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A Jewish perspective on Socal Action

Debbie Young-Somers's picture

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The Rambam identified EIGHT Levels of Charity, or doing justice. They are:


1.     A person gives but is not happy when he/she digs into the pocket in order to give.

2.     A person gives cheerfully, but gives less than he/she should.

3.     A person gives, but only when asked by a poor person.

4.     A person gives without having to be asked, but gives directly to the poor. The poor person knows he gave the help, and the giver knows who benefited.

5.     A person gives a donation in a certain place, but walks away so that the giver does not know who received the benefit. The poor person knows the giver, however.

6.     A person makes a donation to a poor person secretly. The giver knows who benefited, but the poor person does not know who the giver was.

7.     A person contributes anonymously to the tzedakah fund which is then distributed to the poor.

8.     The highest level of charity is to give money and help to prevent another person from becoming poor. For example, teaching a person a trade, finding them a job, lending money, teaching them to fish. 


You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall not ill-treat any widow or orphan. (Exodus 22:20-23)


Justice, Justice shall you pursue, so that you will live and possess the Land that the Lord, your God, gives you. (Deut. 16:19)


And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly, and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8)


Creating a positive society

When children are approaching their bar or bat mitzvah, I often worry if they don't have a portion from the Torah which comes from Genesis or the first part of Exodus, as most of the good stories are embedded in these books. Some end up with readings about sacrifice, filled with blood and gore, or about skin diseases similar to leprosy, which is described as affecting houses as well as people. But quite often, the portions that come from the more legalistic parts of the Torah are the best, because embedded in much of what we find there are important lessons on how to create a positive society that supports all its members. That doesn't mean there weren't problems with the systems of ancient Israel (and the ancient world in general), but there is a lot that is inspiring: welcoming the stranger, taking care of the poor, the widow and the orphan, charity, business ethics and ensuring fair trials are just some of the imperatives to social action that are embedded in Torah and Jewish tradition.




Protection for the disempowered

It has been argued that the Torah legal systems are out of date and irrelevant to society today. In some cases this is just not true - it is still important to deal fairly in business, to ensure just trials, and so on. In other cases, one can extract a principle that can be applied today. So for example, some laws are given to protect a woman's rights: if she is raped, her attacker has to marry her and is never allowed to divorce her. Now, on the one hand, this seems to us to be the most horrendous thing to do to a woman: to tie her for life to a man who has violated and attacked her. But, in the ancient world, a woman who had been raped had no value to her family in terms of dowry, etc. Her status became very precarious, if it wasn't obliterated. So what Israelite society (or God, depending on your reading) tried to do was to ensure that she would be looked after and given children (i.e. status) and a home and food etc. Now this may not be our ideal of women's rights, but in principle the law was trying to protect the woman. Rabbinic Judaism attempted to continue this protection with a carefully laid-out marriage contract which guaranteed (or tried to guarantee) the bride a roof over her head, clothing, food and sexual fulfilment, all of which her husband  promised to provide for her. Today some women may object to the idea of being cared for when in reality partners provide these things for each other, and rightly they may want to make equal vows to their partners, but what is important is the idea behind these laws and customs - to protect women's rights. To me this means we must do all we can within the bounds of our society to protect women's rights. And because women were arguably some of the most disempowered figures in Rabbinic Judaism (often being counted along with the minor and the slave in terms of their religious responsibilities), we must also look to our own society to see who is disempowered and disenfranchised and how we can protect them in our society.


Jews were among many of the prominent figures of the civil rights movement in America, transforming the experience of being slaves in Egypt into positive change. Many Jews today are involved in refugee and asylum work, remembering when they were nationless and wandering. Indeed, because Jews in the UK generally stem from immigrants (whether of the last 100 years or from 350 years ago), they often feel it is important to protect the rights of immigrants, while also trying to adapt and fit comfortably in with the surrounding society. Even this can be traced back to the Torah, which teaches us to deal fairly with the stranger in our midst (see above).


Social action can frequently be seen as performing a ‘mitzvah' - a commanded good deed. For some Kabbalists this is taken even further, into the idea of Tikkun Olam - repair of the world. Every time one of these mitzvot (which may be a ritual or may be giving charity or may be visiting a person who is unwell) a part of the world is repaired. Thus Judaism makes not only ritual an important part of religious life, but also social action and improving the world, for in doing so we are partners in God's creation, helping to bring it closer to perfection. These ideas help to express the centrality of social action to Judaism today and in the past, and it remains a major focus for many communities.

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