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Wealth And Poverty: A Jewish Analysis

Page 2 of 10

Preface and summary

There are two major differences between this Report - a Jewish analysis of poverty - and recent reports from the Christian churches on such social issues. First, Jewish leaders have been far less eager to pronounce publicly on and seek attention for their views on social issues. Second, the emphasis of so many Christian pronouncements has been exhortatory, perhaps they would prefer "prophetic", a call to care and conscience for those in need. The virtues of that approach are obvious but so are the vices it - can and has led to a simplistic and even a one-sided representation of complex issues and was criticised as such in a collection of essays commissioned by the Social Affairs Unit and published by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge in 1984, The Kindness that Kills: The Churches' Simplistic Response to Complex Social Issues.* Whereas The Kindness that Kills was a "devastating attack" on current Church thinking, the aim of this report and others in the series Taking Thought for the Poor, is more constructive, to show what positive thinking would be like.

This Jewish analysis certainly lacks some of the simple clarity of Christian pronouncements but it exhibits a balance and sensitivity in its interpretation of a Biblical attitude to poverty which some of the Christian calls to caring lack.

Jews and Christians share a common sacred text, the Old Testament. That text has also shaped our secular culture. This analysis of how the rabbinic tradition has interpreted that text's teaching on poverty should therefore be of interest not only to Jews and Christians but to all who are personally concerned for the poor or trying to work out government policies based on thoughtful compassion.

The rabbinic tradition is clear on several matters concerning the Bible (Old Testament) and poverty: poverty is evil and precisely because it is no one should impoverish himself to relive the poverty of others. The best charity is that which helps the poor rise from poverty to independence and work - out of "welfare dependency". Thus while poverty relief is a positive value it must not, no more than any other value, be espoused simplistically but with regard to other values, such as economy and efficiency, with which it may conflict. For example, while protection of workers from exploitation is important, more important is preserving their freedom to work for whom they choose under conditions they choose.

The rabbis define the poor, for practical purposes, both as those below subsistence level and those whose income has substantially fallen, but there is no egalitarian concept of poverty as having less than others, no relative poverty in the socialist sense. Nor is income redistribution to the poor the only or even the most important means by which Judaism would have them helped - it also makes them identical to the rich in terms of religious practice, the Law and the Sabbath. Further, the rabbinic tradition is a tradition for all the Jewish people - an impartial tradition - not a side-taking tradition. "…the one thing Judaism rules out ab initio, by specific Biblical command, is a bias to the poor".

Digby Anderson, 1985

* Now out of print.


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