In the past few years my spirituality and religious practice has influenced my individual giving practices, and my shifting politics about wealth redistribution has deeply influenced by spirituality. Today, I am turning over and over the questions of how to harness these shifts to expand my thinking beyond the myth of my individual life, how to be thinking in terms of and taking more collective action. I wonder: how can my religious community give more money away? How can we shift long held stories of scarcity and not having enough? How can we utilize the bonds of connection and support that we have with each other to feel safe enough to not hoard? I wonder: how can my RG community build our collective spiritual health, and what is possible when we do that? If we sing more, will we give more? If we feel our hearts to be connected to the heart of the planet, it won’t seem like giving money away, we will know it as putting everything where it belongs.
Much thinking and writing thanks to: Ashley Horan, Lizzie Busch, Alana Krivo-Kaufman, Sonia Alexander, MJ Kaufman, Sarah Abbott, POOR Magazine and RG-Philly.
*shabbes or shabbat means the Jewish sabbath, a day of rest and spiritual enrichment.
by Jessica Rosenberg
Amen. I echo all your sentiments. For me it is about emptying whatever is in my pockets, from pennies to 20’s, and placing them in my tsedakah box each week before Shabbat. So honored to be on this journey with comrades like you!
Jessica, you are inspiring in so many ways. Thank you for your tremendous leadership here and everywhere else. I want to read this every Thursday to prepare for my erev shabbes!