The One Who Moves
By Rabbi Oliver Joseph
People often ask about the nature of the Rabbinical journey.
“How did you decide you wanted to be a Rabbi?” they ask. My response often changes. I try to answer the question honestly at that moment, on that day. But there is a common thread that I often repeat: “It is a decision I take every day. I have had plenty of opportunity to step away from this career, but I have chosen to carry on.” Choosing a career that asks of you to consider each and every day your place in this world and your standing as a religious leader brings with it great blessing but also great internal challenge.
This journey has taken me many places: emotionally, physically and spiritually both in my seven years of study and prior to them. It is an adventure which has covered five different countries: Canada, Belgium, Israel, UK and the US. It is inherent in the nature of travel that one initially feels like an outsider in a new place, and yet sometimes that sense of estrangement lingers. In Israel I was an outsider because when I first arrived I spoke little Hebrew and I had not lived the pain of wars and intifadas past; in the US because I had a funny accent and my dry sarcasm and British wit was commonly misunderstood and sometimes deemed offensive, and now returning to the UK I feel a stranger in the country of my birth. I journeyed the world and even when I returned home I was not arriving back to the same place. I have been on a profound journey which has fundamentally changed me: I am other and have lived outside of the experience of many people my own age, of my family members, and of the lives of people within my community.
I mean not to overemphasise my difference or sense of exclusion from the places in which I live or have lived. In each place I have lived with a British passport in my pocket, as a white heterosexual man from a privileged family. I have never lived on the street or feared deportation or persecution; I have never wondered from where my next meal would come. In short, even in moments of feeling excluded, by virtue of my socio-economic standing, race, and sexuality, I have lived a life of privilege unparalleled in the majority of the world.
It is from this vantage point of exclusion that I question notions of borders, inclusion and a concept in the Talmud, in tractate Peah, of the ‘oh-ver me makom le’ makom’, of the one who moves around from place to place.
In the Talmud, the legal category of the person who moves from place to place emerges. The tractate discusses the laws of agriculture that relate to provision for the rural poor. Like the curly payot that some will leave to grow on the corners of their face, this tractate examines laws pertaining to leaving the corners of the field un-harvested in order that the rural poor can collect crops and make a livelihood. The tractate goes on to examine additional guidelines for provision for the poor including the category of the person who moves from place to place, the person who arrives on your doorstep with nothing but the clothes on her back.
The fundamentals of this tractate of the Talmud can be traced to two verses in the Bible in particular. The first comes from Exodus, chapter nine, which simply states: ‘the land is God’s’ [9:29]. This verse can be understood to draw attention to the moment of harvest as one of both grace of an almighty power and miracle that food has be born of the land. In this generation many of us will receive a pay cheque by electronic transfer of currency. More often than not we do not see the fruit of our labour in the fields but the nature of this verse reminds us that that which we derive from the land and from our own labour is in fact not ours at all but belongs to a spirit greater than our own existence. The laws of Peah then demand that we pay that which is owed to those who are in need before we take care of our own needs. Only once we take care of the socially excluded do the fruits of our labour actually become ours. The other verse which seems to guide this tractate is a verse from Deuteronomy, chapter 15, which calls on us to take care of those in need amongst us. Do not ‘harden your heart or close your hand to your brother who is in need’ [15:7-8]. The trouble with the biblical account of such laws is that there is little detail provided as to the degree of our responsibility and how to prioritise differing levels of need in our community.
The eighth chapter of Peah guides us in what an appropriate minimum provision is for those in our community. It details the creation of a communal food bank which provides meals for all who are hungry each day of the week and collection of money which is pooled and distributed in the hours before Shabbat to those living in poverty. The category of the one who passes from place to place sparks my interest because it is a category of person to whom we might ordinarily not give attention – the person who is new on the scene, who is not recognised, is usually the last in line to receive care. This section of Talmud, however, rejects the notion that a newcomer is not eligible for aid. In direct contrast to this assumption, Peah spells out what one should expect from the moment one walks into town. The Mishnah reads that one should expect food to eat and a place to sleep and if you are around for Shabbat you should expect three meals, thus allowing you to fulfil your duty to celebrate the Sabbath day.
What would our communities look like if we took these obligations of charity as seriously as the Talmudic rabbis who engaged in this debate? What if we were to put our pay cheques on the table each month and carve out a slice for the provision of those most disenfranchised who live on our street corners and have arrived from afar with only the clothes on their backs? What would it look like to take care of the basic needs of others before we even considered our own needs and indulgences?
I believe these questions are evoked by the tractate of Peah.
I believe that this rabbinic examination strikes at the heart of the question of inclusion. We are talking here about real people: the one who is excluded, the person who moves from place to place and shows up in your neighbourhood, hungry, weary, perhaps lacking even adequate clothes and a warm bed. The question arises: what responsibility do we have for this person? What about the man who crosses the Sinai Desert or the Mediterranean Sea escaping a place of conflict or persecution and arrives hungry and thirsty? The Talmud does not ask, ‘Why did this person come to our borders?’. The Talmud asks, ‘What now? Can this person be cooked a hot meal tonight? Where will they eat on Shabbat?’
The level of provision that Jewish law affords the socially excluded in our midst is high, and the bar — under which a person is considered our responsibility — is set exceedingly low. We are responsible for providing for those who are in need, irrespective of the circumstances that brought them to be in our midst.
I believe that there is yet more to learn about inclusion from this tractate. What happens if you are a person who does not feel a sense of belonging anywhere? Perhaps you are someone living with physical or mental illness or a disability; perhaps you are in mourning, or someone who is recovering from addiction or still in a state of addiction. Do you identify as queer, LGBT or gender queer? These are only a few of the reasons individuals face persecution or feel excluded from communities. Neither one is comparable or conflatable and yet at the core of what it means to be deprived is a sense of not belonging. In generations past, people have wandered from place to place in search of livelihood and food but equally people have travelled the world in search of a place to belong, a place that is safe and secure.
People who are socially excluded are disproportionately likely to belong to one of the above categories. And these are all too often the very same people who move from place to place, unable to settle successfully. I believe that the laws of Peah, of the person who moves from place to place, are asking us to think carefully about how we include people, and what radical inclusion and acceptance might look like in community. I think more fundamentally, we are called on to consider at our very core who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’ and what we need to do to expand our hearts to be sanctuaries of ‘welcome’.
How will we find a place for a person so ravaged by poverty and homelessness that she barely looks human? At another end of the spectrum, how do we carve out a space in our communities for people who do not identify within normative gender or sexuality categories? How do we find space for those on the outside? These are significant questions for our communities and ones which have too often been left aside – even the question itself has been excluded!
In my seven years of study I have worked with refugees from South Sudan and Eritrea who have seen untold horrors in their lives; Palestinians and Israelis who have both suffered in a bloody conflict and who have learnt hatred and separation; people in and around Los Angeles who face communal strife, violence, poverty, risk of deportation and/or incarceration. All of these peoples have in common a sense of exclusion from the community they called or wished to call home. During my life I have seen some pretty tumultuous areas of the world and internally I, too, at various stages, have suffered tumult. I have become an intimate observer and an ally standing with those who are excluded. When we perceive exclusion we are faced with a choice: to close our hearts and protect that which we have, or to truly connect with the sensation of being on the outside and grow in spirit and empathy to welcome those caught out in the cold.
As a rabbi and a member of a religious community one is called on to build a community of integrity; a community that feels both whole and special. In our history as a Jewish community we have often opted to exclude – to protect the whole at the cost of the minority who stand on the periphery. The laws of Peah stand as a challenge to this tendency. The Jewish journey is one which demands constant consideration of competing communal and spiritual priorities. And yet, this chapter of Peah poses the question as to what radical acceptance and inclusion would look like. How would our communities stand if we opened our hands and provided for the basic human needs of all those in our midst? And what would it look like if we opened our hearts to just one more of God’s miraculous creatures, those who perhaps do not look like us but are in need of a sanctuary and cannot find a home elsewhere? The lesson of Peah, of acceptance, of giving, is not simple, but its ways are pleasant and all who strive in the endeavour will find peace and a new wholeness in this world.
Oliver Joseph is the rabbi of Elstree and Borehamwood Masorti Community and a member of the Masorti Judaism team, where he works with Noam, Marom and new Masorti communities.