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Wealth And Poverty: A Jewish Analysis

Page 5 of 10

The best charity is that which helps the poor dispense with charity

In the other direction, one law is worthy of particular attention. The sources discuss the various gradations of charity: from those who give grudgingly to those who give less than is proper, to those who will wait until they are asked, and so on upwards, to the point where the giver does not know to whom he is giving and the recipient does not know from whom he takes - the state of minimum humiliation. There is, though, a higher level; and here I quote from Maimonides' definitive codification: "The highest degree, exceeded by none, is that of the person who assists the poor by providing him with a gift or a loan or by accepting him into a business partnership, or by helping him find employment - in a word, by putting him where he can dispense with other people's aid".11

The ruling is remarkable. Charity is adjudged a virtue, presumably, because it is a sacrifice for the good of others; in this case, though, the sacrifice is non-existent - a loan, a partnership, finding him a job. Nothing more clearly defines the pace of charity in the system that this: it may be the highest virtue, but better is the world where it is not needed. Charity is not justified by the good it does to the soul of the giver, but by the degree to which it removes the misery of the recipient, physical and more especially psychological. An act which enables him not to need charity is higher than any charity.

Already in setting out these propositions, one aspect of the rabbinic method should be apparent. Specific moral concepts may not be used as prescriptions for action without taking into consideration context and consequence. Charity is right; but it does not follow that the more charity the better. In each case a policy is to be judged by its long-term effects in removing poverty and the conditions associated with it. The fact that the sages had to make a formal enactment prohibiting excessive self-sacrifice shows religious authority in a highly unconventional role. The act discloses that over-generosity was an actuality - the sages never legislated against a remote possibility.12 Yet the rabbis ruled against a seeming virtue. For obvious enough reasons. Impoverishing oneself transgresses a prior duty: that one should oneself endeavour not to need it. And it destroys one's wealth-creating possibilities, and so is in the long-run detrimental to the poor. Simple pursuit of a value may defeat the ends which make it a value.

The dangers or generalising from Biblical sources can be illustrated in a more striking way. And here, as a preface, we should remember that the rabbinic sages saw it as their function simply to safeguard the structures of Mosaic law. They were heirs to an unbroken tradition, a covenant whose terms were immutable. The radicalism of the manoeuvre we are about to consider is, therefore, remarkable.

Values such as redistribution to the poor not to be pursued simplistically: an example in which redistribution yields to economic growth

The Bible contains a great many laws whose function is the redistribution of income, set primarily against the background of an agricultural economy. Various portions of the harvest were set aside for the poor - the corner of the field, the forgotten sheaf, and so on (Leviticus 19:9; Deuteronomy 24:19-21). On the third and sixth year of the seven-year cycle, they were given a tenth of all produce (Deuteronomy 26:12). And on the seventh year, all outstanding debts were remitted (Deuteronomy 15:1-2). This last provision was clearly open to circumvention; and the Bible proceeds to warn against it.

Be careful that you do not have base thought and say to yourself "The seventh year is approaching, and it will be the remission year." You may look unkindly on your impoverished brother, and not give him anything. If he then complains to God about you, you will be guilty of a sin. (Ibid 15:9)

Here then was a periodic redistribution measure, designed to relieve the poor of accumulated burdens of debt. The danger was that the wealthy would simply not give loans prior to the seventh year; hence the invocation of Divine concern - always an accompaniment of a law which is difficult to enforce. What happened to this law in a more complex economy? The Mishna records one of the most daring of all rabbinic invocations: "When he say that the people refrained from giving loans to one another and thus transgressed the Biblical warning…Hillel enacted the prosobol".13 The prosobol was technical device whereby a loan was transacted through the court, ceased to be an agreement between individuals, and so bypassed the terms of the year of release. Hillel - perhaps the founding father of rabbinic Judaism - had set aside the law.

How he had the authority to do so is a technical question which need not concern us. But why he should wish to do so is another matter. In effect, he had abrogated an established right of the less-well-off. And Hillel was himself a man whose poverty was legendary. 14

With the transition from an agricultural to a more commercial economy, loans had become less a response to a disastrous harvest than a normal precondition of trading. A moral appeal to cancel debts was accordingly less likely to succeed and less plausible. The Biblical law, whose original intent was explicitly to benefit the poor, was now working to their disfavour: they could not obtain loans in certain years. Clearly forfeiting the redistribution in their favour would be more than compensated by the assistance they would receive in building up their own trade. Here was an instance, drawn from the Second Temple period, of redistribution yielding to economic growth - on moral grounds agreed to be strong enough to justify inverting a Biblical procedure.


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