The Activism of Abraham

The lives of Abraham and Job provide us with two models for confronting poverty.

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(Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Matanot Aniyim 7:3)

But despite the extraordinary--extralegal, one can say--nature of Abraham's example, it seems nonetheless to be a model of behavior that has something powerful to say to us today. To begin with, that quality of activism, of going to seek out those who are in need, is something that seems particularly appropriate to a time in which our connection to the downtrodden of society tends to be so passive: We receive solicitations for tzedakah through computerized mailing lists, and the realities of middle­class American life rarely present the poor on our doorstep (and when they do, we find it a terrifying aberration). For us, taking on that same activist challenge--Abraham's commitment to "to go out and around everywhere" would be a statement of con­cern that we might do well to emulate.

And it also seems right to consider the implications of Abra­ham's standard of action: "To him who was unaccustomed to eat wheat bread, he gave wheat bread to eat; to him who was unac­customed to eat meat, he gave meat to eat; to him who was unaccustomed to drink wine, he gave wine to drink." Job fed the poor at the level to which they were accustomed. But what do we do in the case of the poor who have fallen not from a comfortable state into poverty, but who have never gone without hunger, who have never had what they need? As Maimonides reminds us, we are not talking about making the poor wealthy; we are simply trying to do tzedakah in the literal sense of the word, that which is just--"You are obligated to fill his want." And that means a level of commitment--personal and national--which says that none of us should feel satisfied if there are any around us who are not satisfied.

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Barry W. Holtz

Barry W. Holtz is the Theodore and Florence Baumritter Professor of Jewish Education at The Jewish Theological Seminary. He was, for twelve years, co-director of the Seminary's Melton Research Center.? His books include: Back to the Sources: Reading the Classic Jewish Text,Finding Our Way: Jewish Texts and the Lives We Live Today,and Textual Knowledge.