Judaism’s Moral Imperative to End Poverty

This talk was delivered at the annual meeting of the World Bank held in Washington D.C. in October 2014. Rabbi Sid was part of a panel of clergy that was invited to offer their respective faith tradition’s approach to poverty
Judaism is a tradition of text and interpretation. The Torah, or the Five Books of Moses, is our core sacred text. But for centuries following, rabbis of every age added layer upon layer of commentary to apply those core principles to the circumstances in which people lived. In the short amount of time I have to share a Jewish perspective on poverty with you I’d like to use that methodology to summarize a voluminous literature into three core principles.The text is from Deuteronomy ch. 15. I will break it into three parts, each yielding a different, important principle.v. 4-5: “There shall be no needy among you—for God will surely bless you in the land which God gives to you as an inheritance as long as you observe and do all the commandments that I command you this day”.

The first principle is that we must always attempt to move the world towards a utopian ideal. The opening of verse 4, “there shall be no needy among you” is not intended as a description of any reality. It is rather a prescription of what we need to work towards. The Land of Israel is called “the promised land” not just because God promises it to Abraham in the early chapters of Genesis. It becomes a metaphor for all peoples of a place where justice and equality exists. Negro spirituals invoke the metaphor because African-Americans identified with the Children of Israel who were led by Moses taking them from a land of enslavement—Egypt—to a land of freedom—Israel.

So much of the world’s population lives in a state of deprivation, lacking the basic necessities of life: clean water, sanitation, nutritious food, health care, education. This state of poverty is often exacerbated by political instability which makes the predicament of the poor seem virtually hopeless. Yet the message of Judaism is that even though the years in the wilderness may be many—40 years in the Biblical story—there is always cause for faith and hope in a better future.

In Judaism, despair is not an option. Surrender is not an option. Resignation is not an option. The arc of Jewish history moves again and again from slavery to freedom, from oppression to redemption. This lesson is as important to the people in this room as it is to the bottom billion in the world. We cannot rest until we cross the River Jordan and get to the Promised Land of abundance.

 v. 7-“If there is among you a needy person, one of your brethren, within your gates, …you shall not harden your heart nor shut your hand from your needy brother.”

The second principle is that we are commanded to respond both materially and spiritually to our needy neighbors. Jewish law mandated the giving of charity, a minimum of a tithe or a tenth of one’s income but it could be more than that. There are many ways that this verse got legislated in Jewish societies. When Jews lived in ancient Israel they were an agrarian people. The rabbis required that landowners leave the corners of their field unharvested. Those corners were then made available to the poor of the community to harvest. Similarly, any parts of harvested bundles that fell off of the animals or wagon had to be left for the poor.

Embedded in these laws was a principle that would be considered quite radical in a world of capitalism and private property. It implied that land was not “owned” by any person, available only for their use. The land belonged to God, it was part of the commons. The “owner” was, at best, a temporary steward of God’s land. Therefore allowing the poor to enjoy some of its produce was not a function of the owner’s generosity, it was a matter of justice. It was the way the world was supposed to work because God’s design would not allow some to live in great plenty while others starved.

In the verse the word “brother” is used. The Hebrew is achecha. The rabbis were troubled by this. Even moreso because Jews lived in communities where there were both Jews and non-Jews alike. The million dollar question in Jewish ethics is: “How extensive is your universe of responsibility?” The rabbis solved this by saying that it is permissible to prioritize the needs of those closest to you, by virtue of being part of your family, your tribe, your religious community or your geographical area. But the Talmud also says: “You are required to support the poor of the non-Jews just as you must support the poor of the Jews.” Prioritization of those closest to you does not exempt you from extending your aid to others in need even if they are not part of your immediate circle of associations.

The first century sage Hillel resolved this seeming paradox with the famous saying: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I?” This principle has clear implications for how we think about a world that is increasingly becoming a global village because of the ease of travel and communications.

Thus we have addressed material support. Then what does spiritual support mean? It means that we must give with a full heart. Rabbi Isaac taught: “One who gives a small coin to a poor person obtains six blessings; but one who addresses him with words of comfort obtains eleven blessings”. Not only do we know that an open heart is a pre-requisite for generosity but we are being taught something else as well. Helping a person’s spirit may be even more important than giving them direct financial aid. Poverty is sometimes a function of a broken spirit. You can’t heal a spirit with money; you can only heal a broken spirit with chesed, the Hebrew word for compassion.

v. 8- “You shall surely open your hand unto the poor and lend that person sufficient for his need.”

The third principle being taught here is that in helping the poor, we must keep in mind how to do so in a way that preserves their dignity. The rabbis have a field day with interpreting the word, “sufficient”, in Hebrew, dai machsoro. One rabbi taught provocatively, “If a poor person once rode a horse with a servant going before him, you must acquire for him a horse and servant.”

How is this possible? In a world of finite resources and seemingly infinite need, isn’t this excessive. If Donald Trump lost everything, is society obligated to get him back his chauffeured limousine? It defies logic. But the teaching is not to be taken literally. Rather it teaches us that a person’s dignity is not only about money. It is about helping the poor person feel spiritually whole and respected.

The 11th century sage, Maimonidies, created an eight-level hierarchy of giving. The lowest rung is when you give aid to a poor person with a bad attitude. The seventh rung is when you see to it that the support is given in total anonymity. The recipient does not know who gave the money and the donor does not know who receives it. In that way, there is no loss of respect, no loss of dignity. The highest rung, according to Maimonidies, is when you help to make a poor person fully self-sufficient.

Judaism teaches that every human being is made in the image of God. Every person has infinite worth; infinite dignity. This is the ethos underlying the teaching of Maimonidies. It is a radical teaching and it has policy implications.

If we make a person (or a whole society) feel like they are inferior to us because they can only survive because of the aid we give them, they will be forever impoverished, no matter how much money they receive. If however we help them become self-sufficient, then no matter how little they receive they will feel like a child of God, deserving of blessing, of hope and of a brighter future for their children.

Americans are very doctrinaire about keeping religion and state separate. But I hope and pray that some of the principles that I shared with you today might inform your important policy work as you work in your respective countries and on various international platforms to help all God’s children enjoy a life of dignity and blessing.