The Jewish practice of tzedaka, or support for poor people, is an expression of the Torah's commitment to tzedek, or justice. Biblical texts describe the regular redistribution of land and remission of debts so that disparities of wealth are held in check. In Rabbinic law, contributions for the poor are required from individuals, and sustenance of the poor is a communal obligation.
The Torah's vision of social justice is very distant from today's reality, in which great disparities between rich and poor have been exposed and exacerbated by the pandemic. There are disproportionate rates of illness and death among poor people and people of color. A lack of healthcare means that poor people have higher rates of co-morbidities that make them more vulnerable to the virus. While some of the working poor are doing risky essential work, others have lost work and can't pay for food. When the risk of the illness is not fairly distributed, how can we use our individual and communal resources to advance justice?
Extending Loans and Remitting Debt
This passage from Deuteronomy prescribes the remission of debt every seven years, an institution that would have mitigated disparities of wealth, disrupting cycles of impoverishment.
- Note the striking divergence between verse 4 and verse 11. At first the Torah says, "There shall be no needy among you," and then the passage concludes, "there will never cease to be needy ones in your land." How do you account for the discrepancy between these two verses? What changes over the course of the passage?
- Within this context, "opening one's hand" to the needy does not mean giving charity or tzedaka, but rather extending loans. Why do you think the Torah emphasizes interest-free loans as the best response to economic need? To what degree is the Torah's preference for interest-free, forgivable loans expressed in today's society?
- Here, the commandment to sustain the needy relates to one's "kinsman" and to the needy "in your land." Why do you think the Torah prioritizes the needs of some poor people over others? In today's global economy, who counts as kinsman? How do we define the bounds of our own responsibilities?
The language in Leviticus 25:35 is somewhat obscure, prompting the Rabbis to expand on what it means to "hold up" a kinsman in the Sifra, an early work of midrash.
- Sifra makes an analogy to a donkey whose burden is slipping from his back. How does this analogy relate to the experience of slipping into poverty?
- What does this midrash imply about how to extend loans and credit to those who are financially insecure?
- What does it mean to "hold someone up?' In what ways do we do this as individuals? In what ways do we do this communally?
- The economic upheaval of the pandemic means huge numbers of people are slipping into circumstances of urgent need. What does the Rabbis' charge--"Do not allow him to drop"--ask of us right now?
The Mishnah describes a legal reform--"the Prozbul"-- introduced by Hillel, the ancient sage. Hillel observed that while the biblically ordained remission of debt was meant to relieve the suffering of needy people, in fact it was having the opposite effect. In Hillel's time, debt remission was undermining lenders' readiness to extend loans.
- How can Hillel's enactment serve as a model for how to respond to changing social realities?
- Can you think of any policies or institutions in our own age which were initiated for good ends but are perpetuating harm nonetheless?
Acknowledging the Debt of Slavery
While the Torah's vision for social justice exceeds our present reality in some ways, there is one striking way that it falls short--the Torah allows for the institution of slavery.
As we today continue to live out the devastating results of race-based slavery within the United States, it is important to acknowledge and confront this aspect of Jewish tradition. There are important differences between the forms of human enslavement that are described in the Torah and those that were practiced in the United States.
Even as we repudiate the legacy of slavery in both Jewish and American life, the protections that the Torah extends to freed people offers an illuminating model for addressing the moral and material debt to the descendants of slaves in our own time.
This passage from Deuteronomy 15 is the continuation of the instruction about sabbatical years that is presented above.
- Why do you think the Torah connects legislation about poverty to legislation about slavery? What connections do you see?
- Based on this passage, how would you characterize the biblical attitude about slavery?
- What are some differences between how slavery is practiced in this passage and how it was practiced in America?
- What ethical messages can you draw from this passage about how to address the persistent wealth gap between Black people and white people in the United States?
- What roles can the Jewish community play in addressing racial injustice?
Relief and Mutual Support
Among the institutions that biblical law establishes to provide sustenance for the needy are the edges of the field (peah), which go unharvested; fallen and forgotten sheaves; and fruits that are left unpicked. To these agriculturally-based institutions, rabbinic law adds other modes of organized communal support.
- The above passage from Leviticus recognizes the poor and the stranger as the primary beneficiaries of support. Elsewhere, the Torah identifies other marginalized groups, such as widows and orphans. What structures or conditions made these groups vulnerable in ancient times? What structures or conditions contribute to economic insecurity now?
- In the Mishnah, what criteria does a person need to meet before qualifying for support? How do you distinguish between the functions of the tamhui and the communal fund? What contemporary institutions are equivalent to the kinds of aid described in the Mishnah?
- Why do you think the Mishnah specifies that one may receive support even if one is in possession of a house and tools?
- The Mishnah presumes that communities will be organized to collect and disburse monies for the needy within their borders. Given the mobility that characterizes life today, what is the best way to set boundaries for our responsibilities? Do you think of your communal responsibilities as extending toward your neighborhood? Your municipality? Your synagogue? Your local Jewish community?
Even as the Torah acknowledges economic inequity as a feature of social existence, ancient Jewish law establishes institutions and enacts procedures to mitigate disparities of wealth, prevent abject poverty and acknowledge the moral obligations incurred by slavery. Communal institutions protect the vulnerable from grinding debt, from hunger, and from homelessness.
In this time of crisis, how can we enact our Jewish responsibilities to shore up those who are most vulnerable? What institutions and practices can we strengthen or change so that we can counteract societal forces and structures that perpetuate economic and racial inequities? As individuals and as communities, how can we promote fairness and justices through the actions we take and the decisions we make?