Food for though — Moral outrage can be a mitzvah

From the moment it introduced its fiscal year 2020 budget, the Trump administration has been taking aim at hunger in America — by seeking to cut funding to the very programs that help feed our nation’s underprivileged. Thwarted in doing so by a rarely-these-days bipartisan Congress, Trump decided to do his slashing by decree.

More than 37 million people, including 11 million children, live in what the U.S. Department of Agriculture euphemistically calls food-insecure homes.

Among the programs the FY 2020 budget sought to slash were the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — or SNAP — which more commonly is known as the food stamp program, and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, or WIC. According to the USDA, there are 45 million Americans who rely on SNAP each month, with most of the benefits going to households with children. WIC, meanwhile, serves 7.7 million pregnant or breastfeeding mothers and their children who are under age 5, according to the USDA, including an estimated 53 percent of all newborns. Mothers on WIC also have access to a variety of other essential services.

WIC surely is worth the money. According to a just released study by the Journal of the American Medical Association, nearly four in 10 expectant mothers in the United States received WIC benefits during pregnancy between 2011 and 2017. Among other findings, the investigators found that WIC reduced the risk of both premature birth and infant mortality, while the risk of babies dying in the first year of life was lowered by 33 percent. The study urged the government to promote WIC actively and extensively, because of its many demonstrated benefits.

Even with the WIC program, which began in the early 1970s, infant mortality here “is nearly twice as high as rates in other developed countries,” according to the Rev. Douglas Greenaway, president of the National WIC Association. The JAMA study, he said in a statement, “once again validates that WIC is an effective intervention to improve birth outcomes and ensure the healthy growth and development of our children. At its core, WIC helps grow healthy babies.”

Much the same argument is made for the SNAP program, which has been around since the early days of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society in 1964. Its purpose is to alleviate hunger among the poor and disadvantaged, many of whom either cannot find steady employment or are unable to work because of physical or mental issues. SNAP is considered one of the most effective federal programs from a number of standpoints, which is why Congress resists efforts to slash funding. Last year, for example, Congress rejected a work requirement for SNAP that was added to the farm bill; it was rejected by 330 to 83 in the House, and by 68 to 30 in the Senate.

Notwithstanding this, Trump, in what he called the “Budget for a Better America,” proposed a 15 percent reduction in WIC funding from its FY 2019 levels. The budget also sought to cut SNAP by $17 billion.

According to Stacy Dean, a vice president at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, cutting basic food assistance “will only increase hardship and hunger, while doing nothing to help them find steady full-time work.”

Abby Leibman, President of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, expressed her organization’s outrage at the move. “We are appalled at the persistent attacks by this administration to purposefully make life more difficult for those struggling with hunger,” she said. Trump’s move, she continued, was “a blistering reminder of … a deliberately pernicious strategy to undercut already marginalized populations that deserve our support instead of mandated restrictions to critically needed food.”

The administration plans two more changes to SNAP rules in the coming months, and many fear there also will be attempts to circumvent Congress regarding WIC.

Let us be clear about this: Halacha, Jewish law, demands that we cry out loudly and effectively against such proposals. To be sure, it does not allow a community or an individual to commit fiscal suicide, but it is quite outspoken about aiding those in need.

“Do not stand idly by your neighbor’s blood,” the Torah decrees in Leviticus 19:16. In Jewish law, to “not stand idly by your neighbor’s blood” means that we must look out for the welfare of everyone in our community — Jews and non-Jews, as the Babylonian Talmud tractate Gittin 61a asserts. Because the word “idly” is part of the mitzvah (commandment), we must be proactive in doing so, not merely passive or reactive.

Seeing to the needs of the poor, and especially the hungry among them, is one of the oft-repeated mitzvot in the Torah. Thus, “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not pick your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I the Lord am your God.” (See Leviticus 19:9-10. This law is repeated in Leviticus 23:22 and elsewhere.)

Deuteronomy 15:11 has God warning us that “there will never cease to be needy ones in your land, which is why I command you: ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy kinsman in your land.’” Shortly before that, we are told to set aside food for the poor “so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the enterprises you undertake.” (See Deuteronomy 14:29.)

Starting with the prophets, such laws were interpreted broadly.

Ezekiel said that one reason a person is called righteous is because “he has given bread to the hungry.” (See Ezekiel 18:7.) Not to do so, on the other hand, said Isaiah, is pure wickedness. Said he (see verse 32:6), “For the villain speaks villainy and plots treachery; to act impiously, and to preach disloyalty against the Lord; to leave the hungry unsatisfied, and deprive the thirsty of drink.”

The Sages of Blessed Memory often went even further: Dire consequences can result from ignoring the hungry. The Talmud, for example, in BT Taanit 21a, offers an insightful (albeit graphic) discussion between Rabbi Nachum of Gimzo, who was famed for his righteousness, and his students. He was bedridden, he had become blind and lame, and his body was covered in boils. His students could not fathom why so righteous a person would be forced to suffer so.

“I brought it upon myself,” he said to them. “I was once traveling on the road to my father-in-law’s house, and I had with me a load [being carried by] three donkeys, one [carrying] food, one [carrying] drink, and one [carrying] various choice [food] items. There came a poor person who stood before me in the road, saying: ‘Rabbi, help me.’ I said to him: ‘Wait until I unload the donkey.’ I had not yet [finished unloading] the donkey before his soul departed. I went and fell upon his face and said [as if to the man]: ‘May my eyes, which looked on your eyes without compassion, be blinded; may my hands, which had no compassion for your hands [by responding too slowly], be cut off; may my legs, which had no compassion for your legs [by also responding too slowly], be cut off. Yet my mind gave me no rest until I added: May my whole body be covered in boils.”

The Sages also had little use for the excuses that people — and governments — give for not feeding the hungry, even if they are deemed able-bodied. Thus, we read in a midrash of a man who scolds someone who asked for help. “Why don’t you go to work and get food to eat? [You surely are able-bodied.] Look at those hips! Look at that fat body. Look at those lumps of flesh.” God, says the midrash, was so incensed with the man that he, too, would become destitute as a result. (See Vayikra Rabbah 34:7.)

What God demands of us may be summed up in a speech by Isaiah (see chapter 58) that include these words: “to share your bread with the hungry.” If you do so, he said, “Then shall your…righteousness go before you…; then shall your light rise in darkness, and your gloom be as the noon day; and the Lord shall guide you continually….”

Mazon responded to what Trump decreed, but that is not enough of a Jewish response. The Torah demands no less from all of us. We must voice our own protests —and we must do so in three ways: First, we must demand that our legislators reverse Trump’s food-funding cuts. Second, as we prepare our end-of-year donations, we need to put Mazon and other organizations on the front lines in the war against hunger high on our lists. Third, we must not leave the supermarket checkout country without buying a food donation coupon.

“Do not stand idly by your neighbor’s blood….”

About the Author
Shammai Engelmayer is rabbi of Temple Israel Community Center, in Cliffside Park, and Temple Beth El of North Bergen, both in New Jersey. A former president of the North Jersey Board of Rabbis, he chose to work as a journalist after being ordained. That career helped him hone the skills that serve him so well on the pulpit, and helped him become a popular adult Jewish education teacher in Northern New Jersey.
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