Q. When you give a charitable donation, you get a benefit in the form of a tax deduction. Doesn't this take away the ethical aspect of the donation?
A. First of all let's make a technical clarification to clear up on occasional misconception: a tax deduction only saves an amount of taxes equal to a fraction of the donation. In the US this is equal to your tax bracket, since the donation is deducted from your income; in Israel it is a fixed credit equal to a little over a third. So it definitely costs you money to give charity. One way of looking at this is that the government is your partner in charity; for every two dollars (or shekels) you donate, the government gives one.
This alone would be a praiseworthy act in Jewish tradition, as the Talmud teaches: Rebbe Elazar stated, "One who causes others to give is greater than one who gives himself, as it is written (Isaiah 32?), 'And the act of charity is peace, and the labor of charity tranquility and security forever'". (1) The inference is the unusual use of the word "act of charity", which can also be read as "the instigator of charity". (Though it may be open to question if channeling government funds in this way is relevant to this passage, because all government funds are in any case directed to public needs.)
What we see from this is that Jewish tradition is very generous when it comes to giving credit for generosity. In the case of Rabbi Elazar, one person gives charity, but two people get credit – the giver, and the instigator. And it's not a fixed sum game; the giver doesn't get less credit because the instigator gets more.
We can bring other examples of this generosity. For example, many people feel that giving is only truly generous if it is anonymous. But this is not the position of the Jewish sages. While anonymous giving is particularly praiseworthy in the case when it shields the recipient from a feeling of shame before the giver (2), in general it is appropriate and even desirable to publicize the donor. (3)
Finally, Jewish tradition doesn't see anything wrong with giving charity in order that the merit should bring a reward, even an earthly one. "It is taught: one who says, this coin is going to charity in order that my children should thrive, and in order that I may merit the World to Come, he is considered perfectly righteous". (4)
Immediately afterward the Talmud explains that this applies only to someone who understands that he is only expressing a prayer to God, not someone with an immature conception of God who believes he is making a deal – someone who will feel that God has "reneged" if he is found unworthy of the blessing he seeks.
The connection between giving charity and attaining personal success is so tight in Jewish tradition that it almost goes beyond a religious principle into an ordinary rule of nature. The consciousness of the benefit of charity is so ingrained that the Talmud tells us that even simple people were careful to separate their tithes as they were convinced this led to prosperity. (5)
So we should be happy for the tax deduction, and grateful when the countries we live in try to encourage the socially productive act of charitable giving by providing one. In this way, whenever we give charity we involve all our fellow citizens likewise in our good deed.
SOURCES: (1) Babylonian Talmud Bava Batra 9a (2) Shulchan Arukh Yoreh Deah 249:7 (3) Shulchan Arukh Yoreh Deah 249:13 (4) Babylonian Talmud Bava Batra 10b (5) Babylonian Talmud Taanit 9a
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The Jewish Ethicist presents some general principles of Jewish law. For specific questions and direct application, please consult a qualified Rabbi.