Should Jews Support the Debt Bill?


capitol-congressBy Dovid Efune

The ‘debt ceiling debate,’ described by the Wall Street Journal as one of the most ‘ferocious fights ever over government spending,’ is nearing a close. The end of a battle, but not likely the end of the war, as the pros and cons, results, successes and failures are likely to be key talking points going into the 2012 presidential election discussions.

In the upcoming election, it is widely believed that as a result of the President’s positions on Israel, the largely Democratic Jewish voting block and donor base is to some extent up for grabs. Whilst Israel is a matter that is close to the hearts and minds of many American Jews, typically, there are also a number of other matters that come near the top of this list. Foremost among them is a candidate’s commitment to social justice, and adherence to a framework that enforces the responsibility of the rich to aid the needy. Therefore, the ongoing deliberation over the ‘debt deal’ is likely to also play an important role in the battle between Democrats and Republicans over American Jewry.

So, in terms of Jewish ideas for social responsibility, where does this debt bill leave us?

Although the bill stipulates that Social Security, Medicaid, federal employee pay, and benefits for veterans and the poor would be exempt, some Democrats are still concerned.

“There is deep disappointment by the American people that at time when the rich are becoming much richer and there are corporations making billions in profits and not paying a nickel in taxes that deficit reduction is taking place on the backs of children and the elderly, the sick and the poor,” said Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. The Huffington Post reported that Sen. Frank Lautenberg said he’d vote against the bill, arguing that its cuts would inevitably come from programs that help the poor put food on the table and heat their homes.

Assuming for a moment that this is the case, the bill could be perceived by some as essentially un-Jewish. However, in order to reach a proper conclusion in this debate, what needs to be determined, is an authentic Jewish perspective on wealth redistribution and charity in general.
Famously the medieval Jewish scholar Maimonides lists eight grades of giving to others, whilst all involve philanthropy, the supreme act does not:

“The greatest level, above which there is no greater, is to support a poor person by endowing him with a gift or loan, or entering into a partnership with him, or finding employment for him, in order to strengthen his hand until he need no longer be dependent upon others.”

In his book, The Dignity of Difference Britain’s Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes with regard to the above, “this ruling is the result of a profound wrestling, within Judaism, with the fact that aid in the form of charity can itself be humiliating for the recipient. It can also create welfare dependency, reinforcing, not breaking the cycle of deprivation. The greatest act of charity is therefore one that allows the individual to become self-sufficient.” He added “Protecting dignity and avoiding humiliation was a systematic element of rabbinical law.”
However, as Sacks also writes, that whilst “economic growth is more powerful than simple redistribution, it is only true if there is a genuine willingness on the part of those who gain to ensure that the losers also benefit; and that does not happen through the market mechanism on its own.” He concludes, “What Judaism can do and must, is to inspire us collectively with a vision of human solidarity.”

It follows therefore that in actuality a utopian Jewish social support system is likely more in line with the Republican vision for creating wealth, in tandem with the inspiration of the Jewish tradition for giving and solidarity. Certainly the ‘Welfare State’ concept is not a Jewish one.

However, an amendment to the bill that would include additional “Inspirations for Human Solidarity,” would be welcome.

Possibilities could include greater incentives for businesses to keep hiring, for venture capital firms to invest in startups and for the establishment of mentoring and internship programs.

From a Jewish perspective, when coupled with the “vision of human solidarity,” the premise of this bill is no doubt a strong step in the right direction.

The author is the director of the Algemeiner Journal.

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  1. This article is all wrong because it fails to understand many simple economic truths.But the most basic one that at least anyone can understand is that in case you forgot the wealthy corporations were bailed out by the government with trillions of dollars!!! Far more welfare has been given to the rich in the past few years than to the poor. Therefore, the author here has all the facts backwards.
    Actually, there are many other things the author fails to understand. Maybe I will write more of them if I see some actual responses from the author.

  2. If we’re going to cut Medicaid, why not also cut subsidies to the oil industry? To big agriculture? Those programs to benefit “family farms” really just go to huge agribusiness corporations. Oil subsidies subsidize our right-wing Islamist friends in Saudi Arabia. We still haven’t recovered all the cash from the contractors who cheated the Army during the Iraq war. Wall Street is still playing funny with other people’s money after we bailed them out with taxpayer money. So why start with the poor, the old and the structurally unemployed?

    What about all the frum families depending on food stamps, Medicaid and Section 8? Are we prepared to raise the money from the frum community to make up the difference when the Feds are forced to cut the subsidies? Why are Rupert Murdoch and the Koch brothers more deserving than your son’s rebbe?

  3. Moshe Feiglin calls this “Brotherly Merciful Capitalism” (???????? ?????””). Rav Kook also intimates to this in his letter to Shlomo Zalman Shragai on the preferred econoic system in Judaism (although he couched it diplomatically because of Shragai’s socialistic leanings).

  4. Maimonides never spoke about forced charity and government taxation is compelled and not volunteer. taxes for resdistribution is stealing from a jewish perspective. judaism does allow taxation for community functions but not for charity.

  5. Wrong! In Shulchan Aruch, Hilchos Tzedaka, as well as Hilchos Ma’aser Kesofim, you will find Halachos regarding how much one is required to give to Tzedaka for poor people. According to many poskim, you have not fulfilled your obligation unless you give it to poor people specifically, as opposed to community purposes. (If you can’t find it, they are in the middle of the third volume of Yorah Deah)

  6. If we want to talk history – In the Old Home, in Eastern Europe, the askanim of the town held a meeting with the rav every year, or whenever there was an emergency, and the council decided which rich person was required to give how much money. That person was then told – not asked – to give over the cash. Holdouts could be shamed publicly, and potentially even put in herem (excommunicated). If you bother to read the Parshah, you would know that certain practices such as pe’ah (leaving the corners of the field unharvested) and leket (gleaning after the harvesters – see Book of Ruth) were obligatory charity for the poor. Not voluntary – required. Note that the word “tzedakah” is derived from “tzedek” – justice. “Justice, justice shall you pursue.” We are REQUIRED to support the poor.

    “Charity” is a Christian concept which we do not deal with. It implies voluntary actions which “buy” the doer a ticket into Heaven, and it’s based on the pre-modern idea that the Church upholds the class system of society and therefore poor people can starve without anyone being guilty. Not a Jewish idea.

    #7 – maybe you should try reading Torah instead of Tea Party manifestos. Try doing the Parsha of the Week with Rashi. You’d be surprised hom much is in the Torah that your Tea Party friends have never heard of.