There is a growing gap between rich and poor in this country, which should concern us, as Jews and as Americans.
In the olden–i.e., Biblical–days, the gap between rich and poor was regularly realigned. Every seven years, during the sabbatical year, loans were forgiven and land lay fallow so everyone was free to gather what was available. Every 50th year, during the Jubilee year, property was returned to its original owner and indentured slaves were freed. In between, those who had land were required to give a wide variety of charity, for example by leaving the corners of each field and the gleanings for the poor.
These are just a few of the Jewish laws reminding us that as Jews, we have a religious stake in the economic policies of our nation.
By rabbinic times, the rabbis taught that rich people should give 20% of their income to charity, average people 10%, poor people 5%, and even those who take from the poor plate should give something. The highest form of charity was helping someone help themselves, which is why interest-free loan societies have been so popular throughout modern Jewish history.
Part of the history of Jewish charity has been a strong dose of building self-reliance. David Dalin, in his article on Jewish poverty for the Policy Review, writes: “The Jewish Council of Padua, Italy, in 1603, stipulated that the recipients of charity would have to work. No beneficiary could evade this requirement. This edict has been cited as an important legal precedent by Jewish legal authorities over the centuries, suggesting that Judaism favors social policies that require the recipients of welfare benefits or any other public assistance to work or perform some kind of service.”
Such a finding argues against supporting the growing number of haredi (ultra-Orthodox) men who shun work for learning while ensuring that their families remain impoverished burdens on the Israeli economy and on American Jewish philanthropic resources. As valued as traditional learning is within Judaism, perhaps such unconditional support is misplaced. Tevye from “Fiddler on the Roof” is a better model: He might have yearned to study the holy books, but he knew his first priority was feeding his children.
But that is not the whole story of Jewish poverty. There is a growing population of impoverished Jewish elderly, some immigrants, some American born, for whom Social Security no longer covers the rising costs of heat and medicine. These numbers are growing as the Jewish community ages and baby boomers enter the ranks of the AARP. The Jewish poor also include those of working age who are mentally or physically unable to work. Then there are those for whom a tragedy or job loss forces them into sudden poverty. All these are the majority of the faces of Jewish poverty, individuals who live in our cities and our suburbs, who need and deserve our support and assistance.
Do we offer them enough? I recently learned that a study of my community showed that the average African-American Christian congregant gave more to charity than the average Jewish congregant, even though we are, on the average, economically much better off. I have to admit to being embarrassed by the results. But I should not have been surprised. How many of us actually give 10% of our income (even after taxes) to charity? And why don’t we?
Is it that what we want obscures what we should give? I am reminded of a congregant who, when solicited for an emergency gift to the congregation, told me she had saved some money to buy a couch but was giving us those funds because the synagogue couldn’t wait but the couch could.