Judaism's War on Poverty

By Dalin, David G. | Policy Review, September-October 1997 | Go to article overview

Judaism's War on Poverty


Dalin, David G., Policy Review


For Centuries, the Jewish tradition of self-help has been rescuing the poor from dependency. So why have Jewish liberals abandoned it to embrace the welfare state?

American Jews have traditionally maintained a deep commitment to just and compassionate social policies. They rightly believe that their religious tradition obliges them to care for the disadvantaged. As social workers, social policy activists, public officials, intellectuals, and voters, Jewish liberals in particular have enthusiastically embraced public-assistance programs and welfare benefits as an appropriate expression of the principle of Tzedakah (charity) that is so central to Jewish religious tradition.

Unfortunately, many of these Jewish liberals have profoundly misunderstood the biblical concept of Tzedakah. From biblical Israel to pre-New Deal America, the principles of individual self-help and communal self-sufficiency were the essence of both the Jewish view of charity and the evolving Jewish philanthropic tradition. In recent decades, however, many liberal Jewish defenders of government social programs have mistakenly equated Tzedakah with the principles and policies of the welfare state-policies that represent the very antithesis of the historic Jewish charitable tradition.

Rather than extol increased government spending and social welfare programs, American Jews should reaffirm the traditional Jewish religious preference for charitable lending over almsgiving, and recognize that it provides an especially effective model of communal self-help that other communities throughout America might emulate. As alternatives to dependency on public assistance or government welfare, interest-free loans can provide individuals with the means to achieve self-sufficiency in small businesses of their own, to attend college or professional school, and to tide people over in times of unemployment or illness.

Biblical Charity

The word Tzedakah derives from the Hebrew root Zedek, which denotes "righteousness" and "justice." The biblical laws of Tzedakah translated these principles into concrete religious and legal duties. In the Book of Deuteronomy, God commands the Israelites "to open thy hand unto the poor and needy." For Jews, this aid is not a voluntary act of kindness-it is obligatory.

According to the Book of Leviticus, farmers in biblical Israel were obligated to leave a corner of their fields for the poor to harvest themselves, and to leave the gleanings of their own harvest-the grain or fruits that had been left or forgotten-to the poor, the widowed, and the orphaned. The Hebrew Bible also mandates a special tithe, a sort of public tax on income, that pious Jews for centuries have scrupulously set aside for the poor.

The requirements of Tzedakah were expanded in later centuries by Talmudic and medieval Jewish scholars. The Talmud, the classic compendium of Jewish religious law completed in the sixth century, preserves a multitude of rabbinic statements and maxims that emphasize the pivotal role of Tzedakah in Jewish religious and communal life. One of the best known is Rabbi Assi's dictum that charity is "the equivalent of all the other religious precepts together."

By the time of the rabbinic sage Hillel, who lived in the first century, the "charity ethic" of rabbinic Judaism was so compelling that it was a "principal rule" that no pious Jew could live in a community that had no organization for public charity. This rule shaped Jewish life until the 20th century. The autonomous Jewish communities of medieval and modern Europe and the Jewish settlements of early America all expressed this religious principle of Tzedakah through synagogue-based charity and the creation of a network of independent charitable organizations.

The Jewish Principles of Self-Help

Although it has received surprisingly little scholarly attention, the principle of self-help has been one of the most influential concepts in the history of Jewish religious and political thought. …

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