This week, the CEO of Liberal Judaism, Rabbi Charley Baginsky, was the only rabbinic signatory to a bold report on responding to the cost of living crisis facing the UK. Not only the only rabbinic signatory, but the only UK Jewish synagogue movement. Faced with a crisis of a scale not seen before, the Jewish community needs to be part of a conversation searching for bold and imaginative mechanisms to help those facing the stark reality of neither eating nor heating. Liberal Judaism is doing just that.
I would claim it follows more than a decade of failure to care for those really struggling, and as a result to consistently create policies that actually help them.
It was December 2012 and the Conservative Minister for Civil Society, Nick Hurd MP, suggested that wealthy pensioners (or at least those with enough income) could give their winter fuel payment to charity instead of using it for themselves. The suggestion in May 2022 that the £400 cost of living support could also be donated was reminiscent of this.
But back in 2012, we were still at a kind of peak ‘Big Society’ of David Cameron – that wonderful utopian idea that the government could gradually shrink its involvement (in many ways) in individual’s lives and charitable and other non-statutory organisations could grow to fill the gap. As I wrote in December 2012:
I challenge the notion that the government can relinquish its responsibility for the fair and efficient collection and redistribution of tax to the services and individuals that need it. Moreover, my sense is that a willingness to see the role of charitable giving as a substitute for this inefficiency is morally wrong.
In fact, I said it was a denial of responsibility. In March 2013, there was a nationwide campaign at Pesach to raise awareness of food poverty called ‘Enough food for everyone – IF’. It was a campaign whilst the UK held the Presidency of the G8. I wrote for the guide:
At Pesach, we begin inviting all who are hungry to come and eat, but the truth is if every Jew in the world invited every person in the world suffering from food poverty we would each, individually, share our seder night with 80 people. (This is based on estimates of 13 million Jews and 1 billion people who go to bed hungry every night.)
Food poverty I claimed then, and still do, is something at the heart of our prophetic message as Liberal Jews. When we read the Isaiah Haftarah at Yom Kippur it must move us:
This is the fast I desire: to unlock the fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free; to break off every yoke. It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to ignore your own kin.” (Isaiah 58:7-8)
We are commanded to extend these protections out of the realm of voluntary charitable acts and embed them in our societal norms and safety nets of wealthy countries. Fast forward a year and the foodbank demand had grown in March 2014 and I wrote in an article printed in the Jewish News:
Food banks are a disgrace. It is a disgrace that one of the top 10 economies in the world has an increasing level of food poverty. And food banks are a disgrace because they point at the failure of our politicians to find a way of ensuring no one goes without food. It is a betrayal of the social contract to leave thousands of people dependent on the kindness of strangers for something as essential as food.
The denial of the right to food, I argued, based on the writing of Professor Geraldine van Beuren was a basic fundamental right (one example of her writing is here). In the time of the Talmud, there were many charitable structures including soup kitchens and the charitable fund which were distributable to the needy. But our society has advanced and our wealth and capacity to ensure equity has developed (in theory at least) and no-one should be left to the good will of others because, what about when something else comes along that is ‘more’ deserving or the donors run out of money or become tired of giving to a system that seems not to work.
It seems in the years that have passed, foodbanks continue to be government policy rather than a last resort for desperate families – as evidenced by yet another Conservative Minister for Civil Society – Baroness Barran who was reported as saying in October 2020 under pressure concerning Free School Meals during the pandemic: “We have worked very closely with charities who operate food banks across the country. There are different approaches to how we do this but we have used all the levers possible to try to make sure that people are safe and well as we go.”
Maybe you are starting to see a pattern unfold here about the shifting responsibility of the government away from responsible leadership and leaving the ‘levers’ in the hands of, often wonderful, but cash strapped charities to respond with acts of service. Government policy is now the church and synagogue bake sale…
In other times, there is a constant to-and-fro about relative and absolute poverty. Previously, when I taught about tzedakah and who qualified to receive from the Talmudic charitable fund, I often ask if there is an absolute measure of ‘minimum income’ or if poverty is more relative – there are interesting texts about it. But if I wrote in 2019 about the technological poverty, as an absolute, that many children experienced because they did not have access to decent internet connection, many would have laughed at me and told me I was being ridiculous. After all, they would tell me, all these so called poor people have enough money for mobile phones (I hear it all the time in the context of asylum seekers – whose benefits are around £40 each week – and here’s an example of it applied to others in need). As we entered the first lockdown in 2020, the reality of poverty of access to decent technology was more and more stark. One report suggested as many as 1.9 million households had no access to the internet. Try doing your school work in lockdown if that’s your home with no computer, no broadband, no desk, no dining table or your own bedroom, no garden to escape to and high pollution in urban centres when you walk to the local park.
We need to talk about these issues, because they reflect who we are and our values. Just like the sudden realisation many of us had during the lockdown that the lowest paid work was often the work that kept the country’s wheels moving when so many of us had the luxury to set up office temporarily at home. And of course, the relationship between economic justice, health equality and racial inequality became very visible at the peak of the lockdown. In my sermon in May 2020, I said:
Now the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated in another way the extent to which not just socio-economic gaps in society are disproportionately affected by health inequalities, but also Black, Asian and Minority ethnic people. Based on the report published this week about the impact of Covid-19 on people who are Black, Asian and Minority ethnic we do not yet know exactly the full reason why the impact is disproportionate but it has prompted the Chief Executive, Rebecca Hilsenrath, of the European and Human Rights Commission to say: ‘People are more than statistics, and we cannot afford to ignore the broader context of entrenched race inequality across all areas of life. Only a comprehensive race equality strategy will address these issues.’ (Parashat Naso 2020).
When we talk about fair pay for the work we do, I’m reminded of my father (may his memory be a blessing) who taught me that when someone did a job that was worth a certain amount of money, you paid them what the job was worth. That meant you don’t look for the cheapest and lowest value in labour. I like to think my father was following in the footsteps of the sages of the Talmud who teach, “one who withholds the wages of a hired labourer, it is as though he takes his life.” (Bava Metzia 112a:2).
Of course, in April 2016, the government cynically relabelled the minimum wage to the National Living Wage. Effectively trying to confuse us between the Real Living Wage and the government’s own version. In case you’re wondering, the income is still low – you might earn approximately £18500 gross on the minimum wage.
The details of what it means to qualify for free schools meals are complicated. But let me assure you, it means you are really in need of help and maybe making all sorts of sacrifices for your child’s well being in order to ensure they have every opportunity in life. Poverty, absolute poverty, is real in our country in 2022.
And as we’re rebuilding post-Covid we need to talk about economic justice, housing inequality, the value of work and health justice. Judaism (well all religions) must be a voice to defend the individuals who experience poverty because to do otherwise is to lack compassion for the human experience – and to lack understanding of the role of social living on the individual which is so much at the heart of who we are. And we need to talk about our vision of our country that aspires to something different. Tzedakah is a word that implies justice, righteousness and balance –challenging the circumstances that we have allowed to become the norm. That is a Jewish outlook and I hope informs our national debate.
Liberal Judaism stands for more than well-meaning warm spaces, food donations and debt advice – all of which may be valuable and necessary (and the Trussel Trust, Citizens Advice and others do incredible work in the field already). Liberal Judaism must be part of the conversation to push the government (and all those wishing to govern) to consider visions and policies that will respond to the most significant challenge to individual finances I can remember in my lifetime. Liberal Judaism must constantly call out injustice and Liberal Judaism should also call for radical action for change. The prophets have damning critiques to make of injustice and soaring visions of what the world might be like including the overturning of the misuse of power. And where the prophets are idealistic and backed by the Holy One, the Talmud describes the hard graft of grappling with a world as it is where divine power is somewhat eclipsed. Liberal Judaism must be part of the tough conversations figuring out the possible – the hard graft of our time.
Liberal Judaism cannot settle for being a service provider, papering over the cracks of a lack of imagination from government, and I am proud that we have entered the conversation demanding something different from our elected representatives.