Ask A Rabbi: Does Donating Money to a Secular Cause Constitute Tzedakah?

“Does donating money to a secular college—where the funds may be used for both scholarships and operating expenses—constitute tzedakah?”

By Rabbi Jillian Cameron

In traditional Judaism, the concept of “tzedakah” is not merely a choice, but rather an obligation. One of our most well-known sages, Maimonides, composed a ladder of tzedakah, attempting to understand this obligation not only in terms of the giver, but also the impact on those who receive it. This ladder of tzedakah details the different ways one can give, with the highest form being the tzedakah that will enable a person to provide for themselves, or the “teach a man to fish” philosophy. The concept of helping others is so very much engrained in what it means to act as a Jew in the world.

There are many forms of tzedakah—giving your time, like volunteering at a soup kitchen or shelter, giving goods, like donating clothing or food to organized drives, and, of course, giving money. Although “tzedakah” is often translated as “charity,” the Hebrew root of the word is “justice.” Any time you give in order to help others, you are performing this mitzvah and are helping make the world a better place. When you donate your time, or your things or your hard-earned money, you help others.

If you give money to a college where people are educated, and some of that money might help those who are less fortunate get an education, you are enacting justice in the world. Even if the money you give goes to operating costs, which seems less glamorous, no college or university could educate anyone without professors, electricity or a maintenance staff. With your support, you are enacting justice in the world. We should all have those special places, people and experiences in our lives that motivate us to give back, be generous and pursue justice. Thank you so much for donating your money and for helping make the world a bit better.