Can I choose which poor person receives my tzedakah?
Question: Every once in a while a very well-meaning and generous person approaches me and wants to give money to a specific person as tzedakah (charity) through the synagogue, but with a catch. They want to deposit the funds in a tzedakah fund of the synagogue for a specific person. Is this permitted?
The answer as a legal point is definitely no. For example, you can not give funds to a school, which is a legitimate non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, for any identified person. You can give for the poor. You can create a fund to give to children of a particular aptitude (students with A's) or background (children of Latino heritage). But the school needs to legitimately offer and administer scholarships openly for any and all qualifying students in those categories. The attempt to give through an intermediary is basically money-laundering and an attempt to evade the tax codes of the United States of America. By evading those codes, the recipient would not have to report the income and the donor would seek a tax break for the charitable gift. It is illegal, and therefore unethical.
If you wish to give tzedakah for a category, such as "widows, orphans and strangers," then give freely and without restrictions to a non-profit that serves those needs.
But what is the religious view of this action? The Talmud raises an interesting case in B. Gittin 11b-12a, about the corner of the field (Peah) that needs to be left for the poor. According to Vayikra (Leviticus) 19:9-10; 23:22),
"When you reap your land's harvest, you shall not finish off the edge of your field, not pick up the gleanings of your harvest. And your vineyard you shall not pluck bare, nor pick up the fallen fruit of your vineyard. For the poor and for the sojourner you shall leave them. I am the Lord your God."
The system seems clear: You must leave a dependable portion of your productive harvest unharvested for the poor and the wanderer to come and harvest for themselves, and you must leave anything that drops on the grounds as you work for them to come and take after you have done your work. The needy have a right to that portion of your field and work because God is your God. It must be available, and they may come to do the work necessary for themselves. It seems very straight forward.
But what if there are no poor or wanderers near your field? Do you leave it to rot? And what if you know some poor or wanderers back in town that you want to help? Can you gather this for them, and deliver it to them? And more disturbingly, what if you don't like these poor or wandering people, and prefer to save it for other poor or wandering people?
The question is about distributive justice - an ancient Aristotelian concept that is at the heart of the debate in our country about welfare, entitlements, and equity. Distributive justice asserts that all members of society must have access to reasonable economic resources, education, social services, and other resources based on the ethical principles of equity and solidarity among the least privileged. It can also be understood as the fair distribution of benefits and burdens.
Only an unjust society, by Torah Law, would have only some people access the benefits of society. The Torah is quite clear that while there will always be poor people whom we are commanded to support, we also must create a system of access to the benefits of society for disadvantaged people to receive through their own labor.
The rabbi's questions really are based on concepts like unequal access to transportation (I can't get to the field), residential segregation (the poor people don't live near the resources), corruption and bias (I prefer these poor over those poor).
Let's see how they handled it.
Raising a debate between Rabbi Eliezer and the Sages from Mishnah Pe'ah 4:9, the Gemara in B. Gittin 11b says, "One who gathered pe'ah and said, 'behold this is for this specific poor person,' R. Eliezer said he has acquired it for him but the Sages say he must give it to the first available poor person." Rav Ameimar points out that the wealthy land owner could renounce his property, effectively becoming poor in the moment, and then be eligible to acquire the pe'ah for himself. The Torah therefore, according to the Sages, says specifically "You shall not gather... for the poor." By moving the comma in the underlined verse above, they read a Torah command that you may not gather for the poor. They must do it for themselves. Therefore you may not gather at all - and you may not choose who is to receive the fruits of your harvest.
I love the flexibility in Torah interpretation that the debate reflects. Thousands of years later, the text clearly speaks to us.
There are no "undeserving" poor when it comes to our religious and moral obligation to provide for society. You may not "play favorites" among those in need. And we must create systemic equity in people's access to the benefits of society.