Thursday, August 25, 2011

Handouts, the Poor and the Welfare State, Wrong and Right

 Cartoon by Nicholson from “The Australian” newspaper:
Reprinted with permission
Last Friday I listened to one of Australia’s most passionate advocates for Indigenous employment as well as one of its richest men issue a heartfelt plea against welfare. Andrew, “Twiggy” Forest[1], asserted that the dead hand of welfare is killing Aboriginal people, preventing them from getting jobs and leading them into a downward spiral of Alcohol abuse, disease and death. In the US and elsewhere, the Tea party are screaming for cuts in government spending which must include  welfare, with the support of some very religious people.

This week Jews read the following passage, “If there will be among you a needy person, from one of your brothers in one of your cities…you shall not harden your heart, and you shall not close your hand from your needy brother. Rather, you shall open your hand to him, and you shall lend him sufficient for his needs, which he is lacking[2]”. Does this only apply to private giving? What is right?

Three arguments against handouts
There are three main arguments made against a government administered welfare system. 1) It harms those it seeks to help. It fosters dependence, is a disincentive to work and perpetuates disadvantage and social problems. 2) Charity should be done by individuals and community. They do it better and the community solidarity factor is removed if government takes over this function. 3) A questioning of the morality of redistributing wealth from its rightful owners to others.

Danger to life and other harmful effects
“Do not stand on your brothers blood![3]”, is a prohibition against allowing people to be harmed or die a preventable death. On the one hand we are warned to be more careful with charity then all other commandments because it is possible that by withholding it is tantamount to shedding blood with the death of the poor person[4] out of starvation. On the other hand, Forest talks about his Indigenous friends who are now deceased and puts it down to Welfare. Only 25% of Aboriginal Australians will live past the age of 65[5].

The view that Welfare is part of the problem has also been expressed by some Indigenous leaders.  Already in the Talmud it states that idleness leads to madness[6]. I don’t have the expertise for certainty about the dangers that welfare poses to its variety of recipients all around the world. Still, the harm caused to poor people themselves around the world by Welfare is a serious moral issue and the evidence must be honestly confronted.

Encouraging giving but not taking
Alongside the great value placed on giving, there is a strong message against taking unless it is absolutely necessary. “Whoever does not need to take [charity] and yet takes, will not depart from this world before being actually in need of his fellow-men; but he who needs to take and does not take, will not die before he will have come in old age to support others from his own [bounty][7].

This is also seen in the teaching Make your Shabbat like a weekday and do not require [the help] of others[8]". Despite the importance of honouring the Shabbat with a beautiful meal, this requirement is less important than self sufficiency. We are taught that one should seek work even if it is to “flay carcasses in the market place (considered shameful work) and earn wages and do not say, 'I am a priest and a great man and it is beneath my dignity[9]”.

Self sufficiency and the 20 Shekel wedding
In a modern context the following harsh advice is offered to low income families. Responding to the question: If someone does not have money for a wedding, should he collect donations? Rabbi Aviner answers with an emphatic No. “Collecting donations is only legitimate for essential needs like food or medicine, a person needs to get married but he does not have to make a fancy wedding if he does not have the money to do so. I have friends who do not have a lot of money: one made a wedding in a nice outside area and brought sandwiches. The entire wedding cost 50 shekels. Another friend invited ten of us to the building of the Rabbinate which has a small hall. We drank coke, ate some cake, and the entire wedding cost 20 shekels. If a person wants to live with extras it is a personal decision, but living with extras with other people's money is unheard of[10].

To the degree that this Torah advice is followed the danger of falling into the welfare trap is somewhat diminished. (Yet, I think the ideal of self sufficiency is battling with a sense of entitlement among some people. I thank God I have not walked in their shoes and so I withhold judgement).

Structural difference between communal and state based welfare
Some have argued that Judaism strongly supports the essential elements of the welfare state[11]. An alternative argument is that community based giving in Judaism has two distinct dimensions and this two tier system addresses some of the problems associated with Welfare[12].

The communal system that collects communal funds is mainly focused on meeting basic needs such as food. "Every Jewish community is obliged to appoint charity administrators, respected and reliable individuals who will collect from each person what he is fit to contribute… and give to each poor person enough for his needs for the week.[13]"

More substantial support, it is argued, was more dependent on donor good will. This second form of support is related to the  words “sufficient for his needs, which he is lacking[14] and encourages more generous assistance that could go so far as to replace whatever he is missing from what he was used to. Eg. “if he was accustomed to riding a horse and have a slave running ahead of him when he used to be rich and then he became poor[15], one should buy a horse for him and a slave[16].

What emerges for the recipient is a very basic safety net provided by the community that is not likely to prevent anyone from seeking work. There is the possibility of having more substantial needs met but this is less certain and cannot be counted on like a welfare check. There is also the recognition that one is being supported by real people in one’s own community not the nameless, faceless government[17].  

The highest form of giving
In Australia and focusing on Aboriginal people, Mr. Forest has undertaken an ambitious project to get commitments from businesses to provide jobs for Aboriginal people and to drive a campaign to train people for these specific jobs Of course this approach fits well with a Jewish ideal as articulated by Maimonedes.

 There are eight levels of charity, one greater than the next. The highest level which has none above it is to strengthen a Jew's hand and to give him a gift or loan or to partner with him or to find him some work such that his hand is strengthened to the point where he does not need to ask other people”[18].

Job, career, ownership
It was interesting to note a progression in thinking at the forum last Friday, with Mr. Forest talking jobs, Danny Lester his Aboriginal CEO for the project talking about careers rather than jobs and making it clear he had greater ambitious for Aboriginal people than simply a job. Some in the Audience took it further and envisioned Aboriginal enterprise and business ownership. It is this third option that seems the highest expression of Maimonedes’ teaching and consistent with his statements about loans and partnership.

Whose money is it?! You communist, you!
Getting the poor into business ownership is a great ideal but that does not mean that Judaism would simply embrace capitalism and leave it to the market, dismissing all ideas of equality of outcome. The Jew is warned not to think “how can I diminish my money to give it to the poor” because the money is not his it is only given as a deposit to do the will of the depositor (God) to give it to the poor[19].  

The Jubilee concept meant that every fifty years, the Jewish people did the equivalent of turning over the monopoly game board of life and redistributed all farmland on a somewhat equal basis with all lands returning to the original owners. Loans were cancelled every seventh year. Slaves were freed after six years and sent away with generous gifts[20]. In what could be an admonition to employers in our times the Torah makes clear, “You shall not be troubled when you send him free from you, for twice as much as a hired servant, he has served you six years, and the Lord, your God, will bless you in all that you shall do[21]”.

Implications for the welfare state?
I am not a fan of the status quo and welfare dependency.  I support a fearless examination of every aspect of our response to poverty and timely courageous change based on our sincere efforts to find the truth. The reform process and review must consider the dangers of both too much welfare and of substantially abandoning welfare in favour of a Torah inspired public policy based on a divided public-private sharing of welfare responsibility and getting people on their feet ideal. There is a real danger that the private sector will not meet its obligations across the board and that poor people will not in the end get jobs and will be left in dire circumstances.

There are no easy answers. Those of us who have must do what we can to provide a hand up or a hand out depending on the situation, potential harm and the need.

[1] Disclosure: Mr. Forest has donated funds to an organisation I lead, Together For Humanity Foundation.
[2] Deuteronomy 15:7-8
[3] Leviticus 19:16
[4] Tur Shulchan Aruch 247
[6] Talmud Ketubot 59b, see Rashi
[7] Mishnah,  Pe'ah 8:9
[8] Talmud, Shabbat 118a
[9] Talmud Pesachim 113a
[10] Aviner, R, Shlomo,
[11] Tamari, Dr. M, The Challenge of Wealth, Parshas Ki Savo
[12] Meir, Rabbi Dr. A., Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem, 
[13] Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 256:1
[14] Deuteronomy 15:7-8
[15] Talmud, Ketuvot 67b
[16] Shulchan Arukh Yoreh Deah 250:1, this interpretation of the difference between the basic charity described in 256 and 250 is pur forward by Rabbi Dr. Meir, and fits the general context. I have not delved deeply into all the original sources but the Rema’s comment suggest that 250 is also talking about the communal charity distribution rather than the individual who could not be expected to take on such a difficult responsibiltiy. On the other hand the Taz quotes a wealth of sources and views, including Rosh, Rambam and Tur, some of which supports Rabbi Meir’s interpretation. 
[17] Tamari, Dr. M, ibid
[18] Maimonedes, Yad Hachazaka, Laws of Gifts of the Poor 10:7
[19] Tur Shulchan Aruch 247
[20] Deuteronomy 15:14
[21] Deuteronomy 15:18

Sunday, August 14, 2011

UK Looting: Connectedness, Circumstances, Multiculturalism, or Faith?

you will have will become (be percieved as) ancient
The chaos in various cities in the UK is firstly a tragedy for five people who lost their lives. Haroon Jahan, 21, Shazad Ali, 30 a father-to-be whose new wife Khansa is four months pregnant and Abdul Nasir, 31 killed on Dudley Road in Birmingham trying to protect their neighbourhood, Richard Bowes 68 who died from his injuries after he was beaten by rioters in London and Trevor Ellis, 26, father of four. It is also a difficult time for the wounded citizens and police officers, the traumatised and the robbed.

In Sydney today, I joined over 80,000 people in the streets for city2surf, running and walking 14 km with a great feeling of togetherness, the police preoccupied with traffic, and the chaos half a world away hard to imagine. What does it mean?

Loss of Faith
It has been argued that it is at least partly about the loss of faith. It is far more socially acceptable to mock religion and any earnest expression of old fashion values than to celebrate these. The Israelites are repeatedly warned that abandoning God will result in utter destruction[1]. Bob Carr, former premier of NSW has argued against this view, citing Dickens’ Englandwhere religious belief was universal. But human behavior was wicked”[2].

Of course, many religious people over time have chosen to perpetuate injustice, including slavery and oppression of the poor. Religious institutions are tainted by their complicity. It is also true that there are atheists who are great humanitarians. Despite this, there is merit in the advice of Maimonedes to travelers to choose a religious guide to take him through the desert because the fear of retribution from his god will act as a deterent to criminal activity.

Fear of Government
In the absense of the fear of God, we are taught to pray for the welfare of government because if not for the fear of it, each man would swallow the other man alive[3]. It was staggering to hear some of the looters explain their behaviour based on their assessments of the governments chances of catching them or that ‘the prisors are overflowing so they can’t lock us up’. In finding the balance between showing humanity to criminals and protecting the community, there is an ethical argument that “all who are merciful in the place of the cruel, in the end are made to be cruel in the place of the compassionate[4]” or that in being kind to the cruel is to be cruel to the kind.

This argument has been articulated as follows, “Let's make no bones about this. Most police officers are desperate to take a more robust approach with these lawless thugs. ..The sad reality is, officers feel unable to take a strong line with criminals as they don't feel supported by the government or certain sections of a vocal community who insist on a kid gloves approach. Lets hope that we shall finally have a political and public debate on the future of British Policing so that officers can feel emboldened rather than vilified by their Government and certain sections of the community[5]”. I am not across all the evidence and argument on this issue. I think there are reasonable restraints on some police action, some people in the community either because of color or class are harrased and there is a whole lot on this issue that I simply don’t understand. Still, in the wake of lawlessness, the discussion should also question if there are some restraints that are not appropriate.  

Circumstances and Choice
Some have called for understanding for the poor young people, one of the looters complains about his prospects for getting a job and his trip to the city with his CV and his rejection. In Tanya, it makes a powerful argument in support of considering the circumstances of offenders, to fulfil the teaching of being of lowly spirit toward every person[6].  It makes the point that “we should not sit in judgement of anyone until we are in their place[7]because their place causes them to sin”. It talks about those who sit on street corners and are exposed to temptations, but it could just as well talk about people who don’t have the great opportunities some of us enjoy with parents who read to us and gave us a strong sense of right and wrong, an educaiton and economic opportunities. How do we know if we were in that situation we would act any different?’. Still, it insists that despite circumstances,  “he has no excuse whatsoever for his sins and is called a completely wicked person for not having the fear of God before his eyes” we all have free choice and are responsible for our moral choices[8].

Multiculturalism and Muslims
Facebook has been buzzing with suggestions that blamed “those people” for the violence, with posts linking the violence to immigration. From reports I have seen the looters came from a various backgrounds. On the other hand some of those defending communities from looters were Muslim including the three men killed in Birmingham.
The argument against turning this into a racial issue has been made movingly by Tariq following the tragic death of his son “Today, we stand here to call to all the youth to remain calm, for our communities to stay united. This is not a race issue. The family has received messages of sympathy and support from all parts of the communities - from all faiths, all colours and backgrounds. The argument is also made quite provocatively and problematically in a piece titled “Immigrants love this country more than we do”[9].  While very complimentary toward 1,500 Muslim men – mostly Bengali, but also Somalis – emerging from the mosque after evening prayers that help back rioters”, there is clearly an assumption of an “us” or a we as in “more than we do”, and them in the title.  Who exactly is the “We”- white people?

One argument that resonates strongly for me is the idea of disconnection. As Farida Montaz a resident of Tottenham stated “I've heard a lot of people say “How can people destroy their own community?” But I don't think some of the people that have been, you know, doing the extreme violence feel part of the community.[10]” At leat in part, this is a failure of society to commit deeply to the idea that regardless of class, income, culture, colour or faith we are all one.

In the wording of the warning to the Israelites about moral decay it states “When you will give birth to children and grandchildren, and you will become ancient in the land”. This has been interpreted as follows. If young people, see the values and principles of their parents and grandparents and “ancient” and old hat, that is a sign that the young generation is corrupt[11].  We need connectedness to each other, to the wisdom of parents and grandparents, and to a moral code that prioritises love, discipline and community over self indulgence, being cool and questioning everything.

[1] Deuteronomy 4:25-26
[3] Pirkey Avot, Ethics of the Fathers 3:2
[4] Kohelet Raba,
[6] Pirkey Avot, Ethics of the Fathers 4:12
[7] Pirkey Avot Ethics of the Fathers 2:4
[8] Tanya Chapter 30
[11] Pardes Yosef, quoted in Greenberg, AY, (1992) Torah Gems, Y. Orenstien, Tel Aviv, Brooklyn

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Leadership by Silence and the Importance of the Follower

Silence. There was another topic I was itching to write about this week. It was a controversial issue that I feel very strongly about. I was not sure about the ethics of talking about this particular topic at this time. After, some introspection I realised that while my intentions were good, but my motives were less pure. The public benefit was not significant, but my blog would probably get lots of hits. The right course of action was silence.

Leadership is overrated. I think that standing up the front and telling people what they should be or do is often of limited use. This week I ran a ‘facilitation workshop’ for young leaders from various backgrounds. E., a young leader of South American heritage, summed it up well, “it’s about the leader sharing the power with the group”. B., an Iraqi, said leadership is not about “Showy Leadership”, it is more about quietly doing what needs to be done to help.

If a leader must speak, saying less can also be a useful tactic. Consider that Moses waits to lecture the people till the time close to his death[i].  If Moses had criticised them earlier, then every time they would see him they would be pained and ashamed[ii]. A critique that comes at the time of death is clearly not motivated by selfish agendas[iii].

As Moses reflects on the experience over forty years there are a few matters that must be addressed. These are addressed in code.
These are the words Moses spoke to all of Israel over the Jordan; in the desert, in the plains, opposite Suph, between Paran and Tophel, and White, and Hazeroth, and Enough Gold[iv].  It sounds like a bunch of geographical markers[v] but in fact all the scriptures have been searched and the places named Tofel and White have not been found[vi]. The desert refers to the sins of the desert[vii], enough Gold is a hint about the golden calf which was made because they had a lot of gold[viii].  

Here we have a leader, barely saying anything but still getting the message across. A great contrast to leaders who feel that everything needs to be spelled out and hammered into the people. In fact Moses speech impediment is understood as an asset to his leadership because this way people would not think his words were accepted because of his eloquence[ix].  

Moishe was the community macher (big wig). One day he walks past a pet shop and a parrot looks at him and says. “You are liar, you are a cheat, and you are a bully”.  Moishe laughs. The next day he walks past the shop. The parrot looks at him and says. “You are liar, you are a cheat, and you are a bully”.  He gets a bit annoyed. The third time he sees the parrot, it says, “You are liar, you are a cheat, and you are a bully”.  Moishe gets really angry, so he says to the parrot. If you ever say that again, I will close down this shop. The next day he walks past, and the parrot, looks at him, he glares at it, then the Parrot says “you know”.

In Moses’ reflection on events over the years there are three significant differences between the Torah’s original narrative of the spies and Moses retelling[x].

1)      In the original story[xi] the spies are described as “every tribe of their fathers house shall send a man, everyone a prince…heads of the children of Israel”. In Moses retelling[xii] they are simple “twelve men[xiii], one from each tribe”.
2)      In the original story we have a lengthy account of the leader-spier report while in the retelling it simply tells us “they said, good is the land which the Lord our God has given us”.  
3)      In the original story, we are barely any record of what the community did or said while in the retelling we are told “all of you approached me saying let us send men before us…” and then tells us in detail how the people responded to the spies report, “Because the Lord hated us did He bring us out of the land of Egypt to deliver us in the hands of the Amorite…”. Moses tells us how they complained in their tents, which is understood as reflecting pretending with their mouth to hold a view that was different to what was in their hearts, ie. saying one thing outside and the opposite in the privacy of their tents[xiv].

The difference between the two accounts is explained as the second one being told from a moral rather than historical perspective. The emphasis here is not on the leadership positions of the spies but on the responsibility of those who chose to follow them[xv].

My Australian Muslim friends this week got conflicting advice about when to start the month Ramadan with some starting the fast on Monday and others on Tuesday. The controversy surrounded the calendar and sightings of the moon brought to mind a great controversy about when the moon was sighted in my tradition.

Rabbi Joshua had calculated Yom Kippur to fall on a different day than Rabban Gamliel (based on arguments about moon sighting), the head of the Sanhedrin that was seated in Yavneh. Rabban Gamliel sent a message to Rabbi Joshua instructing him to show up in Yavneh with his staff and purse on the day Yom Kippur fell according to Rabbi Joshua's calculation (which is forbidden on this holy day). The other Rabbis found Rabbi Joshua very distressed, but told him to comply because whatever the Sanhedrin decides is binding for everyone. Rabban Gamliel stood and kissed Rabbi Joshua on his head and said, “come in peace my teacher and students, my teacher in wisdom and my students because you accepted my words” [xvi]. In spite of these warm words, eventually this along with other instances of asserting his leadership by humiliating Rabbi Joshua lead to Rabban Gamliel being stood down (for a time) from the leadership[xvii].  

In the spirit of this post, I will respect the ability of readers to draw their own conclusions.

[i] Rashi on Deuteronomy 1:3
[ii] Yalkut Shimoni
[iii] Davarim Nechmadim, cited in Greenberg, A. Y, (1992), Torah Gems, vol. 3, Y. Orenstien, Tel Aviv
[iv] Deuteronomy 1:1
[v] Rashbam and Ibn Ezra are inclined to take these at face value, other commentaries disagree
[vi] Rashi on Deuteronomy 1:1
[vii] Oonkelus translation
[viii] Rashi
[ix] Ran
[x] Leibowitz, Nehama, ( Studies in Devarim, Eliner Library, Department for Torah Education and Culture in the Diaspora, The Joint Authority for Jewish Zionist Education, Jerursalem
[xi] Numbers 13:1-33
[xii] Deuteronomy 1:22-28
[xiii] Ramban Suggests that their leadership status is omitted because they had become wicked so the Torah did not want to praise them
[xiv] Radak
[xv] Hoffman, quoted in Leibowitz, N. and commentary by Leibowitz
[xvi] Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 2:9
[xvii] Talmud Berakhot 27b-28a