Caregiving or Responsibility?

I think that it would be wrong to let the day go by without saying something about the election. But I don’t really want to talk about the candidates or their platforms, or what they should have done differently or better, or why this one won or lost. Instead, since a lot of the struggle was over how our government should spend its money, I think it would be worthwhile to ask what kinds of competing economic visions we have for our country, and what Judaism might say about them.

In very general terms, one group has concentrated on the idea of personal responsibility – that each of us ought to be able to stand on our own two feet and not depend upon others, and that if someone works hard enough, they will succeed; the other group, also in very general terms, considers the government to be the external structure for community, and (sometimes) tries to implement programs that will serve to strengthen individuals who are having trouble helping themselves and to create safety nets for them and considers  success to often be a matter of luck.

Both of these approaches are valued in Judaism. Our sages tell us unequivocally that “just as shabbat is a covenant, so is work a covenant” (Avot d’Rabbi Natan).  And Maimonides criticizes strongly someone who chooses not to work, instead taking charity, even “anyone who decides to study Torah and not work, making his living from charity, desecrates Gods name and disgraces the Torah. Any Torah that is not accompanied by work will lead to its own undoing and cause sin.” In other words, supporting oneself and one’s family is very important, and work is not simply a means for support, but in itself can be a holy task.

At the same time, Judaism also unequivocally states that we are obligated to care for others who have less than we do.  Our sages have told us – in numerous and varied places- that we have an obligation to support the poor. Unlike the root of the word “charity” (from “caritas”)  tzedakah is not given because one is moved to give, but – as with so many things in Judaism- because we are commanded to give, and we have an obligation to do so. The word itself comes from the word “tzedek” – justice.

It is unfair to label either of the groups “coldhearted,” or “irresponsible,” as I have seen some do: there is plenty of charitable individual giving from the “personal responsibility” group. Nevertheless, Judaism is fairly clear that it doesn’t see individual giving as a sufficient (although it is a necessary) response to poverty. This is for two reasons. First, the tendency to see one’s wealth as something that one has earned out of one’s own sweat, and with no help from others is noted by the Torah itself:

11. Beware that you do not forget the Lord, your God, by not keeping His commandments, His ordinances, and His statutes, which I command you this day
12. lest you eat and be sated, and build good houses and dwell therein
13. and your herds and your flocks multiply, and your silver and gold increase, and all that you have increases
14. and your heart grows haughty, and you forget the Lord, your God, Who has brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage…

17. and you will say to yourself, “My strength and the might of my hand that has accumulated this wealth for me.” (Deut. 8: 11-14,17)

Rather, the Jewish tradition sees all the things of the earth as belonging to God, and we -however wealthy we are- are merely caretakers and distributors. There is a recognition that, indeed, a great deal of what we have is got of good fortune, or God’s grace, and not of   “the strength of my hands.” It is too easy to forget that what you have isn’t really yours to do with as you will, and be mean with it.

That is why, in Judaism, we are not simply able to give when we are moved to do so, but are obligated, both regularly, and at specific additional times – during holidays, for example, Purim, for which one of the special commandments of the holiday itself is giving to the poor.

Just as a brief aside, let us contrast that with the secular dress-up holiday, for which the custom is to go around demanding handouts – a sort of parody of the very thing that is feared by those in the “personal responsibility” group. Yet, while this may be a bit of a parody of that position, we shouldn’t be in too much haste to ignore it. The difference between one holiday and the other is one which is reflected in the general culture. Purim asks us to each take responsibility for caring for others, while Halloween has individuals demanding their “rights.”

Yet, in Judaism, there isn’t actually anything wrong with individuals asking for help, for charity (indeed, we have a rich folk culture and lots of very funny stories based on the idea of aggressive beggars). And we, as Jews, are required to help them.

In fact, not only are we required to give to the poor as individuals, but we are obligated to set up what are essentially governmental bodies in every community, to ensure that there is sufficient to care for the poor and the stranger. And, in fact,  individuals can be coerced to contribute to these bodies if they aren’t giving according to community standards and to how much that person was assessed on the basis of their wealth (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Matanat Oniyim, chapter 9, halakhot 1-3; halakhah 12; SA, Yoreh Deah, Section 248:1-2).  And shall we top that off? A Torah scholar is not permitted to live in a town that hasn’t got such a tax authority (Talmud, Sanhedrin 17b).

While Judaism can’t be said to support one particular party or another, or any of their platforms as a whole, it must be said that in balancing personal responsibility and caregiving, Judaism comes down on the side of requiring communities to support the poor, not on the basis of individual impulse, but as an organized and compulsory, regulated support system.

The “caregivers” group are often derided by the “personal responsibility” group as naive or profligate. And Jewish tradition does understand that one takes care of one’s inner circle first, before caring for others. But this is precisely why a system – such as the badly maligned “welfare” system- is necessary. When a community contributes,  together, there is both the benefit of pooling funds to be able to do bigger projects and support more people when necessary, as well as the pressure of communal requirement – I don’t believe that tax cheats are flogged these days (as Jewish law permits for those who don’t contribute adequately), but simply having the money taken from one’s paycheck ensures that all are able to assist the community (even the very poorest are required to give tzedakah – even if the have to give it from their own tzedakah! Why? because we are all obligated in caring for all the members of our community) and by this we can be reminded that we are all, indeed, one community.

When we make sure that the needy are supported from communal coffers, we are not thumbing our nose at personal responsibility – to the contrary, we are enabling it for all.

Posted on November 7, 2012

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