Fiscal Cliff or the Path of the Righteous

My latest piece in the Jewish Journal
There is a lot of talk about the fiscal cliff — the self-imposed Jan. 1 deadline by which time a budget agreement must be passed and signed or there will be automatic cuts to defense and social programs of more than $1 trillion. In order to avert this self-imposed disaster, President Barack Obama has proposed to sunset the tax cuts on the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans, those earning more than $250,000, while maintaining needed tax cuts for the other 98 percent.
A fascinating story in the Talmud discusses labor relations in late antiquity. A certain rabbi by the name of Rabbah bar bar Hannah hired two porters to carry jugs of wine for him. Something happened — whether negligence or accident is not clear — and the jugs broke. Rabbah bar bar Hannah was understandably angry and grabbed their cloaks as compensation for the damage. The porters went to another rabbi named Rav to adjudicate the dispute and perhaps get them their cloaks back. Rav immediately ordered that the garments be returned.
The porters then cried out: “We have been working all day, and now we have no money and nothing to eat.” Rav ordered that Rabbah bar bar Hannah pay them their wages. Rabbah was not happy. He challenged Rav: “Are you ordering me to do these things because it is the law? Or are you doing this in your capacity as a pastor and you are urging me to hold myself to a higher standard than the law?” Rav answered: “It is the law. The ruling is grounded in a verse from Proverbs: ‘So follow the way of the good and keep to the paths of the just.’ ”
Rav, 1,500 years ago in Babylonia, laid claim to the principle that one cannot morally separate economic issues from matters of justice. A just community is a community of obligation, according to the Jewish tradition; it is a community in which residency is measured by the legal obligations that one has to support the various parts of the social safety net (funds for food, clothing, housing, etc.). The ancient rabbis recognized that the needs of the community were not going to be met by personal philanthropy. Even the biblically mandated tithing and gleaning and gifting to the poor were geographically based and therefore inefficient in reaching the largest number of needy people with the maximal resources. They therefore set it up as an obligation on the city itself, through its political mechanisms, to support the needy.
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What is at stake?: Elections, budgets, ethics

It seems that every third line in any debate or speech by any candidate or advocate of public policy is about money. About the so-called bottom line. Who can and who cannot balance a budget? Who should and who should not pay taxes and how much taxes? What can we as a State, as a Nation, as a society afford to spend money on? Defense? Education? Poverty relief? How do we make these decisions? The overwhelming talk about the bottom line has been crowding out the conversation we should be having—a conversation about values and about justice.

Its not that the economic strictures of budgets or revenues are not important. We all live in a world in which the government cannot supply services—from defense to preschool—without paying for them. However, the economic voice should be neither the first nor the loudest voice in the conversation. Continue reading

On Generosity and Justice

So what else is there to say about Mitt Romney’s tax returns? I would suggest that we could learn at least two things from them. First, on a personal level, it seems that Mitt and Ann Romney are very generous people. They donated $4.02 million in charity in 2011 (out of $13.7 million of income) and $3 million in 2010 (out of $21.7 million in income). If these figures are accurate (and there is no reason to doubt them) the Romneys donated almost 30 percent of their 2011 income to charity, and 14 percent of their income in 2010. That is a sizeable chunk of their income donated to charity.

A large percentage of that money went to the Mormon church, which supports political activities that I think are appalling, however, giving that large a percentage of one’s income to charities is still a laudable thing.

The second thing that we can learn is that this display of personal largesse and philanthropy reinforces the wisdom of the Rabbinic tradition which demands that poverty relief should be a function also of municipal institutions. Whereas Biblically mandated poverty relief is an individual affair—you give your charity to whichever poor person you desire—the Rabbis recognized that this was both inefficient and unfair. A poor person who lived in an agricultural area might find a very favorable ratio of poor people to assistance being distributed (tithes, gleanings, charity). However, if a poor person lived in an urban area they would probably find a less favorable ratio. If you are one of the thousands of poor people in an urban area attempting to scavenge gleanings at one of the few nearby farms—good luck. Continue reading

The “Jewish” Vote

Now that the election season is heating up, once again the question will be asked, what does the Jewish community want? How will they vote? What will they base their choice on? If you listen to the polls, the pundits and the politicians (and many of the putative spokespeople for the Jewish community) the answer is simple: Israel. However, the question needs to be asked: is this the right answer? What should Jews care about, as Jews?

If by being Jewish one means connecting oneself to the wisdom of the Jewish tradition one would find that Jews who put social and economic justice at the heart of their concerns are tapping a deep vein. When God informs Abraham that God is going to destroy Sodom, Abraham challenges God: “Will the judge of all the world not do justice?” Speaking of Sodom, the prophet Ezekiel understood their sin as “She and her daughters had plenty of bread and untroubled tranquility; yet she did not support the poor and the needy.” Jeremiah channels God saying: “but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight,” from which Maimonides, the great 12th century Spanish Jewish philosopher and jurist, understood that the true goal of the religious and philosophical path—beyond even knowing whatever it is that one can know about God—is to practice love and righteousness and justice in the world.  Continue reading

On the Culture of Greed

A few weeks ago, I was in a meeting discussing an upcoming ballot initiative which would eliminate the death penalty in favor of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. Everybody in the room was opposed to the death penalty. The discussion was about the strategy that should be employed to convince voters to make the proposition law. The campaign’s tactic was to argue that the death penalty was more expensive than life imprisonment without the possibility of parole (LWOP). This is, of course, true. As the LA Times reported:

[An] examination of state, federal and local expenditures for capital cases, conducted over three years by a senior federal judge and a law professor, estimated that the additional costs of capital trials, enhanced security on death row and legal representation for the condemned adds $184 million to the budget each year.

However, sitting in that room, engaging in that conversation, I suddenly got very depressed. I realized how we had all been impacted by the culture of greed that has overwhelmed our country.

I want to make clear that I think that we urgently need to stop our country’s machinery of death and to begin the hard work of justice—reforming our prisons, making victims and/or their families whole, allowing for transgressors to repent and atone (as I argue here). I think that replacing the death penalty with LWOP is a good and important step on the way to accomplishing this. I was reacting to the fact that the parameters of the debate (cheaper is better) are not ones that I agree with and are destructive to the moral fabric of our country and society. Let me explain. Continue reading

Sodom or Sukkah

Yesterday, I had the privilege and pleasure of teaching Torah on the streets of Los Angeles. Specifically on Spring Street between First and Temple, on the east side of City Hall, amongst the community of hundreds that calls itself Occupy LA. A coalition of several people with and without organizational affiliations felt the need to be present and to establish a Jewish communal presence among the growing movement of people who were frustrated by and angry at the many injustices that are plaguing this country. We sent out a call and the response was energizing. In five days we had over a hundred people who were committed to attending.

And so, on a warm, sunny Sunday afternoon, on the eighteenth day of the seventh month of the Hebrew calendar, Tishrei, I stood before the assembled crowd and laid out texts and offered Torah. Here is a fuller version of what I wanted to teach.
The Biblical story of Sodom is one of the more disturbing stories in the Torah. Two messengers of God come to Sodom to save Lot, Abraham’s nephew, from the destruction of the town, which they are to destroy themselves—or have some part in its destruction by God. What is the sin of the town that is so great that it merits the town’s obliteration? The opening of the story frames the sin of Sodom as xenophobia. Continue reading

“Occupy Wall Street” and the Path of the Righteous

After a few persistent weeks of peaceful non-violent protests, the “Occupy Wall Street folks or the “99 percenters” as they are beginning to call themselves, are appearing on the radar of the mainstream media. After a few days of lazy journalistic descriptions of the protests and protesters as disorganized and unfocussed some reporters and columnists are beginning to ask what these protesters want. One of the more interesting answers to the question was given in an interview conducted by Ezra Klein of the Washington Post with David Graeber who was one of the initial organizers of the protests. His answer was that the protesters, rather than making specific demands of the existing institutions (which created the income inequalities and precipitated the financial meltdown and yet were still in their offices controlling vast amounts of wealth) were attempting to “create a vision of the sort of society you want to have in miniature.” This raises the question: What is the society that we want? What would a just society look like? At this moment, it seems to me, there is no more important question to ask. As it happens, this is precisely the question I seek to answer in my book “Justice in the City” — and since that book is not yet out, I will attempt the short form answer here. Continue reading

Poverty and obligation

More depressing news from the home office in Washington DC. The US Census Bureau this week released its report Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2010. Despite the sexy title, the report provides some rather grim reading. Everybody who is not living in a cave (or is not the CEO of a major corporation) knows that we are in economic trouble. Household income is down by 2.3%. The number of people without health insurance is now at 49.9 million (statistically the same as in 2009). However, the most disturbing statistic is the poverty rate. According to the report, the percentage of Americans living below the poverty line last year (15.1%) was the highest percentage since 1993, and the number of Americans living in poverty in 2010 is the largest number in the 52 years for which the poverty estimates have been published. (The New York Times report is here.)

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Hunger in America

So there’s bad news, good news and more bad news.

Bad news first: a study just released by the USDA documents that 14.5% of American households had difficulty at some time during 2010 providing enough food due to a lack of resources. This means that, in the richest country in the world, in 17.2 millions households there were one or more folks who were going hungry because they couldn’t afford to buy food. Dad didn’t get dinner, Mom didn’t eat on Tuesday. That kind of thing. In 3.9 million households, there was, at times during the year, not enough money to buy food for children.

That’s the bad news. The scandalous news.

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