Photo Credit: Courtesy Sotheby's
Ancient Torah scroll

Imagine a society that guarantees to all its members sufficient housing,
clothing, food, medical care etc. to ensure that they will never involuntarily suffer hunger or pain owing to a shortage of personal resources. However, accepting those goods from a public agency requires an explicit acknowledgement that one has failed to provide for oneself. Furthermore, the society is constructed in such a way that most family units have no hope of earning enough to be self-sufficient.

From a Torah perspective, is this society a great success, or a terrible failure? Does this society perfectly fulfill the mitzvah of tzedakah, or hopelessly distort it?

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The argument in favor assumes that the mitzvah’s intent is to eliminate physical want and mental uncertainty. The argument against assumes that tzedakah is a bediavad solution. The Torah’s primary social concern is human dignity. This is best accomplished through self-sufficiency. When that fails, providing tzedakah is better than the alternative indignities. But an ethical society’s fundamental economic goal must be to maximize self-sufficiency.Which approach better represents Torah?

A careful reading of Devarim Chapter 15 may help answer this question.
Verse 4 states:
Absolutely! There will be no impoverished among you.
However, verse 7 explains what one’s obligations are:
when an impoverished person is among you,
and verse 11 states unreservedly:
for the impoverished will not cease from the midst of the land.

So which is it – will the poor absolutely not be among us, or never
cease from our midst?

Looking at the contradictory verses in their respective contexts provides an illuminating answer.The guarantee that poverty will cease is preceded by the law of shmittat kesafim, which (at least prima facie) requires the forgiveness of all outstanding loans every seven years.

The Torah emphasizes that this law applies only within the community,
but that one is entitled or even required to demand repayment from nokhrim, strangers. This is because the Torah wants this law to function as a form of self-interested business policy rather than as charity. The distinction between insider and outsider is essential for such economic levelling devices to be morally effective – as the communitarians teach, there can be no insiders unless there are outsiders. When we see our fellows as fellow-insiders, we can regard forgiving a loan as a write-off in a long-term partnership rather than as charity.

The poor can disappear from the land only when we don’t see providing for each other as charity. The conflicting guarantee in verse 11, that poverty will continue eternally, is followed by the rules of intra-Jewish slavery.

Crucial details include:
a) He will slave for you six years, but in the seventh year, you must send him free away from you
b) When you send him free away from you, you must not send him away
empty; you must certainly give him severance . . .
c) You must remember that you were a slave in Egypt, and Hashem your G-d redeemed you; therefore I am commanding you this thing today.
d) When it happens that he says to you “I will not go out from you” –
because he loves you and your household, because it is good for him with you.
You must take the awl and place it in his ear and in the door, and he will become to you an eternal slave. You shall do the same to your maidservant.

The pierced slave chooses economic security over autonomy, and therefore, even though his rights are guaranteed by law, he becomes a permanent charity recipient. If he were truly a member of the household he loves, he could become free and still remain.

Jews must remember that they were slaves in Egypt, and G-d intervened to redeem us. He then led us though a desert existence that often made us think fondly about the economic security of Egypt, despite all the indignities of slavery. That was the point; we were not freed from Egypt so that we would be better taken care of.

Rather, the Torah demands that we assume the responsibilities of freedom. Among these is the responsibility to ensure that our fellows are not enslaved by circumstances, and trapped either in want or dependence. Our goal must be to eliminate charity and maximize dignity.

A society that structures its economic institutions so as to make us all genuine partners, so that no one who contributes to his or her full capacity feels either owed or owing, fulfills the mitzvah of tzedakah. A society that institutionalizes dependence, no matter how reliably it provides for its dependents, has turned them into pierced slaves. (Kal vachomer if it does not even provide for them reliably.)

This lesson deserves a central place in deliberations about the future economic structure of American Orthodoxy.

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