I recently had the opportunity to speak at Connecticut College on the topic of poverty and its relief in Jewish thought.  It was great fun, in part because the discussion helped me to better articulate something that has been bothering me for some time.

The issue is this: Early rabbinic texts define a poverty line, usually as an objective value of assets (which is itself an interesting measure, as opposed to income, which is how we usually calculate it).  If a person owns eligible property (there are some exclusions) of under 200 zuz, s/he is entitled to glean the leftover produce from the field and to receive some other minor forms of relief.  The Mishnah, which promotes this approach, seems quite aware that it is engaged in an academic exercise.  Who, after all, is going to certify that someone has met this standard and how?  Even if there was such a certification (as there was in some medieval Jewish communities) who would check it at the entrance to a field?  There seems to be a subtle acknowledgment of this problem in the very next passage of the Mishnah, that goes on to declare that if someone who is not entitled does glean, s/he will ultimately fall into poverty as a divine punishment.  Poor relief was to work under an honor system “enforced” by the promises of divine threat and reward (for those who do not take relief for which they are eligible).

While all early rabbinic texts are not in complete agreement about this, there is a gradual move over time from an objective definition of poverty to a subjective one.  Medieval and recent rabbinic texts declare that when determining whether someone should be considered poor for the purpose of receiving communal support, the person’s entire context should play a role.

Now – and this is the thing that has been bothering me –  in our society we have given ourselves over entirely to objective measures for the determination of poverty.  There are some rather obvious benefits to such an approach (e.g., it assures equal and just treatment and is potentially efficient) but it has a downside.  Such an approach dehumanizes the poor in two ways.  First, it quite literally considers them only as a set of numbers.  Second, though, it reinforces a system designed to relegate responsibility for our poor to the “government,” away from us.  It turns poor relief in a “commons problem” that allows it to slip between the cracks as few want ownership of it.

Jewish texts (or at least some of them) resist this move in ways that do not map easily onto our modern political approaches.  On the one hand, they assert an absolute obligation on each and every one of us to support the most vulnerable at at least a level of sustenance.  On the other, though, they recognize that such support takes the full humanity of the poor into account, something that is very difficult if not impossible for large, state-scale programs to do.

I do not think that these reflections lead to simple or easy programmatic conclusions.  Some other countries (particularly of Switzerland, which I blogged about here) embed their notion of poor relief in larger social contexts.  There has been much discussion of the role that “mediating institutions” (e.g., faith communities and NGOs) did and can once again play in our civic lives.  Liberals especially tend to downplay the role that these groups can play (when compared to the massive power of the state) but they have the potential of better humanizing poor relief.  I am entirely unsure if transferring more responsibilities of poor relief to them is for better or worse, but I have the feeling that given the current political situation that may increasingly become the reality.