EA for Jews

Effective altruism for jews

Judaism & effective altruism

Ea for jews

Judaism and effective altruism

As Jews—by religion, culture, choice, or history—our tradition teaches us that “justice, justice you shall pursue.” We are called to aid the oppressed, as we were once oppressed as slaves in Egypt, and to share our resources with the poor.

How do we do this? In biblical times our sages instructed us to set aside a portion of our agricultural bounty for the poor and not stand by while our neighbors were harmed.  But what about today? In our modern interconnected world what makes helping others a challenge is not a lack of opportunities, but an abundance. There are hundreds of thousands of charities, even thousands of Jewish charities in the United States alone. Which of them are doing good work? Are any of them significantly better or more effective than others? How do I know which is best? What does “best” even mean? How does doing direct volunteer work compare to donations?

The more time we spend contemplating these questions, the more questions present themselves: should I donate near where I live, or abroad? To my Jewish community or outside of it? How do I balance my neighbors’ physical and spiritual needs? Should I focus on addressing the direct needs of people today or on the “root causes” of their problems? Besides donations, how can I leverage my career to help others?

The effective altruism community seeks to use reason and evidence to answer the above questions. It is a loose-knit community made up of many people with many different views and opinions. (Sound familiar?) But what unites those dedicated to effective altruism, across the religious and philosophical spectrum, is a commitment to using evidence-based approaches to help our global neighbors as much as possible with what we’ve been given.

Welcome to effective altruism! We’re excited to have you alongside us.

Ea for jews

Why should Jews care about effective altruism?

The reasons that Jews should care about effective altruism are about as varied as Jews themselves! The expression “two Jews, three opinions” applies here as much as anywhere.  Nonetheless, there are some commonalities among Jews, and our shared history, values, and traditions are relevant to the core tenets of effective altruism. 

This series of articles will discuss the intersection of Judaism and effective altruism generally.  We hope that these articles will prompt discussion and encourage the reader to explore these ideas further. This is not meant to be a full evaluation of the intersection of effective altruism and Jewish religion, culture, and history but an introductory text for those who are new to effective altruism or its implications for Jews.

Ea for jews

The commandment to pursue justice

Judaism calls on us to help others, including by pursuing justice (tzedakah) and giving to the poor.  See Deuteronomy 16:20 (“Justice, justice you shall pursue”).  Biblical sources direct Jews to give 10% percent of their earnings to the poor every third year (Deuteronomy 26:12), and an additional percentage of their income annually. Leviticus 19:9­-10Shulchan Arukh, Yoreh De’ah 249.   Rabbinic commentary teaches that those whose basic needs are easily met, and can afford to do so, should give even more than 10% and has emphasized the commandment to pursue tzedakah (which encompasses charitable giving) is “equal to all the other commandments combined” Bava Bathra 9b; see also Ketubat. 50a; Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Gifts to the Poor.

Another theme present throughout the Tanakh and commentary is that, as Jews were once oppressed as slaves in Egypt, Jews should be cognizant of the oppressed everywhere  (Deuteronomy 5:15).  And in modern Judaism, the concept of tzedakah is often coupled with the concept of Tikkun Olam, “repairing the world,” which is interpreted to mean the pursuit of social justice and working to “make the world more just, peaceful, tolerant, and equal, through acts of charity, kindness, and political action.”  See Tikkun Olam: A Defense and a Critique.

Ea for jews

Secular or cultural Jews: why we are motivated to pursue justice

Distinct from religious motivations discussed here, non-religious or cultural Jews have a long history of being active in social justice movements and philanthropy.  See, e.g., An Introduction to Jewish Philanthropy; Jewish Virtual Library: Charity (Tzedakah): Charity Throughout Jewish History.

Motivations for secular or cultural Jews can include:

  • Family history or the history of the Jewish people.  As their family or ancestors benefitted from the altruism of others, many feel a call to help others as well.  Many also have a family tradition of working for social justice and giving to the poor.
  • The history of the Holocaust, in particular, motivates many secular Jews to work so that genocide or other human rights abuses “never again” happen as they did in the holocaust. See My Jewish Learning,  Kellner, Hans (1994). “‘Never Again” is Now’. History and Theory. 33 (2): 127–128.   In 2012, Elie Wiesel wrote: “‘Never again’ becomes more than a slogan: It’s a prayer, a promise, a vow … never again the glorification of base, ugly, dark violence.” The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum made the phrase, in its universal sense, the theme of its 2013 Days of Remembrance, urging people to look out for the “warning signs” of genocide.
  • Reason and logic.  There is a long history of Jewish thinkers writing about the importance of pursuing justice and giving to the poor not from a religious starting point but rather through analytic philosophy.  In particular, the “most influential living philosopher,” Peter Singer‘s philosophy and writings directly inspired the effective altruism movement.  Peter Singer is ethnically Jewish, and his grandparents died in the Holocaust.

Why are you motivated to pursue justice? Let us know!