Thou shalt work

“A man who lives from the labor of his hands is greater than the one who fears heaven.” Work is also an integral aspect of social justice, tzedakah…

(c) JVG

(c) JVG

With the upcoming elections, social justice has become a big issue in Germany. Media, politicians, and church leaders alike embed this cause in Judeo-Christian values and traditions, and time and again I am asked to explain the Jewish concept of tzedakah, a term derived from tzedek, “justice.” Although related to charity, the meaning of tzedakah is broader than the definition of charity: While the latter suggests benevolence and generosity, tzedakah implies fairness, justice, and righteousness, and it is a performance of a duty.
Jewish teaching ties the Biblical injunction “You shall keep My laws, and My rules, by the pursuit of which human beings shall live” (Lev. 18:5) to the Talmudic observation that the use of law should lead to life, not to its loss (b. San. 74a). Thus the provisions on workers and work contracts, as well as those on loans, liens, and the jubilee year (shemitta), all contain a wealth of social considerations that indicate a tendency to ensure settlements in favor of the economically weaker party when interests collide.
However, our sages did not envision a rose garden, and I must disappoint those who want to enroot their call for an unconditional basic income in some alleged Jewish traditions. In fact, the very idea of an unconditional basic income contradicts the Jewish tradition which values labor. In Genesis, it reads: “God took the man, and put him into the Garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it.” In Leviticus, we are reminded that the corners of the fields are designated for the poor, and so are grain and field crops left during the harvest. The poor, however, have to collect the gleanings themselves. As the Talmud says: “Labor is highly valuable because it brings honor to those involved in it.” [b. Ned. 49b].
Elsewhere in the Talmud it is said: “A man who lives from the labor [of his hands] is greater than the one who fears heaven.” [b. Ber 8a]. Thus, helping someone to become self-sufficient is the highest form of tzedakah. But how is this implemented in the state of Israel? Its insular ultra-orthodox minority values piety above all else while raising large families on taxpayer-funded handouts. While the men study Torah full-time, they depend on their wives’ wages, study stipends, and public assistance – and they show no intention to find employment or to establish themselves in business. Does it not worry them that they distort the concept of tzedakha?
The orthodox grip on society comes along with the denial of government aid to Reform and Conservative institutions in Israel. “This causes harm not only to equality, but also to freedom of religion and ceremony,” explains Shimon Shetreet, a former Minister of Religious Affairs in the Israeli government. “Furthermore, budgetary allocation to Reform and Conservative projects is minuscule, and it is difficult to sustain without budgets to construct houses of worship and furnish salaries for rabbis and cantors.”
Isn’t it absurd that the exclusive recognition granted to the Orthodox rabbinate in Israel on matters of religion favors a group which reverses the concept of tzedakah as the way to fairness, justice, and righteousness? In 1948, representatives of all the population sectors signed the Declaration of Independence, forming the national consensus that is considered one of the basic principles of the state. As the Torah insists, “Justice, justice shall you pursue,” we have to make sure that the Jewish state, in the 70th year since its foundation, accommodates Jews of all religious streams.■

Photo Credit: JVG

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