As mentioned in my post on the Environment, the Jewish religion puts a great deal of emphasis on charity. In the torah there are several sections dedicated to the treatment of the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the stranger. One of my favorites is that you are required to leave the corners of your fields unharvested, and anything dropped by your harvesters is to be left also. This appeals to me for two reasons:
1) The poor get to collect the grain/produce themselves, so it feels less like charity, they don't have to ask, they get to keep their pride, and also it promotes industry, giving them a starting point to, for instance, grind the grain themselves and sell the flour at a profit.
2) It reminds the field owner that they really don't need all of their produce. When you give a small portion of each harvest it seems less onerous than the same percentage all at once.
Unfortunately this practice is less useful in a non-agrarian society. I can't let a stranger come into my office 10% of the time, do my work and earn my salary. It is impractical for a number of reasons, but makes me agree (partially) with the French method of limiting the number of hours one may work in a week. That way my banker friends could work 9-5, earn a reasonable salary, and have time for a life. And there would be twice as many bankers. Hmmm. Maybe not then.
The reason that I'm thinking about the topic of charity is because The Washington Post ran an article about a man who donated $5 million dollars to his synagogue in DC. As somone whose home congregation is currently in the middle of raising money for an expansion it resonated. It is terrific that Mr. Saltz had the means and the desire to make such a donation, but does it count as charity? I know that many syngaogues are struggling to survive, and have membership who cannot afford to pay dues that cover all costs, but that isn't the case everywhere.
A friend of mine attends a shul where construction on a new building has just started. In the meantime, the congregation is paying $45K a week for a temporary structure. In addition to the $13 million for the building itself. This just seems a bit steep, especially after the MANY calls for funds over Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.
My question, I guess, is, does giving to a synagogue count as charity? What about endowing an art museum? Are they different?
10.06.06 Update: According to the Jewish Week mainstream Jews Y-Love charity.
10.17.06 Update: Treppenwitz notes that Jews in Israel still don't "trim the corners of their fields" or the last 30-45 minutes of the business day.