A Jewish View of the World

A Jewish View of the World


Eugen Schoenfeld
Eugen Schoenfeld

For almost two millennia, on Simchat Torah, we read the last chapter of the Torah, zoth habrachah, and immediately we roll back the Torah scroll to Genesis and we again start reading anew the creation story.

Of course the stories and the teachings are the same and hence every year we are confronted again with the story of the first human tragedy: the fratricide of Cain killing his brother.

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Why did Cain kill his brother Able?

Because he was jealous and covetous of Abel’s relationship with God – at least this is how the story goes. I propose that Cain, like so many people today, lack moral perspective that is necessary to forego violence and submit oneself to the rule of law.

Cain is the evil son; he is the epitome of the un-socialized primitive non-moral, selfish human whose only concern was and is to maximize his self interests.

Cain represents to me the selfish individualist who seeks to shed any responsibility towards others, who lacks the understanding that survival of the individual and society is dependent on our moral interrelationship.

Humans are not destined to be loners.

We cannot exist as sole entities without interdependence with others. And yes, because of our need for interdependence we are responsible for each other. This fact of mutual responsibility, the need for each other is a theme that is central in the teaching of our moralist prophets.

Do you, dear reader, remember how we Jews define the wicked person?

Just look at the Hagadah, the book we read on Passover eve in which our departure from Egypt is depicted. And, yes, it also depicts the bitterness of slavery and the joys of freedom.

Freedom, however, at least in the Jewish perspective, is not a state in which individuals live for themselves alone, uncaring for others. Unlike so many other cultures that emphasize the glory of the rugged individual, Judaism rejects individualism as a moral virtue.

To the contrary, Judaism does not foster the idea that freedom and independence is the result of being from the need of others.

A free society is not the result of being ungoverned. It’s an erroneous assumption that a large government or greater control placed on individuals is by itself a reduction of personal freedom.

The assumption of making us concerned with the common good and the common welfare takes away the individual’s rights. Jewish values, unlike in other cultures and beliefs, do not glorify laissez-faire ideals that the maximization of self interests is the way to a good society.

We do not depict the world as a battlefield, “bellum omnia contra omnes”,  in which individuals are constantly engaged in battle with everyone else.

We do not advocate an ideal of rugged individualism of a state in which each individual is responsible only for and to himself alone. We do not define freedom as the state wherein we are free from others and their troubles.

From its onset the Jewish prophetic and post-prophetic values proposed that it is the collectivity’s duty to be responsibility for the welfare of others. Unfortunately, in the United States, there are still many people whose ideal is the individual famer who seeks nothing from others except his right of being alone; and if his neighbor is in need he will, because of his commitment to Christian charity, provide some help not as the other’s right to it but because the giver is a charitable person.

This view is not only an anachronism but it supports and fosters interpersonal alienation. The lone cowboy is an ideal of the past.

To the contrary, freedom can only exist when people relate with each other and when out of such a relationship, we create a covenant with each other and assume the responsibility for each other’s well being.

The sages in the Hagadah anticipate the condition that makes freedom possible in a state of modernity. The wicked person (or the son) is depicted in the Hagadah as one who removes himself from, and is alienated from, the collective; he is the person who disengages himself from the collective, who rejects interpersonal responsibility and thus sows the seeds from which in maturity brings nothing but human tragedy.

Interrelated Parts

In contrast the good son learns the following two dicta:

“All Jews are friends to each other”, moreover that “all Jews are responsible for each other.”

This is the foundation of the Jewish social philosophy. Our sages saw society as a system of interrelated parts in which each, hence the whole, can only exist when each part performs its proper function.

Society, our sages tell us, can be depicted as a hand. If so, then if one finger hurts doesn’t the whole hand suffer? Today we must expand this  into a universal moral precept that the world is one interrelated functioning unit, hence all people and nations should be responsible for each other’s welfare.

Life, especially the good life, cannot exist unless we adhere to the principle that social life must incorporate not only the principles of individual rights but it must be counterbalanced by our duties to others.

The owner of a factory cannot produce without laborers, hence the good and productive factory, for instance, is a productive unit in which the owners, managers and workers are intrinsically interrelated.

The well being of one is bound to the well being of the other; otherwise it leads to strife and hostility and to the demise of the factory. This is the principle taught by Hillel: If I am not for myself who is for me?”

“But if I am only for myself what am I?”

The answer is if one is only for himself only he sows the seeds of jealousy, strife, covetousness and discontent – the qualities that are the roots for an evil society.

The righteous person, we are taught, is one who recognizes and assumes the view that all people have a right to life. In Jewish moral philosophy this is the foundation, the infrastructure principle on which a just society is built.

This is why Judaism encourages us to give charity not merely as an act of individual love and personal empathy for the other individual. Such charity is necessary and is commendable and in Judaism is referred to as “gemilath Hssadim”, namely as charity that is given as a response to pity and feeling sorry for the other.

But, as I see it, the primary form of help in the good society is not charity but the act of tzedakah.” The word tzedakah denotes the doing of justice that stresses the principle that all people have a G-d given right to life and that it is the collectivities duty to allocate to all individuals the needs necessary to have a chance to life.

Examples of tzedakah are the biblical laws of “peah” and “leket”. The law of peah specifies that the owner of a field must leave the corners of his field unharvested; they must be set aside for the poor.

Moreover, the owner of the field cannot dictate which poor may or may not come to the field to harvest. Similarly, one may not rake his field; the fallen stalks of wheat must be left for the poor who follow the gleaners. I think of these acts of tzedakah as ancient Hebrew social security.

Maimonides, the great philosopher, theologian and physician, proposes that help should be institutionalized and declared as just rights; that in this manner the needy person maintain his anonymity, namely, that the giver doesn’t know the receiver and the receiver in complement doesn’t know who the giver is.

In this manner the receiver of help can maintain his dignity and need not be ashamed, especially when confronted by the giver. Research has shown that during the great depression in the 1930s many people chose to suffer the difficulties of poverty rather than shame themselves by taking charity.

Importance of Anonymity

This brings me to the idea of the fundamental need for anonymity when help is given. Help should never be treated as charity, as something that is given out of pity.

Help should be treated as a person’s right to receive help because he is a member of the collectivity. Just as each person has a right for being defended by the collectivity, the same should hold true with economic and medical help; otherwise we shame the recipient.

Keeping one’s dignity is an important Jewish tenet and shaming a person even when we theoretically wish to help the other is a violation of that dignity or, as the ancient Hebrews called it, “to whiten ones face in public.” And people who whiten other people’s face lose salvation and their portion in the world to come.

Let me hasten to state that the rights of the poor in the Jewish view must be balanced with his duties to the collective.

Even when help is given, the receiver is subject to the principle of “torchoh”; that is, he must help himself, not merely wait for help to be given. No poor person should be handed the grain, he or she must come and harvest it for themselves or stoop down to collect the strands of the wheat that are on the ground.

It is their job to winnow and to grind. Judaism strongly subscribes to the equation of rights and duties. One must even earn the right to be helped.

Help should also include access to wellness.

We should strongly be concerned that all people in our society should have access to life-giving medicine and medical skills when facing all forms of illnesses. We should be governed by the dicta of equality, namely that all people, poor and rich alike, be given a chance to live.

This Jewish perspective stands in stark contrast to the ideals of selfishness and injustice – the perverted ideals that were the cultural roots of Sodom and Gomorrah, the two cities which to Jews are the epitome of the evil society.

Although Judaism does not deny that the rich can morally have a certain degree of advantages when we deal with the scarce resources – such as medical care. However, Judaism denies the moral ethos that prevents the poor – who are always within our gates – be discarded as superfluous population and withhold medical care as means of population control.

This was central to the Nazi philosophy.

Even in ancient Israel some of the priests (kohanim) served as physicians ministering medical aid to the community and, in turn, the priests were compensated by the community. Both physical and mental health should be not only a communal, but a national concern.

It is through the well being of all individuals that we can achieve national well-being. There are some forms of medical care being dispensed to the needy, but it’s given grudgingly and much shame has very often been associated with such care.

Human beings, especially those who depend on help, should be treated with dignity – the one commodity that often such help is lacking. We must eliminate the shameful concept and treatment of being a “shnorer.” As I see it, Judaism seeks to elevate human beings into a higher level of becoming humane beings.

Since the presidency of Ronald Reagan, our ideals of workers dignity have regressed two centuries to hold views that existed in the beginning of industrialization. They are views associated with the era of the “robber barons.”

Instead of robber barons like Rockefeller, Astor and Carnegie, we now have the robber CEO’s who have reduced their workers life chances by making them part-time workers sans adequate income for food,  shelter and, especially medical care.

It seems to me that the workers of this nation are confronted again with the possible need to replay the old union battles of the 1930s, the battles that sought to define worker’s rights for social justice.

Workers today, especially those in the low-income occupations (and these are becoming the norm), are being stripped of dignity, income and a future. Management has lost their moral views, their belief in the principles of social injustices are lauding the 18th century principles of laissez-faire.

As a humane person and as a Jew, a survivor of many indignities, I am committed to the essentiality of believing in the moral principle of “tsar baal chai”, not to cause pain to living beings.

Although this principle was given to guard from causing pain to animals, how much more so should it also apply to human beings. Given the fact that workers today keep on losing  many of the benefits they once enjoyed, such as the right to decent wages and medical care, I suggest that once again we must do as our grandfathers did and raise the battle cry: Let justice prevail.


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