A Religious Obligation To Help All Those Suffering -- Not Just The Poor
The first question of the Bible is not Cain's question to God: Am I my brother's keeper? Rather, it is God's question to Cain: Where is your brother Abel?
Where do we find our brothers and sisters at this moment of economic crisis? The Jewish tradition offers three urgent insights to this question.
First, Judaism is a system of obligations and responsibilities, not rights (indeed there is no term for "rights" in classical Hebrew). Hence the Jewish term involved in these question is not "charity" (conveying a sense of choice) but tzedakah from the Jewish word tzedek (like the Muslim term zakaat) conveying justice. It is an obligation, a core personal and societal requirement to help those who are suffering, not just a good deed.
Second, justice conveys responsibilities regarding societal structures and systems. Responding to this crisis demands that we address structural issues of predatory lending, truth in lending, effective financial services regulation, and tax and spending policies aimed at helping to sustain those of every class who are faltering because of this crisis. For the millions who otherwise would not have qualified for loans but were enticed to take them because financial institutions, which they believed were adequately regulated by their government or who made investments in companies they believed properly regulated, they too have a claim on our assistance.
And third, while God's concern for the poor permeates the Jewish system of tsedakah and societal obligations, the Jewish tradition also required that the community intervene to help people when they run into trouble no matter what their economic status. The goal was to help people remain where they are economically and prevent people from slipping into poverty. Thus, if people are middle class and run into serious problems, the community assists them to remain at the standard of living that is their norm. Indeed, both the Talmud (Baba Kama 7a-b) and Maimonides in his authoritative Mishnah Torah (Matnot Aniyim IX: 14-17) deal explicitly with the situation of people who own homes and property (fields and vineyards) who because economic problems may have to sell disadvantageously and the rule is that they are entitled to societal assistance to get them through the bad times so they will not have to impoverish themselves.
It is hard to think of regulations that speak more directly to those who find themselves in trouble now. There is no caveat for those who over-invested. Clearly, if a person lied or engaged in illegal activity in their investments or in pursuit of a loan, they can not expect, morally or legally, the community to help (yet even there, if they fall into poverty, their spouses or children who suffer through no complicity of their own are entitled to our support). Otherwise, we are called to help all in need as best the limitation of our personal or societal resources allows.
Posted by: ViejitaDelOeste | March 7, 2009 3:49 PM
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