David has responded to questions 2-4 together. So his response is repeated for these questions.
Tzedakah rejects the notion that the body’s well-being is less important than that of the soul or spirit. A medieval midrash put it this way: “There is nothing in the world more grievous than poverty. All sufferings are on one side, and poverty is on the other.”* That may explain why the Haggadah first offers an invitation to “those who hungry” and only then invites those in need of celebrating the festival. The prophets repeatedly inveighed against those who worried about ritual, but ignored caring for the needy. On Yom Kippur, a day when Jews fast — and “afflict” our souls, as the Bible says — we read the words of Isaiah:
“Is such the fast I desire, a day for people to starve their bodies? No, this is the fast I desire: . . . to let the oppressed go free, to break off every yoke. It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked, to clothe him and not to ignore your own kin” (Isaiah 58:5-7).
Maimonides (1135-1204) described eight levels of tzedakah, the lowest ranging from giving reluctantly, to giving when asked, to knowing the recipient, to giving anonymously, etc. The highest level involves providing an individual with a gift, a loan, a position in a partnership or helping an individual find employment so he or she will become independent. For scriptural proof of this last point he brought a verse from Leviticus (25:35): You shall strengthen him, be he a stranger or a settler, he shall live with you. “Which means,” said Maimonides, “strengthen him in such a manner that prevents him from falling into want.”* An authoritative 16th century code sets forth the norms of giving: Ideally 20 percent of one’s wealth with 10 percent being average and less being stingy.*
Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, illumines the inextricable link between physical and spiritual needs. To be a follower of Christ, Day believed, one must be committed to alleviate suffering, whether that be of hunger, violence, or loneliness. Her diaries record the breadth and depth of her commitments: profound prayerfulness, intense interactions with both the homeless and the famous, constant anxieties about funding for food and shelter for the Catholic Worker communities, advocacy for the Farm Workers in California and protests against U.S. involvements in war. In the face of so many needs, Day realized that the efforts of the Catholic Workers could not ameliorate the world’s ills. As she writes in June 1974: “We feel so powerless. We do so little, giving out soup. But at least we are facing problems daily. Hunger, homelessness, greed, loneliness. Greatest concern of the Bible is injustice, bloodshed. So we share what we have, we work for peace.”*
Or, to put it another ways, Peruvian theologian and priest Gustavo Gutierrez often reminded his hearers, “You read the Bible differently when you are hungry.”
The Qur’an treats human beings and their needs, whether spiritual, physical, social or economic, as interrelated. Just as in the human body, any deficiency in one organ affects the whole, so do unmet spiritual needs affect the entire being. Although some medieval Muslim philosophers endorsed the Greek idea of duality, which held that the world is composed of mind and matter, this notion is alien to the Qur’an. The Qur’an calls for attention to all areas of human need to bring positive changes in society.
However, when physical life is in danger, the Qur’an and the tradition of Prophet Muhammad hold that saving the life takes precedence. This is because without physical being, a person is unable to fulfill spiritual needs. The Qur’an says: “Because of this did We ordain unto the children of Israel that if anyone slays a human being — unless it be [in punishment] for murder or for spreading corruption on earth – it shall be as though he had slain all mankind; whereas, if anyone saves a life, it shall be as though he had saved the lives of all mankind” (5:32). The Prophet said, “If anyone of you is having his meals, he should not hurry up till he is satisfied even if the worship has been started.”*