When you talk about religion, for the most part, people think about it as belief. In religious circles, people discuss opinions about God, life after death, world events, and the end of time. It can be confusing and more often than not it leads to contention. Religion has become one of the topics you don’t discuss in polite company. To religious people, belief is a big deal.
The problem with religious discussion is that belief is a choice. People choose to believe what they believe, whether it makes sense or not. There is an aspect of belief, or faith, that seeks to grasp the element of mystery. It reaches beyond the concrete world in which we live and have our being. It is in this area that people become exasperated with religious discussion. We get tired of argument and contention.
Unfortunately, religion gets a bad rap. People have done terrible, inhumane things in the name of religion. People have been persecuted, attacked, and murdered in the name of religion. People have practiced greed, hatred, and violence in the name of their religion; wrapping their evil in the name of holiness. It is a disgrace to faith, and as a result, people in modern society consider religion an evil to be avoided. When you consider the history of religious people, killing each other for the love of God, it’s hard to disagree with them that religion can be bad.
The problem is, this is not what religion is really about. The purpose of religion, good religion, is to make us better versions of ourselves. This is the point of the Torah. The Torah teaches us to live together in a society with prescribed values. It teaches us to take care of the poor and needy among us, whether they are part of our people, or not. It teaches us to care for the widow, or orphan, or disabled people in our midst, but also for the stranger and alien who dwell among us (Lev 19:18, 33–34, 23:22; Deut 15:7–8).
People tend to give a nod to helping the poor and needy; the vulnerable among us, but they want to focus the bulk of their religious expression on religious experience or on getting other people to confess the same faith that we do. Those things are not bad in and of themselves, but the purpose of religious faith is not to make us feel good or to put another notch in our belts for people we’ve convinced of the rightness of our belief.
Real religion is a reflection of our love for God. Loving God is the point of religion. It is the opposite of religious fighting, whether about theology or ritual, or conquest in the name of religion The Torah teaches, “And you shall love the Lord your God, with all your heart, all your soul, and all your might” (Deut 6:5). This is the greatest commandment, because everything else should flow from your love for God.
If you love God, you don’t strike out against his image in others by murdering them. If you love God, you care for his creatures and the world he created. If you love God, you care for his people, whether they are part of your community, or the stranger or alien.
Humanitarian work is based on the idea of showing our love for God by taking care of people in need, because we love God, and because they are in need and created in his image. This is why Yaakov, the brother of Yeshua, said, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (James 1:27). This is why when people think of religious people they respect, they think of Mother Theresa, or the Dali Lama, people of peace, who help the poor. Most inspirational stories are about people who give of themselves selflessly to meet the needs of others.
To help people in their affliction is central to religious expression, not an option. It is more important than the rollercoaster of religious experience. It is more important than religious argument.
Ritual is important, because it passes on our faith heritage. Religious experience is important, because it allows us to express our religious emotion and helps us connect with the intangible aspect of faith. However, they are not ends in themselves. The goal of religion is that we express our faith in a way that shows our love for God, and that others might understand the love of God because they can see it in us. This is what Yeshua spoke of when he said, “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matt 5:16). It is through good deeds, acts of kindness, that people see the love of God in us. It is through our actions that people can encounter God.
I was at a service in a small village of Ukraine. Three hundred people were there, asking about what we believed. These were people who had received humanitarian aid from us, and they requested a meeting so we could explain our faith. During that meeting, there was, in his words, “a representative from the evangelical community.” As we shared what we believe, “the representative” kept interrupting us with theological questions. He wanted to know if we accept the writings of Paul. He wanted to know if we believe in the New Testament. Finally he asked if we were saved by works of the law. Before I could answer, an elderly man from the synagogue stood up and said to the representative that he didn’t understand. He said salvation is something that God does, but the Torah is a way of life. This elderly man understood things very well.
Helping the needy is not a religious option. It is a central part of the life of faith. Francis of Assisi said, “Do all you can to preach the gospel, and if necessary use words!” We have this concept in our modern thinking: Actions speak louder than words. Yaakov says, “But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works” (James 2:18). People outside of the faith community don’t pay attention to what we say until they see what we do. They have heard religious arguments to the point that they block them out as noise. They take notice of how we live, and what we do.
I am part of the cigar community. I have a lot of friends of different religions, and some who are atheists. Most of them are decent people. I am known in that community as the rabbi. They know I don’t have a congregation, but that I run a humanitarian organization that feeds the Jewish poor in Eastern Europe. I make myself available to them as a friend, and sometimes as an advisor. I have given spiritual comfort and direction when they ask. When I have conducted fund raisers for our soup kitchens, some of the most generous donors have been members of the cigar community. They said they gave because they know the money really goes for what I say it goes for, and it’s really doing good. They trust me because I try to live my faith in their midst. My kindness gives them the opportunity to show kindness and generosity. To them, my faith is real, and they respect it. On more than one occasion, I have been approached by people in that community, asking for spiritual guidance. This was made possible because I live my faith in their midst. My actions show my faith is something real. Words are just words until we back them with our actions.
Some people have felt that humanitarian ministry is only valid if we are including a gospel message when we feed people. To them, feeding the poor isn’t valid unless we are using acts of kindness as a tool for evangelism. I have a problem with that. If the purpose of feeding the poor is evangelism, then it’s not about showing compassion to the needy. Poor people aren’t stupid. They understand when someone is using kindness as a means to push religion on them. An old man in a soup kitchen once said to me, “We understand they are trying to buy our souls for a loaf of bread.” This is why he didn’t buy their message. We try to feed people because they are hungry, not to buy a religious opportunity. People tend to believe us, because there is no religious requirement.
In the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, Yeshua says, “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink . . . I was naked and you clothed me” (Matt 25:35–36). He never says, “I was hungry and you preached to me.” When you feed people because they are in need, and put no requirements on them, they can see the love of God, and some want to know more. If they want to know more, I am more than happy to share with them the greatest gift. When it has been suggested that our efforts could be maximized if we include a gospel message, I consider the ten lepers that Yeshua healed. Only one came back to thank him. Yeshua didn’t try to maximize his efforts. He understood that no one can come to him unless the Father draws him.
I was in Belarus, and we were giving out food parcels. A Jewish guy came in and he was indignant. He told me he was a communist, and an atheist, and he didn’t accept capitalism. I asked if he was Jewish, and he said he was. I said so am I, and this is one Jew helping another. He smiled, shook my hand, and took the food. After that, he was always warm and friendly to me. He warmed to my message because I didn’t treat it as something I had to barter to share. He saw the value of my faith through my actions. Sometimes that will lead to someone asking more about what I believe, and sometimes not, but it gives people a view of faith that is positive.
Someone once asked me how I could feed people without giving them the gospel. I asked them how you could think someone was paying attention to your message when they hadn’t eaten in three days. All they were doing was waiting for you to finish talking so they could eat. It turns an act of kindness into a game. If we are really feeding people as an act of kindness, it should stand as an act of kindness. When a person has to endure a gospel presentation to get food, it becomes a bait-and-switch situation, and everyone knows it. The love of God is something real, and doesn’t have to be sold to people.
Some people make a distinction between “Gospel” and “Social Gospel.” To them, social gospel is just helping people, through soup kitchens and rescue missions. They have implied that the social gospel is a poor substitute for the “real gospel” which brings salvation. I have a hard time with this notion because it makes a distinction between helping people and sharing one’s faith, when the Scriptures obviously teach they are part of the same thing. Yaakov says, “If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:15–17). The one is part of the other.
The problem I have with separating the Gospel and the Social Gospel is that when people focus only on a salvation message, it warps the whole point of the gospel. It isn’t just about salvation and eternal destiny. It’s about encountering God, and the change in our lives because of that encounter. It’s about becoming the people God intended us to be. If all we are doing is asking people to pray a salvation prayer and everything with turn out fine, we have not done our job. Yeshua commanded his disciples to make disciples. He wanted us to be teaching people how to live their faith in an unbelieving world, not to become salvation dispensaries. When a person reaches out with humanitarian work, people are drawn to us. If all we are doing is preaching at people, they run in the other direction.
Rebbe Nachman of Breslov was unlike the other Hasidic Rebbes of his day. The others dressed in black and white all the time, and spent their days surrounded by their followers. Rebbe Nachman dressed in the common clothes of his day, except for Shabbat when he dressed in black and white. When his followers asked why he didn’t dress like the other Rebbes, he said that when people see the black and white, they run in the other direction. He wanted to draw people closer, so he dressed like them. When we reach out to people, we need to dress like them and talk with them as one of them. If we look like we are too religious, they run in the other direction. If we do acts of kindness and generosity, we draw them.
I have seen people try to appear religious, by dressing Hasidic, growing long bushy beards and payos, with the women wearing long dresses and wrapping their hair in scarves. They looked more like the road show from Fiddler on the Roof. When people see them, it doesn’t draw them. Strange appearance doesn’t add to our credibility. Looking normal does. The power of kindness is that it draws people. There is so little kindness in the world that when people see it, they want it.
There is a great power in humanitarian aid. When I travel through Eastern Europe, there are many roadblocks. People must examine your passport and other papers, and stamp your papers before you can pass through. The people who examine your papers are low-level bureaucrats who have little authority. Sometimes they just want you out of the way and stamp your papers and wave you on. Others like to show that they have power and you can’t pass without their permission, and make you sweat it out until they eventually stamp your passport and let you go. You could literally wait more than 12 hours on line at the border before they get to you, and decide if they are going to stamp your passport. We travel with humanitarian credentials from the International Red Cross. This enables us to go to the front of the line, and we are usually on our way in less than an hour, breakneck speed by those standards. They let us through more quickly because we are doing humanitarian work that benefits their people. When people realize you are doing something for their good, or the good of their people, they are kinder, and more willing to help. I have been afforded much kindness over the years by people who normally look with suspicion on Westerners as if they were carpetbaggers. For sure, their kindness was because we are bringing humanitarian help, but that’s the point. Helping the poor opens doors. Helping the poor gets you through borders. Helping the poor brings cooperation.
Because we don’t require people to hear a message before we feed them, when we do have a meeting where I will be speaking, people show up because they want to know more from an American who cares about them and feeds them. Humanitarian aid opens the door to the human heart.
I was in a soup kitchen in Ukraine, packed with elderly Jewish people. I normally sit in the back and just watch. A talkative older woman, a yenta, turned around and asked me what my business was and why was I there. The soup kitchen coordinator told her that I was the sponsor of the soup kitchen. Everyone turned around and started thanking me for the soup kitchen. I thought of all the people who donate to support the kitchens, and that the thank-yous were really for them. The yenta asked me if there was anything she could do for me. It made me smile. I told her if she was eating, I was happy. She smiled and thanked me again.
In the Parable of the Unjust Manager, the manager says, “I have decided what to do, so that when I am removed from management, people may receive me into their houses” (Luke 16:4). We try not to be unjust managers, but when we visit soup kitchens, we also visit people in their homes after the meal. We let people know we are available for visits and we get invitations from them. Visiting the poor means visiting them in the midst of their poverty. They have very little and are in very humble surroundings. Usually we listen to their stories and their needs. I pray for them, and we bring food, and leave money. You cannot visit the poor and give them a hug and think you have done something for them. What good is a visit and a prayer if they have nothing to eat after we leave? To be a blessing means to leave them some help. They receive us gladly into their homes.
There is power in humanitarian aid because it is close to God’s heart. He hears the cries of the fatherless and the widow. He cares for us, but he expects his children to care for others. The Scriptures tell us the children of Abraham did the deeds of Abraham, not just shared the faith he had. They tell us the sons of the devil are those who do the deeds of the devil (John 8:39–44). Similarly, those who do the deeds of God are those who are the sons of God. The deeds of God are those that show kindness to the downtrodden, generosity to the needy, and compassion to the brokenhearted. This is how God treats us. We are to show kindness because God showed us kindness. We are to show compassion because God showed us compassion. We are to show mercy because God showed us mercy. We show kindness, mercy, and compassion out of the richness of what God has given us.
There are people who don’t help others. They give excuses as to why they can’t help. Giving is not a matter of what we have in our wallets, but what we have in our hearts. If you don’t give when you have little, you won’t give when you have much. When I lived in New York City, I used to go to the bank and get a roll of quarters (back when a quarter was real money) every time I cashed a paycheck. I liked to keep them in my pocket, and give them to the many panhandlers on the street. I had companions who used to castigate me for giving the panhandlers anything. They said they would use the money for drugs or alcohol. I figured they couldn’t buy much drugs or alcohol for a quarter, but it was enough to recognize their human dignity. When I would give the quarter, they always blessed me. When my friends waved them off, they always cursed them. It was worth the quarter for the blessing. The issue for me wasn’t the quarter. I knew the quarter didn’t change their lives, but it changed mine. By helping others, it helped me become the kind of person God wanted me to be. It made me more concerned for others, but more importantly, it got me into the habit of caring about other people. I was at a conference in California, and was walking back to the hotel with a friend, when a young woman came out with a tray of cupcakes. She was trying to pay her rent by selling her cupcakes. I told her I didn’t want the cupcake, but I gave her a couple of dollars to help her out. It was good to help.
I was in a small town in Ukraine, visiting one of our soup kitchens. After the meal they said the rabbi was here to bless them. People lined up and I prayed for each one. There was a man in the back of the room and he wasn’t smiling. I wondered what his problem was, and asked them to bring him over. I asked what I could pray for him. He said he needed teeth. I asked what his dental work would cost, and they told me about $100.00. I gave them the money and told them to get him his teeth. When I returned to the town a few months later, he was smiling like the Golden Gate Bridge. He could eat, and he was happy. For very little, I was able to change his life. Humanitarian help is the power to change people’s lives. We don’t need an agenda or much of a plan. We go, and are available, and look for opportunities to help.
Humanitarian aid is not about being the mouth of God, but about becoming his hands. You can tell people that God loves them, but when you provide their needs, they feel it. When we help feed people and meet their needs, we are exercising the power to change their lives. It is redemptive.
Many years ago, I was severely overweight. The doctors told me I had five years left to live. Weight-loss programs like exercise and dieting had never worked for me. My doctor told me there was a surgery that would make a difference. My insurance company informed me they would not cover the cost of the surgery. It was far more money than I could afford. I started telling my friends if they wanted to see me, they better do it in the next five years, because I was going to be dead. My friend Elliot Klayman said he would raise the money. I thanked him but dismissed it, because I knew it was a lot of money and my friends might send $100.00, but not the amount required. Three months later, Elliot called and said he had raised all the money needed. I had the surgery, and in 18 months, I lost 150 pounds. The people who gave towards my surgery for the most part gave sacrificially. They gave that I might live. In a real sense, they redeemed my life. It made me feel obligated to live my life in a way that would honor their sacrifice. That is what a redeemed life is about. It means we live our lives in a way that honors God’s sacrifice for us. That’s why we do what the Scriptures teach, and that’s why we reach out to help others; not because we are getting something, but because we have been given something. Our redemption should be shown in the way we live our lives, and in the way we reach out to others in need.
All Scripture references are from the English Standard Version (ESV).
Dr. Michael Schiffman is the Executive Director of Chevra USA, a humanitarian ministry serving the needs of the Jewish poor in Eastern Europe, where he has served since 1993. Michael is an author, teacher, and storyteller, serving the Messianic Jewish community for many years.