Though it has always been a part of the fabric of society, the glaring realities of social injustice have recently taken center stage in many countries around the world. Whether it is the Arab Spring erupting in various countries throughout the Middle East, the “Occupy” movement in the United States, or the Cottage Cheese protests which occurred in Israel, we can see one common theme: people taking to the streets to demand equality and social justice. The Torah itself, called in many places “Torat Chaim” the “Living Torah”, also shares an opinion and approach on the place of justice, equality and harmony for man and his neighbor in an ideal society. When followed properly, the Torah is far more than a book of spiritual do’s and don’ts, rather it is a guiding light for man’s relationship with his Creator and his fellow.
The verses in this week’s portion state,“ When any of your brothers in one of the settlements in the land that God your Lord is giving you is poor, do not harden your heart or shut your hand against your needy brother. Open your hand generously, and extend to him any credit necessary for taking care of his needs …Therefore, make every effort to give him, and do not feel bad about giving it, since God your Lord will then bless you in all your endeavors, no matter what you do. The poor will never cease to exist in the land, so I am commanding you to open your hand generously to your poor and destitute brother in your land..”(Deut. 15: 7-11). If we study and take to heart the message and ideals of tzedakah (charity) conveyed in these above verses, we might all move a little closer to a complete vision of social justice, which is so much desired around the globe and desperately needed in today’s world.
There are a few points to keep in mind when discussing Judaism’s view of charity and social justice. The first truth that we must realize is that the Torah’s concept of tzedakah (charity) and social justice is not a voluntary action, preference or choice; rather it is a firm command codified in Jewish Law. Maimonides in The Guide to the Perplexed (Part III, Chapter 53) explains that the root of the word tzedakah (charity) is “tzedek,” meaning justice or an act which is righteous. Most people tend to think of charity as an “extra,” and that their act of giving is going beyond the letter of the law. However, this is not the case. Charity is not only called upon when a poor person needs assistance, rather it is an absolute obligation incumbent upon every Jew at all times.Maimonides states in Chapter 10:1 of Gifts to the Poor “A person needs to be very meticulous in the giving of charity, more so than any of the other positive commandments.”
The reason why Judaism places such an emphasis on charitable giving is because, as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes, “In contradiction to many other religious systems, Judaism refused to romanticize poverty or anesthetize its pain. Faith is not what Karl Marx called “the opium of the people.” The rabbis refused to see poverty as a blessed state, an affliction to be born with acceptance and grace. Instead, the rabbis called it “a kind of death” and “worse than fifty plagues” (Covenant and Conversation; Parshat Re’eh). It is therefore understandable why Judaism, so acutely understanding of the poor man’s plight, is all the more so focused on creating a society focused on social justice as one of its core values. But it is not just about the giving/taking and financial relief element of charity that Judaism is concerned with; there is a far deeper reaching goal to be met. Maimonides writes, “There are eight levels in charity, each level surpassing the other. The highest level beyond which there is none is a person who supports a Jew who has fallen into poverty [by] giving him a present or a loan, entering into partnership with him, or finding him work so that his hand will be fortified so that he will not have to ask others for alms. Concerning this [Leviticus 25:35] states: “You shall support him, the stranger, the resident, and he shall live among you.” Implied is that you should support him before he falls and becomes needy.” (Chapter 10: 7,Translation courtesy of Chabad.org) Maimonides here is setting up a scale of values in giving charity. The main idea is to protect the dignity of the poor person, and that is why the highest level of charity constitutes providing meaningful employment, so that the poor person can stand on his own two feet and break his own cycle of poverty. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes, “What is humiliating about poverty is dependence itself: the feeling of being beholden to others. …The greatest act of tzedakah is one that allows the individual to become self-sufficient. The highest form of charity is one that enables the individual to dispense with charity.” (Covenant and Conversation, Parshat Re’eh)
Interestingly, the Torah does not advocate for any type of the modern day economic systems, be it socialism, communism or capitalism. Rather the Torah presents its own system, one which I like to call the “Maimonides Principle of Economics”. This principle is one which extols the virtues of hard work and personal gain, while placing equal importance on caring for the other and less fortunate members of society.
As mentioned above, Maimonides writes that a person must be extremely meticulous in the giving of charity, more so then any of the other positive commandments. He continues in the following chapter to write that every person should set aside a minimum of at least 10% of their income to dedicate toward charitable purposes (Gifts to the poor Chapter 7:1). For those who do not wish to do so, the language is strong, saying “When a person does not want to give charity or desires to give less than what is appropriate for him, the court should compel him…”(Chapter 7:10, Translation courtesy of Chabad.org). Though he takes this unquestionably strong approach to man’s obligation to give charity, he balances it with staunch opposition to creating a system that gives legitimacy to a welfare state. Maimonides writes, “A person should always constrict himself and bear hardship rather than appeal to people at large and make himself a burden on the community. Our Sages commanded, saying: “Make your Sabbaths as weekdays, and do not appeal to people at large….”Chapter 9: 18 ,Translation courtesy of Chabad.org).
I believe that the reason for this approach and the lessons that we are supposed to learn from this dual value system are manifold. The reason why a person is compelled to give “his” money to charity is to impress upon all men that their material wealth comes from God, and it is He who decides all physical and material possessions a person is to receive in his lifetime. In order that humankind can become partners in making the world a better place, man is entrusted with material wealth in order to share it among the less fortunate and alleviate the suffering of their destitute brothers. But on the other hand and no less important, if a person knows that others have the obligation to support the destitute, it may lead to unfair advantage of the system and an overall refraining from work. This is not Judaism’s approach, and goes against the biblical directive, “By the sweat of your brow You will eat bread, Till you return to the ground”(Genesis 3:19). Therefore, Maimonides provides guidelines for both the rich and the poor, thus ensuring a society that not only cares for its downtrodden but also simultaneously empowers its needy or otherwise to seek out their economic independence.
Through our hard work, and our caring for the less fortunate we should merit to see the redemption of Zion, as it is written in Isaiah, 1:27 “Zion will be redeemed through judgment and those who return to her through charity.“