Was Maimonides Wrong?

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Or, more specifically, have society's values changed so dramatically that Maimonides' prioritization of the different kinds of tzedakah (Jewish charity) is no longer accurate?

History: Maimonides (a rabbi back in the day) decided that the best kind of tzedakah is the establishment of self-sufficiency for the needy. After that, he prioritized various kinds of anonymous giving (i.e. the giver doesn't know the receiver, or vice versa), followed by unhappy giving at the very bottom. But how were the rankings reached?

Maimonides prioritized his list based largely on the combination of efficiency and honor. You get the most bang for your buck if you help the poor provide for themselves, but honor (or kavod) is big in Jewish. Traditionally, Jews will go to great lengths to protect people's honor. If someone brings non-Kosher food into their house, they'll eat it to avoid embarrassing the person. If a guest wears a tank top into synagogue, none of the congregants will confront her, to avoid embarrassing her. And if someone is having a hard time, Jews will donate through an intermediary, like a rabbi or an organization, so that the receiver won't feel indebted to the helper.

But now, society's priorities have evolved. In a recent class, before teaching about Maimonides, we asked 16 eighth graders which kind of giving they thought was the most valuable. 11 said self-sufficiency, and 5 said double-blind giving. A strong minority, of kids who had gone to Hebrew school and learned about Jewish values and considered the role of need in the community.

This makes me think that perhaps honor has eclipsed self-sufficiency in today's society. It's great if you teach someone job skills and arrange for them to support themself, but how would they feel if you constantly ask them how their new job is going? How would you feel if your relationship has changed from friendship into one of constant (and possibly strained) gratitude? Perhaps the bigger mitzvah is to preserve the honor of society's needy by arranging for a rabbi to help them, or by using one of the many local organizations that operate on the community level. Ultimately, preserving the honor of society's neediest (while helping them, of course) is of paramount importance.

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