from a Mechon Hartman Symposium –
What are the responsibilities of the Jewish community to its members who are in need? Do such obligations extend to non-Jews as well? At a time of belt-tightening, how should donors and fund-raisers properly react? How do Jewish leaders recalibrate priorities to ensure the perpetuation of traditional values? In what ways will the next generation of leadership differ from its predecessors? Our seven respondents, leaders and thinkers from Israel and overseas, represent a broad mix of backgrounds and expertise, but share one aim: to strive toward a brighter day.
The way I look at it, we’re like a field hospital in the Civil War, in a situation where we have to practice triage: what takes priority, whose needs are greatest, what stays and what is cut? What’s more important – your own community, or Israel? It boils down to the old Jewish idea: the poor of your own city come first.
In my community of southeastern Michigan, there is an overall unemployment rate of 20 percent, and underemployment is another 25 percent. The economic crisis is broad and deep, and affects the middle class too. We are still sending 40 percent of the money we raise to Israel, where we have always had a deep commitment, but that proportion is lower than last year. In other communities, such as Washington D.C. and Boca Raton, the share for Israel has suffered even more greatly.
Our ethical quandary is that we are really down to basics – feeding the hungry, clothing the naked – a situation not faced in many years. We have put together a large fund to buy houses whose owners, members of our Jewish community, are faced with foreclosure.
Amotz Asa-El: Testing Generosity
Throughout history, wealth was rare. So unusual was it for people to own more than they needed for minimal subsistence that modern economics initially assumed that shortage was a predetermined part of the human condition. Then, when wealth became common, economic and social thought rose to a new challenge: what do with surplus labor, goods and leisure. Now, affluence has arrived in Israel, too, but rather than generate public discussion of the potential utility of private wealth, it has mainly prompted an attack on the wealthy.
In the newly established Jewish state, poverty was both an economic given and a moral virtue. The country may have lacked natural resources, but was inspired by ascetic leaders who were happy dwelling in desert shacks or basement apartments. Even in the mid-1960s, I as a child in Jerusalem had no idea what a restaurant, a new car or a hotel lobby looked like from within. Everything we ate and wore was locally made, except for the occasional box of Kellogg’s cereal, which in Jerusalem you could only buy at the Agron supermarket.
That culture of ascetism is now history. With Israel’s exports, employment and inflow of investment among the West’s highest, and its currency among the world’s strongest – and with foreign aid hardly 2 percent of GDP as opposed to 20 percent in the 1970s – Israel is no longer poor. A rapidly broadening middle class drives quality cars, vacations abroad, packs glitzy malls and frequents gourmet restaurants, most of which, like Tel Aviv’s skyscraping skyline, barely existed two decades ago.
Wealth was tolerated, but it never became a religious value, the way it did for Calvinism, which defined profit as a sign of divine blessing. For example, Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim Luntshitz (ca. 1550–1619), a leading halachic moralist, scolded the prosperous Jewish elite of Poland, claiming they were “mostly violent and out to impose themselves on the Diaspora,” and that they had “no mercy or concern for the oppressed masses.” To him, wealth was not the result of one’s merit, nor a sign of divine favor, but a divine deposit, devised to test one’s generosity.
Seeking a contemporary economic blueprint in Jewish sources can indeed be frustrating. Judaism’s foundational texts were written in pre-modern economic settings, where credit was needed not as a means of development, but as compensation for crops lost unexpectedly to drought, plague or war; the emergence of credit, investment and banking as tools of progress occurred only in modern times. A rare biblical source that briefly visits macro-economics, Joseph’s handling of a regional famine, takes place where all are farmers, the Egyptian state is omnipotent, and trade is so uncommon that to feed their families, hungry shepherds move from one country to another.
Still, Judaism is economically relevant. It can’t help us choose between monetarism and Keynesianism, but it draws boundaries for economic decision-making. The Bible made no mention of subprime mortgages, but it forbade “putting obstacles before the blind,” which is exactly what happened in the American housing market before its collapse. The Torah was written before the emergence of CFOs, but it declared what is so frequently lost on them, that “the wages of a laborer shall not remain with you until morning.” And ages before the modern welfare state, farmers were commanded to leave their fallen fruit for the poor, and all were warned not to “harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman.”
Such rules, which make charity a personal rather than a national act, and a civic rather than a political duty, must now be revived in the Israeli consciousness.
Peter Joseph: Creating New Norms
Accumulation of wealth, in and of itself, is not antithetical to Jewish values. We do not have an ascetic tradition that expects us to renounce the material comforts we wish for our families and which are the just fruits of our labor. After all, put to inspired and visionary purposes, wealth has enabled the creation and support of virtually all of our significant communal institutions. We want to encourage our children to be successful in their pursuits, which we often measure in financial terms. Many of the leading figures in our history were enabled to make their mark by virtue of their financial station. Yet it is all too easy, particularly in times like the present, to reject those positive aspects of our capitalist inclinations.
The other side of wealth accumulation, however, is that it imposes very serious demands which the communal norm should define. At its basic level, accumulation of wealth without tzedakah or social responsibility is greed. Yet it is a gross over-simplification to say that those with means should just give more away in tzedakah. After all, when measured by the standards of American society, American
Isaac Herzog: A Legacy of Compassion
Perhaps my strongest childhood memory is of my grandmother, Rabbanit Sarah Herzog, who founded a leading hospital in Jerusalem that bears her name. I remember very well how every Friday, needy people would come to her home in Jerusalem, and she would speak to each one of them. She would try to help them with their problems, and she would give them money. I learned from my family, my grandparents and my parents, that Judaism is a very compassionate religion.
My grandfather, Rabbi Yitzhak Herzog, was the first Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of the State of Israel. He died in 1959, the year before I was born, and I am named for him. I see myself as a traditional Jew, not Orthodox as he was, but mesorati in the Israeli sense. And I definitely see myself, in my personal life as well as my capacity as a member of Knesset and government minister, as someone who carries a long tradition of commitment to Jewish religious values.
Formally, public officials in Israel are supposed to be committed to the full equality of our citizens. But in fact, within the Knesset, the innate fear of the non-Jewish minority runs very deep. It’s a reflection of the attitude of the Israeli public at large, which views the minorities in the country as one anti-Zionist bloc. On the other hand, because Arab and Jewish MKs get to know one another in their daily work as parliamentarians, some of these walls, at least on some level, fall down.
A century ago, when he was starting his political career in Manchester, Winston Churchill wrote admiringly of the “corporate nature” of Jewish communities that took care of people’s needs by establishing soup kitchens, old age homes, and so on. This Diaspora model of social responsibility was absorbed into the State of Israel, but to implement it we need not just the mechanics, but the heart. The good news is that many of our young people, religious and secular alike, are rising to the challenge by spending a volunteer year in deprived areas in cities and development towns, working to help needy families. These volunteers also include young religious Zionists from the settlements who work in communities in Israel proper. For them, such idealism can function as an alternative to the settler ideology that drove their parents.
A recent survey found that 46% of Israelis were afraid of slipping below the poverty line. Such fears are certainly understandable, especially in light of the overall economic crisis in the world.
Micha Odenheimer: Global Justice
Should the Jewish people and Israel, despite all of our own critical issues and problems, be involved in healing extreme poverty in the developing world?
As the founder of a Jewish-Israeli NGO whose raison d’etre is to create just such involvement, I often encounter people who argue that we should not. “The poor of your own city take precedence,” they say, quoting a Talmudic dictum, usually with some degree of indignation. If they are from the political Left, they will add, “There are plenty of Palestinians you should be helping first.” If they are from the Right, replace the word Palestinians with Jews; the rest of the formula can remain.
The use of this quotation would be problematic even if our reality were the same as in the days of the Talmudic sages. The Talmud says to give precedence to the local population only when all else is equal, not if the poor of your city, for example, are hungry, but the foreign poor are starving.
In Israel, as elsewhere, globalization takes myriad forms: most of the food being grown in Israel is exported to Europe, while the workers on these farms are from Thailand or China. Our elderly and sick are being taken care of by Filipino, Nepalese or Sri Lankan caregivers. Many of Israel’s largest companies are now subsidiaries of multi-national corporations – the Swiss food giant Nestlé, for example, owns a controlling interest in Osem – while Israeli corporations have themselves gone multinational, and own companies in Europe, Asia or South America. And of course most of the products and resources we use are farmed or mined or manufactured or assembled in the developing world – often in places whose indifference to the rights of workers to a living wage or a safe work environment is what makes them so attractive as production sites.
Rather than assume that economic growth will lead to prosperity for all, Jews have been taught the opposite: create a just society that cares for the poor and the marginalized and prosperity will follow. Specifically, the Torah commands us to create a system in which the poor have access to interest-free loans, and benefit from the periodic forgiving of debts as well as ongoing cycles of land reform. The price of basic foods (she’yesh bo chayei nefesh), according to the Talmud and the Shulchan Aruch, should not be subject to financial speculation. Others examining the tradition might place more emphasis on the Torah’s respect for private property or belief in markets. What is important at this stage are not the specifics, but participation in the discourse – putting the subject of global economic justice on the Jewish agenda.
I often think about the day when our volunteers in Nepal woke up to discover the whole city paralyzed by a massive strike. As a result of commodities speculation in the United States and the globalization of the food market, the price of basic necessities had shot up so high that the majority of Nepalese would no longer be able to afford even two meals a day.