John Mandsager on Gregg Gardner’s The Origins of Organized Charity in Rabbinic Judaism
According to Suetonius (Lives of the Twelve Caesars, II.91), once a year, the Emperor Augustus would don beggars’ garb and spend the day panhandling in the streets of Rome — apparently in response to an ill-omened dream. In the DC Comic series The Sandman: Fables and Reflections (Volume 6, chapter “August”), Neil Gaiman imagines Augustus’s annual disguise as a beggar to have multiple motivations, including as a day when the emperor can live amongst his people, but also when Augustus can hide his machinations from the gods, notably from his freshly-deified adoptive father, Julius. The sight of beggars on the street was not unusual — rather, it was a cause for consternation — but the inversion of social status from emperor to destitute is the Bakhtinian carnivalesque in the extreme. Augustus cannot be seen when asking for alms, not even by the gods. Whatever Augustus’s motivations, he had the means to disappear into the streets and then return to his station. Others, however, were not so lucky, and the possibility of individual loss of wealth and the visual signs of that wealth weighed heavily on well-to-do Romans. The loss of social status was a distinct fear for the wealthy in the Empire. Authors such as Ben Sira, Philo, and Seneca bemoaned the debasement of one reduced to begging. Meanwhile, some authors, such as Martial, were vocally worried about liars pretending to be destitute — as Anneliese Parkin shows in her in-depth analysis of responses to begging in the early Empire, “‘You Do Him No Service’: An Exploration of Pagan Almsgiving.” The followers of Jesus and early Christian authors developed complex responses to poverty and impoverishment, as Peter Brown has shown. In distinction to other voices in the Roman Empire, early rabbis (c. 100-250 C.E.) attempted to provide innovative responses to the shame of panhandling and the seemingly irreversible problem of losing one’s station in society.
Gregg E. Gardner considers a fraught question in The Origins of Organized Charity in Rabbinic Judaism: how might the destitute be provided for — a matter of life and death — while maintaining the dignity of those receiving charity and without creating an unequal relationship of dependency between the alms-giver and the charity recipient? In the Roman Empire, both of these variables were weighted with social import: from the perspective of the needy, the loss or lack of status and station is not only a threat to one’s health, but also the road to social death; from the perspective of the gift-giver, the relationship is necessarily dependent, with the rich expecting recompense at some point in the future. What Gardner identifies and masterfully demonstrates is that early rabbis attempted to circumvent both the social stigmas of the chronically and recently poor and the dependent relationships between rich and poor.
Engaging broad social, anthropological, and philosophical debates about gift-giving, reciprocity, dependence, poverty, and charity, Gardner shows how the early rabbis endeavored to overturn social norms that expected recompense for donations (either in the form of public acclaim — euergetism — or a patron-client relationship) and also to put an end to beggars on the street. Notably the early rabbis developed two new institutions, the quppa (charity fund) and the tamhui (soup kitchen), which attempted to provide for the recently impoverished, in the former case, and the chronically destitute, in the latter. In particular, the soup kitchen would ideally provide the basic necessities of life for the indigent in the form of a minimum food allowance (larger on the Sabbath) and shelter for the night, while the charity fund was designed to raise the recently impoverished back to their accustomed standard of living. The charity fund was conservative and radical at the same time, claiming that individuals were entitled to their accustomed position in society, and providing the monetary means (even extraordinary amounts) to return the newly poor to their correct level of wealth. Moreover, Gardner shows how the early rabbis sought to remove hierarchical relationships fraught with stigma and shame between donors and the needy by replacing those personal relationships with “collective, indirect, and institutionalized” charity. For these innovative writers, charity was to be disbursed from the community as a whole to those identified as needing aid, without the direct interaction of the donor and recipient. As institutions, the soup kitchen and charity fund functioned to provide the ideal framework for keeping this distance and for reducing the shame and dependence inherent in accepting handouts. It should be noted that the early rabbis generally addressed free men of means as the subject of their discussions, and therefore it is reasonable to assume that the rabbis intended the charity fund (quppa) to be used by recently impoverished men. Concerning other forms of charity, as Gardner describes, the early rabbis intended the recipient to be poor men, redirecting the biblical commandment of the poor tithe (Deut 14:28-29; 26:12) from the Levite, stranger, widow, and orphan to poor men in particular.
In the case of both institutions, the rabbis envisioned a scenario where funds were directed to the poor from donors via an intermediary: the assessment of who is in need, the solicitation of donations, and the disbursement of the donations was done by a “charity supervisor.” With the introduction of this mediator, Gardner argues that the rabbis attempted to remove both the social stigma of receiving alms and the dependent relationship assumed when one receives aid from a social superior. This supervisor was tasked with using social and visual evidence to assess the needs of the chronically and newly poor. The intermediary might ask: Is the individual part of the community? Is the individual well-known? What was their life like before taking a turn for the worse? Visual cues designating social status includingthe quality of the recipient’s clothing and the variety and richness of their meals also contributed to the assessment.
For instance, was the person used to eating fowl, fish, (the shellfish probably excepted in the case of a Jew), dates, and asparagus? Or, was his standard fare bread, with a little olive oil, as was the case for most inhabitants of the Empire? And, what type of bread? The early rabbis, alongside their Roman counterparts, used bread as a complex signifier of status: well-ground white wheat bread for the wealthy all the way down to bread baked with lentils for the poorest. Notably, the charity fund was expected by the early rabbis to replicate the visual, material, and food quality expectations of the recently impoverished and to reproduce the appropriate “level” of bread, clothing, and wine customary for the newly needy. A particularly fascinating aspect of Gardner’s study is his identification of how the early rabbis differentiated between individuals through the signifiers of the table and the quality of one’s meal. Gardner notes that in the process of providing for the poor, the early rabbis paid careful attention to what each individual should and/or must receive to maintain his lifestyle.
Gardner shows how the institutionalization and expert certification of need and disbursement of funds fits within the larger project of “rabbinization” of all aspects of ritual, social, economic, and familial life. Just as early rabbinic literature focused on marriage or the Sabbath, and considered biblical forms of support for the poor(such as leaving the “gleanings” of one’s field for the unfortunate to collect after the harvest[Lev. 19:9-10, 23:22, Deut. 24:19]), we should not be surprised to see the early rabbis tackling a pervasive part of society, even via the innovation of extra-biblical institutions, such as the charity fund and the soup kitchen. While some viewers of these new institutions (e.g., Frank M. Loewenberg) focus on their ethical import — providing frameworks of care for the needy and neediest — Gardner’s focus on their institutionalization and rabbinization contextualizes the earliest forms of the soup kitchen and charity fund within their late ancient Roman milieu. Yes, these institutions did work to prevent physical and social death, but they also did so through collective, indirect, calculated, and supervised means. The rabbi may not have seen himself in the shoes of the charity supervisor, but he certainly claimed to know how the supervisor should provide his impartial, adjudicating services to the community, both to the circle of donors and those in need.
I find Gardner’s description of the charity supervisor especially though-provoking. Yet I think that the surveillance aspect of these institutions, particularly related to the office of the charity supervisor, could be explored more extensively. Throughout early rabbinic literature, but especially in Mishnah and Tosefta Order Zera’im (where we find discussions of the soup kitchen and the charity fund), the early rabbis are acutely concerned with the ways in which prescribed behaviors appear or might be perceived. It is perhaps not surprising that Gardner notes that discussions of the charity supervisor focus on visual transparency; the supervisor must not carry his own money, lest he be suspected of taking the donations for himself. On the other hand, the supervisor may hide his hand-off of the donations to the poor by palming it to the recipient, so the latter does not suffer the visual shame of receiving charity in public. Gardner also discusses the possibility of communal buildings, such as synagogues, which may have had “poor boxes” built into a wall of the building, where coins could be deposited free from the view of the public (coin hordes found at numerous synagogues suggest this possibility). If such deposit boxes were intended to be emptied by the charity supervisor, they would have contributed to the supervisor’s ability to maintain anonymity between donors and recipients.
Throughout Mishnah and Tosefta Order Zera’im, while discussing innovative ways to abide by the biblical commandments associated with agricultural rituals, the early rabbis were acutely concerned with how these practices and agricultural spaces were viewed. One key aspect of keeping these commandments for the early rabbis was making sure that any interested parties knew what they were looking at: Jews correctly observing biblical law. In a variety of cases, including discussions of what sorts of grain one may plant in adjacent fields, the visual effect of the resultant crops trumped the facts on the ground, as it were: to insure that the grain fields were visually distinct, for example, wheat and safflower must be planted apart from each other, since once they ripen, they are both yellow and perhaps will be mistaken for a “mixture” of crops. This example, like other aspects of Order Zera’im help to show how Gardner’s analysis of two particulars — the soup kitchen and the charity fund — can be placed within a larger conversation about how the early rabbis focused on focus: the attention to how Jewish practices appear, in particular the speculation about how others might view Jewish practices and visuality as semiotic and structuring determinants of life. Gardner’s discussion of the soup kitchen, the charity fund, and the charity supervisor fits within a broader discussion about how early rabbis framed Jewish life, in all of its aspects, through visuality and appearances.
When and if Augustus donned the rags of a beggar and sat on the curb, he performed two ever-present, dangerous, and feared realities: the life of the chronically indigent, begging for bread to survive, and the newly impoverished, forced to lose their former social status because of circumstance. Augustus could once again don his toga and return to luxurious dinners. The majority of his subjects could not. What the early rabbis developed, and as Gardner analyzes in expert and insightful detail, are solutions to both dire realities. The soup kitchen would ideally allow the chronically poor to survive, the charity fund would ambitiously return the newly disadvantaged to their former station, and the expert charity supervisor would evaluate need and separate the communal gifts from the recipients of charity. A new and unexpected set of institutions to address the bodily and social needs of the poor thus emerged.