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Issues of Conscience: There Shall Be No Poor...

By Rabbi Richard G. Hirsch
Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism, Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1965

Excerpts from the Chapter entitled: Judaism in Pursuit of Economic Justice
(The full chapter can be obtained upon request from Jubilee USANetwork)

This chapter is a phenomenal analysis of the effects of poverty on poor people and on the supportive global relationships we are creating and should be attempting to maintain daily. Hirsch also discusses the important differences between "charity" and "justice" and the fact that justice work is intimately related to recognizing and supporting the divinity within each human being.

[The] two emphases - all wealth comes from G-d; human life is sacred - became the foundation stones for Jewish treatment of the less privileged members of society.

...Wealth, properly used, is a means of preserving and sanctifying life. Improperly used, it is a profanation of G-d and the being created in His image.

Unlike some religions, Judaism does not encourage the ascetic life. Poverty is not the way to piety. Scarcity does not lead to sanctity. The search for holiness is not made easier by insufficiency of basic necessities. Without the necessary material goods of life, man cannot attain the personal growth and satisfaction essential to human fulfillment. "All the days of the poor are evil." (Proverbs 10:15)

Tzedakah is not an act of condescension from one person to another who is in a lower social and economic status. Tzedakah is the fulfillment of an obligation to a fellow-being with equal status before G-d. It is an act of justice to which the recipient is entitled by right, by virtue of being human.

Throughout the Bible, the poor man is not called "poor" but "thy brother," thus establishing a relationship of equality between poor and rich. The recipient of charity is a "brother" to the donor. The poor man's needs are spiritual as well as material. Because the poor man lacks material blessings, he is likely to feel inferior. Therefore, treat him like a brother. Spare his feelings. Zealously guard his dignity. Respect from others is poverty's most helpful counterbalance. Self-respect is poverty's most effective antidote.

In the Talmudic Period...the existence of the poor was an indication of social inequity which had to be rectified by society itself.

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