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Wealth And Poverty: A Jewish Analysis

Page 4 of 10

The consensus: poverty is an unmitigated evil, worse than fifty plagues

First, then, the values themselves. On poverty there is unusual agreement. It is an unmitigated evil. On this the rabbis would have agreed with Aristotle: no-one would call the virtuous man who suffered happy unless he were merely arguing for argument's sake.1 Poverty, said the rabbis, is a kind of death.2 Poverty in a man's house is worse than fifty plagues.3 Nothing is harder to bear than poverty; for he who is crushed by poverty is like one to whom all the troubles of the world cling and upon whom all the curses in Deuteronomy have descended. If all other troubles were placed on one side and poverty on the other, poverty would outweigh them all.4 These, and other rabbinic sayings, are the simple perceptions of those who knew deprivation from the inside; who lived it and knew it had no saving graces.

This was their experience, but it was experience bounded by certain shared assumptions. First: that man as an embodied soul cannot reach stable religious heights without attending to the needs of the body: If there is no meal, they said, there can be no Torah.5 Second: that the gifts of God are to be found in this world as well as the next, and that the ability to enjoy is itself a religious experience. One of the early Talmudic teachers put it sharply: In the world to come a man will have to face judgement for every legitimate pleasure which he denied himself.6 Third, and perhaps the strongest of their concerns: poverty meant a particular kind of humiliation. Work at anything, they said, rather than be dependent on others. 7

There is a marked absence in the literature of any tendency to see poverty as a blessed sate, or as conducing to any virtue. The many verses in the Bible which picture Divine identification with the poor were restricted to their two primary meanings: God loves the poor in spirit; and God is the spokesman of the poor when they are oppressed. The rabbis found nothing in the Biblical text to suggest that an abandonment of worldly goods is desirable: to the contrary, asceticism was an implicit disavowal of this world, which God created and pronounced to be good. Nor did siding with the poor mean embracing poverty. No poor man was ever helped by knowing that a saint had joined his ranks, or that prayers were offered on his behalf, or that his condition recapitulated the indigence and poverty of the son of God, or that he was being spared the temptations of this transient, corruptible flesh. He was helped only by being given the chance not to be poor.

Thus no-one should impoverish himself to relieve the poverty of others

These attitudes found specific expression in Jewish law. Despite the extreme emphasis in Judaism on charity, the transcending virtue, nevertheless, no-one may relieve the poverty of others at the cost of impoverishing himself. Jewish law, for instance, considers the case of someone who, in an excess of self denial, donates all his property to religious causes. Such an act is declared to be "not piety but folly". 8 The rabbis made a rare and special enactment at Usha, that one may not give away more than a fifth of one's possessions.9 They also forbade the collectors of communal charitable funds to solicit a contribution from someone who is known to be over-generous.10


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