I attended a symposium yesterday on Judaism and poverty.
By Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg
There was a survivor present. ‘I’ve known what hunger means’, he said in a very quiet voice; ‘We must not forget the hungry’. He was freed in Theresienstadt by the Red Army at the close of the war. It was the last camp to be liberated. In the previous months the Nazis no longer killed Jews there, he explained. They didn’t have to; people simply died of hunger. That’s why he’s devoted the rest of his life to the relief of the hungry, Jew and non-Jew, whoever they are. I’ll hear and re-hear his quiet voice speaking into my heart for many years to come; at least I hope I shall.
Once each month I meet with a small group of young people at a café in St Pancras Station. (It’s the busiest underground interchange in London, so it’s easy to access on the way home from work.) We’re studying tractate Pe’ah from the Mishnah. This ancient text discusses in exacting detail the laws of the corners of the fields, the sections which must be left for the poor:
‘If your field is divided in half by a river, [you need to leave corners in both parts]’ (2:1); ‘If you harvest some of your onions fresh for the market, but leave others to store away dry, you must leave corners [from the rows] of each’ (3:3)
Why bother, two thousand years later, to study these details of ancient agrarian life (in a busy London café)?
The fact is that they move me. They show how deeply integrated into the muddy round of everyday life the understanding was that when you care for yourself you look after others as well. Every community had a weekly fund for the poor and a food plate distributed daily. Some communities don’t hand out food, wrote Maimonides a thousand years later, but we’ve never heard of such a thing as a Jewish community which lacks a fund for the poor.
It was chastening to learn of the realities today. There are Jewish poor in Britain, and most certainly in Europe, especially Eastern Europe. Many of them in this country, though far from all, belong to the very orthodox community. It was deeply humbling to hear what those synagogues and stiebels, what groups of mothers and fellowships of Hasidim do to help: Shabbat food, provisions for Pesach, ‘there’s a fund or a supply for every essential item you can think of’.
It was no less stirring to learn about the extraordinary work of World Jewish Relief and Tzedek. It’s an ancient duty to support the non-Jewish sick and poor; the Talmud describes it as motivated by darkei Shalom, ‘the ways of peace’, an inclusive vision of how the entire world could and ought to be. These organisations, with an ideology rooted deeply in Judaism, sit at the table with Christian Aid and Islamic Aid and together explore the universal principles of caring for the most desperate: ‘You don’t ask about religion. You help that child.’
Time and again I find myself thinking about a piercing text from the Mishnah:
The person who says “What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours” is average.
There are those who say that this is the way of Sodom. (Avot 5:13)
The world wouldn’t function if there was no respect for ownership. But if ‘what’s mine is mine’ defines the limits of my moral imagination; if I pretend to myself that what I own is mine by entitlement and am callous enough to let the implication stand that the poor deserve their lot; if I fail to realise that I have an irreducible responsibility to share life’s gifts and blessings, because they belong to God, or to the world, or to good fortune, but certainly not to me; if I fail to act on that realisation, then what kind of a human being am I and what faith am I keeping with those two most essential values of my Judaism –tzedakah vachesed, justice and compassion?