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.

The Rabbis’ solution was the establishment of a minimum amount of food and other resources that the city had to give to every poor person who passed through its precincts (Mishnah Pe’ah 8:7). This also meant that the cities had to assess residents to contribute to the soup kitchen and the community chest to insure that enough resources were on hand to support the poor (Bavli Baba Bathra 8a-b). The Rabbis of Late Antiquity, therefore, constructed a system of taxes in order to be able to support the poor of their cities—or poor folks who happened to be travelling through their cities. This system was developed and refined over the years.

The personal philanthropy approach to poverty relief succeeds only in supporting poor people who happen to live next door to the Romneys (or the institutions that distribute their funds). By definition, the super-rich of the Romney variety, do not live next door to many of the people who need their largesse. In a recently published video recording of a speech he made at a fund raiser, Romney dismissed Americans who needed support from the government as those who believed they were “victims” and that “the government has a responsibility to take care of them” and that they believe that they are entitled to things like health care and food, etc. Finally, Romney said that these 47% of the American people will never learn to take responsibility for themselves.

The Rabbinic tradition teaches the exact opposite. The government does have an obligation to make sure people have enough food and clothing and health care and other basics. Romney’s remarks point up the fact that the obligation of society to support those who work hard but cannot feed themselves or their families, or live in situations where they cannot work to support themselves, will never be fulfilled by relying only on the generosities of the mega-rich such as the Romneys. The reason is twofold. First is the “I  built it” syndrome, or in the language of Torah (Deuteronomy 8): “Take care lest you forget the LORD your God … lest, when you have eaten and are full and have built good houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks multiply and your silver and gold is multiplied …, and you forget the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, …who fed you in the wilderness with manna that your fathers did not know, that he might humble you and test you, to do you good in the end. Beware lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.’” Present wealth tends to obscure the memory of what it actually took to get there.

The second reason that we cannot rely on individual benefaction is that even with the most generous of benefactors large numbers of people will fall through the cracks by dint of geography or circumstance. The government has the reach and the bureaucracy (for good and ill) to distribute money to where it is needed. The redistribution of resources to create a more fair and just society is the raison d’etre of government.

And so we enter into this Yom Kippur, acknowledging that there are very wealthy people who are very generous. However, justice need not and cannot depend on generosity, the redistribution of resources by the government is the only guarantor of an economically just society.


I wish everybody a happy and sweet new year of peace and justice, and to those who are fasting an easy and meaningful fast.


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