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Reflections on Poverty: A Jewish Perspective

Reflections on Poverty: A Jewish Perspective

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Published by Jeffrey Levin
I spoke at San Jose State University on Nov 10, 2010 at an annual event called "Poverty Under The Stars".
I spoke at San Jose State University on Nov 10, 2010 at an annual event called "Poverty Under The Stars".

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Published by: Jeffrey Levin on Nov 12, 2010
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11/14/2010

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Reflections on Poverty: A Jewish Perspective
Jeffrey I Levin
Delivered on the Campus of San Jose State University, November 10, 2010
Judaism recognizes that poverty is not ordained by God or a fact of nature. It is a result of the systems that areconstructed by human beings and can be modified by human beings. Economic systems are not hard wired intothe structure of the universe.Our tradition teaches us that poverty can and should be alleviated, minimized, reduced. In truth, Judaism does notadvocate one economic system over another. It is not the form of the economic system but its result that is theissue for Judaism. There is nothing intrinsically holy about economic systems in whatever form. It is not difficult tounderstand why Jews comprise less than .3% of the world population but over 30% of the Nobel Prize recipientsfor economics. Underlying the Jewish passion for economics is a religious imperative: "There will always be poorpeople in the land. Therefore I command you to be open-handed toward your brothers and toward the poor andneedy in your land." (Deut. 15:11)The Hebrew word, tzedakah, which in Biblical Hebrew is often translated as charity comes from the root tzedekwhich means justice. When one gives solely out of generosity, that's charity. But tzedakah means that giving isn'tan option but an obligation for all, it is an avenue to achieve justice and is required
even for the poor. The rulethat even the needy must also give tzedakah might seem a bit absurd. Why give one person enough money so thathe or she can give to yet another and yet another? Giving directly to the other person would be so much morelogical, practical and efficient. What the rabbis understood, however, is that the act of giving is an essential part of human dignity. The rabbinic insistence that the entire community provide the poor with enough money so that theneedy themselves can give is indeed a most profound insight into the human condition and the redemptivequalities of tzedakah. Through tzedakah is Israel redeemed.Tzedakah is not simply a matter of charity, but of responsibility, righteousness, and justice. The Bible does notmerely command us to give to the poor, but to advocate on their behalf. We are told in Proverbs 31:9, to "speakup, judge righteously, champion the cause of the poor and the needy."It bears pointing out that from the early days of the Talmud up until modern times, during the centuries whenJewish communities were independent and self-regulated entities, Jews taxed themselves to provide the tzedakahto support programs which provided for the poor, the hungry, the ill, the elderly, the widow and the orphan--aclose parallel to the safety net programs we Americans enjoy today.The highest form of tzedakah according to Maimonides, a prominent rabbi from the 12th Century, "...is teachinganother a trade and finding employment in other words by putting that person in a situation where he or she candispense with other people's aid. With reference to such aid it is said, 'You shall strengthen him, be he a strangeror a settler, he shall live with you' (Lev. 25: 35), which means: strengthen him in such a manner that his falling backinto poverty is prevented." (Mattenot Ani'im 10:7-14)It should be profoundly obvious to all us that the only way to break the cycle of intractable poverty is througheducation and the abatement of unemployment.
 
Permit me to speak briefly about education before moving to unemployment.The rabbis of the Talmud established compulsory universal education as a preeminent way to preserve the socialfabric of Jewish society. A primary reason Jews had both a written tradition and an oral tradition is that at theoutset, very few Jews could actually read or write. In the First Century of the Common Era, it is estimated that lessthan 2% of the Jewish population were literate. By the end of the Fourth Century, literacy among Jews
at leastamong the males
became nearly universal. How was this feat achieved? At first this was accomplished byopening the houses of learning to all, including those who were indigent.It is told that Rabbi Tarfon (a prominent Rabbi of the second century) that although he was very wealthy, he didnot give much money to the poor. Once Rabbi Akiba inquired of Rabbi Tarfon: "Would you like me to purchaseone or two small towns for you?" Rabbi Tarfon replied, "Yes." and then gave Rabbi Akiba 4,000 gold dinarii [a hugesum]. Rabbi Akiba took the money and distributed it to the indigent students of the Rabbis. Later on Rabbi Tarfonasked Rabbi Akiba, "Where are the small towns you bought for me?" Rabbi Akiba then took Rabbi Tarfon by thehand and led him to the house of study. In the classroom he brought over a small child holding the book of Psalmsand made him read aloud until he came to the verse "He has given [tzedakah] abroad; He has given to the needy;his righteousness will endure forever." (Psalms 112:9) Then Rabbi Akiba said, "This is the town which I havepurchased for you." At that moment Rabbi Tarfon stood up, kissed Akiba and said to him, "You are my teacher andmy guide--my teacher in wisdom, my guide in proper conduct." He then gave Rabbi Akiba more money todistribute to the poor and educate the needy. (Mishnah Kallah 2)In a subsequent generation it is told that Rabbi Judah the Prince sent R. Chiyya and R. Issi and R. Ami on a missionthrough the all towns of Israel to establish teachers in every location. When they came to a town where there
were no teachers, they would say to the inhabitants, “Bring us the defenders of the town.” Invariably they broughtthem the military guard. The rabbis said, “These are not the protectors of the town but its destroyers.” “Who then
a
re the protectors?” asked the inhabitants. The Rabbis answered, “The teachers.” (Yerushalmi Hagigah 1:6)
 The strongest defense against societal breakdown is one that provides quality education for all. The rabbis heldthis to be of even higher economic priority than military spending.Now let me touch briefly upon the importance of providing a living wage and dignity of labor. A 20th CenturyRabbi, Rabbi Chaim David Halevy said, "In the Jewish worldview, work is sacred--it is building and creating and is apartnership with God and the work of creation." (Aseh L'kha Rav 2:64) For it is written, "For six days you shall
labor and do all of your work…"
The Talmud recalls numerous instances where the rabbis performed menial tasks so as to publicly demonstrate thesanctity of hard work and the dignity of workers. "Rabbi Judah used to go into the house of study carrying a heavypitcher on his shoulders. He would say, 'Great is work, as it gives honor to the one who does it." Rabbi Shimonwould carry a heavy basket on his shoulders, and would say, 'Great is work, as it gives honor to the one who doesit.'" (Nedarim 49B)Tzedakah not only encompasses educational programs and a sustainable labor policy, it includes providing foodand shelter for the homeless and health care to all who are ill. At Congregation Shir Hadash we have been
focused on working to extend health coverage to all. We’ve planned and executed a number of health fairs for theuninsured. We’ve advocated for health care reform. And in
recent months we worked hard on backing MeasureA, a measure to help ensure that all children in Santa Clara County receive the health care they need.Unfortunately, as you may know, the measure did not pass. So our work in this area is hardly complete.

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