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Charity for the Non-Working Poor

At a recent congressional hearing about SNAP (food stamps), a biblical debate broke out. The House Subcommittee on Nutrition held a public hearing about the “future of SNAP” and allowed panelists to offer testimony. In an opening statement, a representative of a progressive Jewish organization said that the commandments to “leave the corners of our fields and the gleanings of our harvest and vineyards for the poor and the stranger” do not differentiate between someone who works and does not: “We are not to judge those who are poor, nor should we assume to know the circumstances of their lives.” In response, the chairman gently pointed to a passage in the Christian Bible to justify a work requirement. Sadly, this discussion led to accusations in the media of religious extremism.

None of that interests me. Of course, I will not discuss Christian theology. Nor will I discuss specific policies or how Jewish tradition should (or should not) be reflected in American law. Instead, I will address the quote from the Jewish progressive organization, which does not adequately reflect what Jewish tradition has to say about giving charity to those who can, but choose not to, work. We have a legal tradition that has discussed this issue.

The most famous source to discuss this is Rav Shlomo Ephraim Luntschitz, in his Keli Yakar Torah commentary (Ex. 23:5), in which he compares charity to the following law in that verse: “If you see the donkey of one who hates you lying under its burden and you would hold back from setting it free, you shall surely help him with it.”

Note that you only have to “help him” with it, i.e. only if he also participates (Bava Metzi’a 32a). Otherwise you do not have to help. So too, writes the Keli Yakar, you only have to help someone by giving him charity if he will help himself also by working. If he is physically unable to work then he is exempt from doing so. However, the non-working poor cannot demand help without exerting any effort to help themselves.

In an interview I conducted with Rav Hershel Schachter for Jewish Action magazine (Summer 2011), he said: “There is absolutely no mitzvah of tzedakah [charity] in this case. The mitzvah of tzedakah is to give to a poor person. Someone who has the ability to earn a living is not considered poor. I am not obligated to give him tzedakah just because he decided to retire at the age of twenty.”

Rav Ya’akov Kamenetsky (Emes Le-Ya’akov, Yoreh De’ah 253:1 n. 141, brought to my attention by R. Ari Enkin) writes that you may refuse to give charity in order to encourage someone to work. However, to avoid neglect and hard-heartendness, you have to verify, every time, that the individual chooses not to work and is not somehow sick and physically or mentally unable to work.

Rav Aharon Lichtenstein (“The Responsibilities of the Recipient of Charity” in Alei Etzion, vol. 16) reaches a slightly different conclusion. Rav Lichtenstein quotes the Medieval Talmudic commentator, Rav Menachem Meiri (Kiddushin 8b), who is unsure about the rule in such a case. Rav Lichtenstein reaches the following conclusion:

The aspect of charity that derives from an obligation to walk in God’s ways is unconditional and applies even to someone who will not help himself. However, the interpersonal aspect does not. Therefore, while you are still required to give charity to such a person, the obligation is contextual based on the specific circumstances and might even be set aside in preference for other opportunities to walk in God’s ways.

Note, in particular, the following statement by Rav Lichtenstein (p. 18): “There is indeed a saying that “God helps those who help themselves,” which implies that He does not help those who don’t help themselves; and whole generations of people who ignored the unfortunate, and even abused them, soothed their consciences with this idea. This, however, is not the Jewish outlook.”

According to Rav Lichtenstein, we must charitably help everyone regardless of whether they contribute to their own survival. On the other hand, context matters. For example, we can look at the reason why the person is not working. Is it because he “sneers as society and expects it to support him” or because he cannot find a job that matches his training and background? These details matter in determining whether to offer charity to someone who chooses not to support himself. Rav Lichtenstein concludes that “the effort to encourage sensitivity on the one hand and responsibility on the other… reflects Halachah’s values.”

It is a shame that Jewish advocacy groups project a limited vision of the Jewish tradition. Other groups more faithful to tradition need to clarify to the public what Judaism teaches.