ASK THE RABBI
February 2018 Question:
Is "social action" just another name for tzedakah?
February 2018 ANSWER:
No, not really. Sometimes there is some overlap between tzedakah and social action, but they are certainly different ideas.
Tzedakah technically means "doing the right thing", and it is often used to mean "charity". It is meant to address some of the ways in which the world is not perfect. In that sense, tzedakah may include social action activities. For example, working so that migrant work-ers are properly housed, fed and cared for is a social action issue (the situation of the tomato pickers at Immokalee, Florida is an example), which is certainly a matter of perfecting the world, but it does not involve giving money to this cause. Asking merchants to raise the price of Immokalee tomatoes by one penny per pound (the extra penny going to improve the workers’ living conditions), and then boycotting merchants or restaurants that decline to do this, is a social action initiative of the Reform Movement (fyi, Publix declines to do this, though Winn Dixie and McDonalds and other place have signed on, so we are asked not to buy tomatoes at Publix.)
Bringing baby diapers or baby food to temple for delivery to a local food pantry is a straightforward example of a tzedakah project. Our tradition teaches us to do acts of tzedakah in connection with all of our festival observances, and to put money aside every week before Shabbat (in a tzedakah box) which will later be directed to a cause of our choice.
But registering voters before an election, protesting government policies which contradict basic Jewish values, recycling to reduce pollution of the planet, refusing to eat meat from animals that have been raised under inhumane conditions, reducing one’s carbon footprint by supporting companies which do this, fighting human trafficking...these are all examples of social action activities that are not in this same category as tzedakah projects or activities. And obviously the list could go on. Of course, they still fall under the general heading of "doing the right thing", which is what the Hebrew word tzedakah actually means.
The distinguishing feature of social action projects is that they raise awareness of an issue that needs to be corrected, and recruits the public at large to participate in doing so. Lots of tzedakah projects...like feeding the hungry or providing clothing for the poor... began as social action projects, but have become so familiar that we are long past the point of need-ing to understand why we must respond to these needs.
The bottom line is that there are many ways to "perfect the world"...which in Hebrew is tikkun olam