Providing What is Lacking

Jewish texts on social justice describe the tension between providing what is needed and providing what is affordable.

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The distinction between bread, dough and money is significant. Bread is immediately useful, but it becomes stale. Raw dough requires more work, but it can become a sourdough starter and be used to bake many loaves. Money requires even more work, but it is the best store of value.  One should provide only what is needed; providing too much can actually be a less efficient way to help, and it disempowers the needy person.

According to R. Sirkes, however, efficiency is not the only factor. Sirkes states that the help needs to be provided "to him," according to his desires and not according to the donor's sense of efficiency or value. Sirkes points towards the ideal obligation to meet the needs and even the desires of the individual.

Wants vs. Needs

The needs of the poor are maximally understood as preventive tzedakah, that is, providing training, health care, and affordable housing so that a person does not need additional support. But short of that goal, should people dependent on public support be entitled to what many consider to be "luxuries" as part of  "whatever he lacks" or according to "his sense of dignity"? The passage quoted from Midrash Tannaim says, "you are not commanded to enrich him."

The story of Hillel teaches that we should maintain the dignity of the poor, but does that mean providing a car instead of public transportation? When many who are working and supporting themselves remain without insurance, is health care a luxury? In modern times, a lack of an education almost inevitably leads to impoverishment, so education is clearly a need and not a luxury. But is Jewish day school education a necessity? How far do we take Rabbi Sirkes' concerns to accommodate the desires of the needy?

Midrash Tannaim states that one who stays over Shabbat is provided with food for three meals, according to the religious obligation, even though one can survive on only two meals; mitzvot are considered needs. Similarly, providing for a Jewish education is a religious obligation and not a luxury.

The wisdom of Jewish tradition is in preserving the ideal obligation alongside the conventional application. Conventional laws for tzedakah change with time, with the local economy, and with communal expectations; the poor of the first world are hardly comparable to the poor of the third world or the poor of ancient times. But while the conventional standards continue to change (hopefully towards providing greater and more enduring forms of support), the ideals remain constant. Our obligation to the poor is to provide what they need to the full extent of our abilities.

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Jeffrey Spitzer is Chair of the Department of Talmud and Rabbinics at Gann Academy, The New Jewish High School, Waltham, Mass., and a member of the Institute's Tichon Fellows Program.