Jewish Attitudes toward Poverty

How Much Should You Care?

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The Paradox of Poverty

A striking feature of the Deuteronomy passage is the apparent contradiction between verse four, "There shall be no needy among you," and verse eleven, "For the poor will never cease from the land." We expect the omnipotent God of the Torah to keep promises; we are therefore surprised to hear the Torah promise to eradicate poverty and then, almost in the same breath, admit that this promise will never be fulfilled.

Noting the conditional nature of the promise to eradicate poverty "if you diligently listen to the voice of Adonai your God," most traditional commentators understand the passage as a prediction that the Jewish people will never fully obey the commandments.

While holding out a utopian promise of the reward for full allegiance to the mitzvot (commandments), God, according to these commentators, simultaneously prepares for the inevitability of the people's disobedience.

If we accept that God's promise in this passage relies on a condition that humans can never meet, we encounter at least two problems. First, such an interpretation contradicts a basic principle of rabbinic exegesis--the idea that every word of the Torah has a purpose.

Second, this suggestion raises an even more fundamental theological problem. If human beings are to hold ourselves responsible for observing the commandments of the Torah, we need to believe that God, at least, believes that we are capable of following these commandments. It would seem a betrayal of trust for the Torah to set out expectations that God already knows we will not fulfill.
Homeless Man
Many commentators thus seek an alternative resolution of the apparent contradiction between the assurance that "there shall be no needy among you" and the warning that "the poor will never cease from your land." Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban) writes:

"For the poor will never cease from the land" [means] it is impossible that the poor will permanently disappear. [Moses] mentions this because, having assured them that there would be no needy if they observed all of the commandments, he goes on to say, "I know that not every generation, forever, will observe all of the commandments to the point that there is no longer any need for commandments concerning the poor. For perhaps, at certain times, there will be needy, and therefore, I am commanding you for the case in which they are present. And the text says, "in your land," to refer to the entire area of habitation, for the promise that there will not be poor among you applies "in the land which God is giving you as an inheritance," as long as you fulfill all of the commandments there; then, it says that it is possible that, in some period or place in which you have settled, there may be a poor person among you. For the meaning of "in your land" refers to all of your settlements--in the land of Israel and outside of the land of Israel. And the meaning of "the poor person in your land" is that this phrase refers both to your brethren and to all of the poor of your land. (Ramban's commentary to Deut. 15)

With this explanation, Ramban portrays the biblical text as optimistic but realistic. According to his reading of this passage, the Jewish people will generally observe the commandments, but will not always do so perfectly. Even if one generation succeeds in temporarily eradicating poverty, the possibility remains that poverty will resurface in another generation. Thus, the Torah anticipates a perfected world, but it plans for an imperfect one.

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Rabbi Jill Jacobs

Rabbi Jill Jacobs is the Executive Director of Rabbis for Human Rights-North America. She previously served as the Rabbi-in-Residence for the Jewish Funds for Justice.