“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.

The just society that emerges from a reading of the classic canon of Rabbinic literature (the Mishnah, the two Talmuds, the medieval commentaries, etc.), is what I call a “community of obligation.” Residency in a city is determined by the point at which people assume the obligations of the city. This is articulated concisely in a text cited in the Talmud (bBaba Bathra 8a).

At thirty days [one is assessed for] the soup-kitchen, at three months—the welfare fund, at six months—the clothing fund, at nine—the burial fund, at twelve—the city’s infrastructure.

According to this source a person is considered a resident at different times for different obligations. At thirty days one is taxed for the soup kitchen, at six months the clothing fund, etc. An interesting thing about this assessment is the way in which it is counterintuitive to the American experience. There is no term of residency required in order to eat from the soup kitchen. In fact the discussion in the Mishnah (Pe’ah 8:7) takes the opposite tack. The question there is about what the community is obligated to provide for a poor person wandering  from town to town, who is not a resident of this town.

[The town] cannot supply a poor person wandering from place to place, less than one loaf of bread [which can last for two meals]. If he stays the night in the town, they provide him with the necessities for sleeping. If he will be staying over Shabbat, they provide him with three meals.

This is all to reinforce the point that the requirement of residency is the assumption of the obligations of the city. There is no residency requirement in order to draw on the resources of the city.

So the first point is that being part of a city entails the obligation to fulfill the needs of others in the city who are in need. This is the function of the the social welfare institutions of the government. Redistributing resources so that everybody has enough to be able to support themselves with dignity. That last part—”dignity”—is also vitally important. When faced with the situation that a person is liquid poor but asset rich, for example if they have a house but no money for food, the Mishnah says that they are eligible for food support. We do not force them to sell their house. The same is true for someone who owns even expensive household utensils but has no food. She is eligible for food from the community.

It is also not only the basics which the community must supply the needy. A poor person can draw money in order to fulfill ritual obligations (Mishnah Pesachim 10:1). In other words, a poor person has need of a spiritual life as much as anybody else.

The tradition does not envision this relief coming from voluntary charity organizations. Those have their place, and people are encouraged to give money to poor people they encounter. However, the money that is distributed is assessed and collected by the institutions of the city. It is a tax. In the community of obligation, once everybody’s basic needs to be able to exist with dignity (food, shelter, clothing, education, health care) are met, individuals are free to amass as much wealth as they wish. However, until that time, individual wealth is under lien by the community.

In a community of obligation labor is not a commodity which is bought by an employer from a worker. Rather, an employer pays a worker enough to support herself with dignity in order that she might do the work that is necessary. This is brought home powerfully, and perhaps somewhat hyperbolically in the following text from the Talmud (b Baba Metzia 83a):


There were porters who broke a barrel of wine belonging to Rabbah bar bar Hana, [while in his service].

and he took their garments [for the damage caused];

and they came and complained before Rav.

He said to [Rabbah bar bar Hana]: “Return their garments!”

The latter questioned him: Is this the law?

He answered: Yes, [as it is written]: “So follow the way of the good.” (Prov. 2:20)

[Rabbah bar bar Hana] returned their garments.

[The porters] said: “We are poor, we were working the whole day, we are hungry and have nothing [to eat].”

[Rav] said to [Rabbah]: “Pay them their wages.”

[Rabbah] asked [again]: “Is this the law?”

He answered: “Yes; as it is written: ‘And keep to the paths of the just.’  (Prov. 2:20)

Both Rav and Rabbah bar bar Hana were Sages of the first order in third century Babylonia. Rav was the founder and head of one of the two main academies (the Babylonian Harvard or Yale). So these were not any old shleppers. When the porters that Rabbah bar bar Hannah hire mess up the job that they were hired to do, he refuses them payment and demands damages from them. When, however, they seek justice in Rav’s court, Rav orders Rabbah to return their garments and also to pay their wages. They worked for a day and could not go home hungry.

This is, of course, not a straightforward story. However, the piece that is both striking and relevant is that when challenged about whether Rav was acting as a judge and deciding law, or whether, perhaps, he was acting as a pastor and suggesting a charitable solution to the crisis, Rav—twice—maintains that he is deciding law. He then backs this up by quoting the verse—twice—”So follow the way of the good, And keep to the paths of the just.” His strong statement seems to be that if righteousness and justice are not embedded in labor law, then it is not law.

In a week when it was revealed by an investigative report that Amazon.com, the global multi-billion dollar corporation, was penalizing and firing workers for not keeping productivity up in 105 and 110 degree heat, it bears repeating that if righteousness and justice are not embedded in labor relations, then they are based neither on law nor on justice.

So for now, my humble shout out to the holy community in Liberty Square, New York, hoist a sign for me which reads: So follow the way of the good, And keep to the paths of the just.


Picture credit: Simcha Goldstein

3 thoughts on ““Occupy Wall Street” and the Path of the Righteous

  1. Aryeh, Thank you for so perfectly drawing our attention to the relationship of text and creating the type of environment we dream of / and work toward. “Justice in the City” is proving to be a must read for a deeper understanding of how the Occupy Wall Street movement connects with the best of our Jewish tradition. g’mar tov, Susan

  2. Aryeh,

    This is a great article, no questions about that. But I do have questions about the actual “path” of the righteous. Why does the path always seem like it only has one direction? I agree that as individuals and a community we should strive to support one another and equalize opportunity so everyone has the chance to live in success and security. But what obligations do individuals have to take responsibility for their own lives and work in cooperation with the greater community to ensure their own individual success without completely relying on a just society?

    I’m thinking of Rambam’s ladder in which the highest degree of tzedakah is to teach someone how to support themselves. I’m all for the teaching a man to fish. But what if they are so reliant on other people giving them fish that they refuse to learn how to do it for themselves. I’m finding this a particularly difficult question right now as we all find ourselves in tough economic times.

    A recent NY Times article mentioned that giving in the last 10 years to foreign countries has dropped because people are frustrated with results from previous contributions. Take Mogadishu (sp?) for example. Has any of the aid we’ve sent over there as individuals, a Jewish community, of country, helped that much with? Lack of government security and rampant corruption has prevented a great deal of aid from getting through. Taking that into consideration one could easily say that all the dollar bills we pass out to folks on the street really don’t do anything in the long or the short run. From conversations we’ve both had we are both support direct assistance for those in need because it could provide some help. But how much proof of that do either of us have? And how much cold hard cash can we afford to give directly before our wallets are completely empty?

    You know there is a great story in Berachot (17b?) about a righteous person who gives a few dinars to a poor person on erev Rosh Hashanah. As far as I recall his wife isn’t too happy because times are already tough for them and everyone else with a drought plaguing the community. Sure, he’s rewarded with special information so he can weather the next two years with additional agricultural problems, but how does that benefit the rest of the community as well?

    At one point do we say, “at this point, in this economic climate, I have no more to give, and those in need have to find other ways to help themselves and alleviate their own poverty.” I’m not in favor of cutting entitlement programs, but at this point I don’t know that I’m in favor of programs that take more of my money than I’m capable of giving. I’ve got my own family to worry about and while I want to live in a just city, one that affords everyone the opportunity I alluded to earlier, I also have to ask, is the path of the righteous a two way street?

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