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Judaism’s War on Poverty

Monday, September 1, 1997

For Centuries, the Jewish tradition of self-help has been
rescuing the poor from dependency. So why have Jewish liberals
abandoned it to embrace the welfare state?

American Jews have traditionally maintained a deep commitment to just and compassionate social policies. They rightly believe that their religious tradition obliges them to care for the disadvantaged. As social workers, social policy activists, public officials, intellectuals, and voters, Jewish liberals in particular have enthusiastically embraced public-assistance programs and welfare benefits as an appropriate expression of the principle of Tzedakah (charity) that is so central to Jewish religious tradition.

Unfortunately, many of these Jewish liberals have profoundly misunderstood the biblical concept of Tzedakah. From biblical Israel to pre-New Deal America, the principles of individual self-help and communal self-sufficiency were the essence of both the Jewish view of charity and the evolving Jewish philanthropic tradition. In recent decades, however, many liberal Jewish defenders of government social programs have mistakenly equated Tzedakah with the principles and policies of the welfare state-policies that represent the very antithesis of the historic Jewish charitable tradition.

Rather than extol increased government spending and social welfare programs, American Jews should reaffirm the traditional Jewish religious preference for charitable lending over almsgiving, and recognize that it provides an especially effective model of communal self-help that other communities throughout America might emulate. As alternatives to dependency on public assistance or government welfare, interest-free loans can provide individuals with the means to achieve self-sufficiency in small businesses of their own, to attend college or professional school, and to tide people over in times of unemployment or illness.

Biblical Charity

The word Tzedakah derives from the Hebrew root Zedek, which denotes "righteousness" and "justice." The biblical laws of Tzedakah translated these principles into concrete religious and legal duties. In the Book of Deuteronomy, God commands the Israelites "to open thy hand unto the poor and needy." For Jews, this aid is not a voluntary act of kindness-it is obligatory.

According to the Book of Leviticus, farmers in biblical Israel were obligated to leave a corner of their fields for the poor to harvest themselves, and to leave the gleanings of their own harvest-the grain or fruits that had been left or forgotten-to the poor, the widowed, and the orphaned. The Hebrew Bible also mandates a special tithe, a sort of public tax on income, that pious Jews for centuries have scrupulously set aside for the poor.

The requirements of Tzedakah were expanded in later centuries by Talmudic and medieval Jewish scholars. The Talmud, the classic compendium of Jewish religious law completed in the sixth century, preserves a multitude of rabbinic statements and maxims that emphasize the pivotal role of Tzedakah in Jewish religious and communal life. One of the best known is Rabbi Assi's dictum that charity is "the equivalent of all the other religious precepts together."


Judaism favors social policies that require
the recipients of welfare benefits or public assistance
to perform some kind of service.


By the time of the rabbinic sage Hillel, who lived in the first century, the "charity ethic" of rabbinic Judaism was so compelling that it was a "principal rule" that no pious Jew could live in a community that had no organization for public charity. This rule shaped Jewish life until the 20th century. The autonomous Jewish communities of medieval and modern Europe and the Jewish settlements of early America all expressed this religious principle of Tzedakah through synagogue-based charity and the creation of a network of independent charitable organizations.

The Jewish Principles of Self-Help

Although it has received surprisingly little scholarly attention, the principle of self-help has been one of the most influential concepts in the history of Jewish religious and political thought. The purpose of Tzedakah, the rabbis of the Talmud believed, was to help others help themselves.

Welfare for work. Traditional Jewish society never condoned its members' living continuously on welfare, in the sense either of Jewish communal public charity or of government payments, without working in return. Hence, for example, a communal regulation enacted by the Jewish Council of Padua, Italy, in 1603, stipulated that the recipients of charity would have to work. No beneficiary could evade this requirement. This edict has been cited as an important legal precedent by Jewish legal authorities over the centuries, suggesting that Judaism favors social policies that require the recipients of welfare benefits or any other public assistance to work or perform some kind of service.

The stigma of dependency. Jewish society came to regard dependency on public welfare as shameful. Talmudic laws were concerned with protecting the poor from the feeling of shame associated with dependency, emphasizing the dignity of the charity recipient. For instance, the Talmud relates that when Rabbi Yannai saw someone giving alms to a poor man in public, he reportedly said to him, "It would have been better not to give him anything at all, rather than give it in such a way that you put the poor man to shame." The need to preserve anonymity on the part of both donor and recipient of charity has always been central to Jewish religious thought.

Lending, not giving. Recognizing that charity and welfare programs might foster permanent helplessness, the rabbis of the Talmud considered the most meritorious form of dispensing charity to be the giving of an interest-free loan, which the recipient would presumably try to repay. The concept of charitable lending originated in the Hebrew Bible and was expanded upon in later years by Talmudic and medieval Jewish scholars. The books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy explicitly state that a Jew should not charge a poor Jewish person interest. A celebrated and oft-quoted Biblical verse from Exodus instructs, "If you lend money to My people, to the poor among you, do not act toward him as a creditor, exact no interest from him" (22:24). Building on this precedent, the rabbis of the Talmud frequently praised those who lend money as an alternative to almsgiving: "He who lends [money] is greater that he who performs charity and he who puts in capital to form a partnership with the poor is greater than all."

Like the rabbis of the Talmud, medieval Jewish religious authorities often advocated interest-free loans as a preventive form of charity, whereby the needy could obtain the capital required to become self-sufficient. Rashi, the preeminent 11th-century commentator on the Hebrew Bible and the Talmud, explains that there is no shame involved in the act of borrowing, and that the wealthy may be inclined to lend greater amounts than they would give away.

Over the centuries, the preference for charitable lending over almsgiving became a fundamental principle of the Jewish philanthropic tradition. Indeed, this principle found its most famous and enduring formulation in the Mishneh Torah, the seminal guide to the laws and teachings of Judaism, completed by the great 12th-century Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides. In this important work, which codifies the religious laws and traditions relating to charity developed by the Jewish people over 2,000 years, Maimonides states that the highest form of charity was the giving of a loan or a job that helps someone to help himself. Throughout Jewish history, these loans were an integral part of the economic and social structure of the organized Jewish community.

The shame of public assistance. Beginning in second-century Roman Palestine, Jewish leaders vocally opposed government-sponsored public charity and welfare programs. The scholar Alfred Kutzik has shown that Jews who availed themselves of Rome's public welfare were considered on a par with apostates, and faced communal sanctions ranging from rabbinical criticism to losing the right to testify in a Jewish court. Communal self-sufficiency remained a fundamental principle of Jewish philanthropy until the 1930s. In Jewish communities throughout the world, charitable institutions took sole responsibility for the needs of the Jewish poor, and opposed government intervention in their charity work.

The "Stuyvesant Promise"

The principle of self-sufficiency was reinforced by the original terms of Jewish settlement in America, which required Jews to "take care of their own." In September 1654, 34 years after the Mayflower had brought the Pilgrims to Plymouth Rock, 23 Jews sailed into the harbor of the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam (now New York City). In so doing, they created the first Jewish community on North American soil.

Jewish settlement in New Amsterdam did not proceed smoothly at first. In contrast to the generally benevolent disposition of the Dutch toward the Jews of Holland, Governor Peter Stuyvesant adamantly opposed a permanent Jewish presence in his colony. Stuyvesant has the distinction of having been the first recorded anti-Semite in American history: He called the Jews "hateful enemies and blasphemers of Christ" who ought not to be allowed to "further infect and trouble this new colony." Within three weeks of their arrival, Stuyvesant wrote to his employers, the directors of the Dutch West India Company, to inform them that he would soon expel all Jews from New Amsterdam.

The colony's Jews appealed over his head to the authorities in Holland, relying upon their coreligionists in the mother country to lobby on their behalf. The company directors ordered Stuyvesant to permit the Jews to remain, on the condition that the poor among them shall not become public charges, that they "shall not become a burden to the company or to the colony, but be supported by their own [Jewish] nation."

Self-Help Among American Jews

American Jews met this stipulation to always "take care of their own." For nearly 300 years, until the 1930s, successive generations of American Jews fulfilled this promise to Peter Stuyvesant by building Jewish philanthropic and self-help organizations and by consistently opposing public welfare and government intervention in their private charity work. As it happens, they were also fulfilling the ancient teachings of the Jewish philanthropic tradition. For centuries, charitable funds and institutions within the Jewish communities sustained the indigent poor, the helpless aged, the sick, the widowed, the orphaned, and the transient.

Until the 1820s, American Jewish charity was centered in the synagogues, where individual congregations dispensed aid directly to the impoverished in their midst. In early 19th-century America, however, Jewish communities began to organize secular charitable organizations, often far removed from synagogue life, to cope with the growing needs of the poor. In a new "age of benevolence," charitable and other voluntary associations, in the Jewish community as elsewhere, proliferated all over the United States. Alexis de Tocqueville famously described this phenomenon when he traveled throughout America in the 1830s. Although Tocqueville did not visit Jewish benevolent societies or interview their leaders, his observations about America's charitable associations nicely captured a powerful theme in 19th-century American Jewish communal life.

Between the 1820s and the Civil War, Jews laid the foundations for many charitable institutions that still endure, including Philadelphia's Albert Einstein Medical Center, New York City's Mount Sinai Hospital and Federation of Jewish Philanthropies, the earliest Jewish-sponsored orphanages in the country, and B'nai B'rith, a network of Jewish fraternal lodges. Beginning in the 1830s, German-Jewish immigrants to America founded a network of charitable institutions outside of the synagogue, including orphan asylums, hospitals, retirement homes, settlement houses, free-loan associations, and vocational training schools. These efforts attested to the determination of American Jews to care for the chronically sick and destitute within the Jewish community.

Throughout the 19th century, and well into the 20th, Jews steadfastly opposed any and all government assistance and intervention in Jewish charity work. "So long as we are able to educate our youth in the Hebrew, send Passover bread or coal to suffering brethren, [and] preserve our own organizations for dispensing charity to our own poor," editorialized the Occident, the country's major weekly Jewish newspaper in 1858, "we should be proud to decline contributions from any fund that belongs to the public for public purposes."


Medieval Jewish religious leaders advocated
interest-free loans, whereby the poor could obtain
the capital required to become self-sufficient.


Jewish leaders such as Jacob Schiff, an influential Wall Street investment banker and one of the country's preeminent Jewish philanthropists until his death in 1920, maintained that Jews should do their utmost to keep other Jews from becoming public charges. A Jew would rather cut off his hand, Schiff once said, than apply outside of the Jewish community for charity or public assistance. Isaac Leeser, the editor and publisher of the Occident, the spiritual leader of Philadelphia's venerable Mikveh Israel Congregation, and one of the most influential American Jewish religious and community leaders of the 19th century, regularly declared that no Jews should live in the public almshouses, orphanages, and other state-supported charitable institutions of urban America. Poverty was unfortunate, Jewish leaders believed, but public welfare, which stigmatized both the recipient and his community, was scandalous.

The Spread of Charitable Lending

The Jewish religious tradition of lending money without interest to the needy took root in America during the 18th century. Jewish religious leaders in America, as in Europe, well understood Maimonides's dictum that interest-free loans were preferable to almsgiving, preserving as they did the dignity and self-respect of the recipients while providing them with the means to achieve self-sufficiency. After the American Revolution, for example, Mikveh Israel Congregation in Philadelphia distributed loans ranging from 10 to 20 pounds to help newcomers open businesses or to protect them from creditors in the difficult economic circumstances of the day. Haym Solomon, the well-known Jewish patriot, had extended interest-free loans during the American Revolution to both Jews and non-Jews, including Robert Morris and James Madison. In the decades that followed, Jews often cited his example to illustrate the centrality of charitable lending to the evolving American Jewish philanthropic tradition.

With the arrival of hundreds of thousands of East European Jewish immigrants in the late 19th century, Jewish communities throughout the United States established Hebrew free-loan societies. "Our aim is deeper than charity, better than asylums or almshouses, of more comfort than hospitals," stated the president of the Hebrew Free Loan Society of New York in 1921. "We provide the needy with the means to provide for and help themselves." Over a 30-year period, the New York Hebrew Free Loan Society, the largest of the many Jewish charitable lending societies, lent a total of $15 million to 400,000 borrowers.

Despite the passing of the East European immigrant era of the 1880s to the 1920s, Hebrew free-loan societies have continued to exist and even flourish. In order to survive in contemporary America, the societies have designed innovative programs to provide Jewish institutions, homebuyers, and college students with interest-free loans. Indeed, the Hebrew free-loan concept is today making a comeback in Jewish charitable circles. In part this is due to the recent immigration of Russian Jews, who, like their own immigrant ancestors, need help in establishing themselves. Today, 42 Hebrew free-loan societies throughout the United States continue to provide economic assistance to the needy without the stigma of handouts.

The Jewish Philanthropists

The self-help principle also found characteristic expression in the charitable giving of Jacob Schiff, Felix Warburg, Isidor and Nathan Strauss, Julius Rosenwald, and other preeminent Jewish philanthropists of late 19th- and early 20th-century America. Of these leading German-Jewish philanthropists of this era, Rosenwald was perhaps the most prominent and influential.

Rosenwald was the cofounder and chairman of the board of Sears, Roebuck and Co., which under his direction became the largest mail-order firm in the world. The legacy of Rosenwald's philanthropies, which would amount to more than $63 million during his lifetime (more than $750 million in today's dollars), would be felt for generations. Rosenwald's extraordinary philanthropic support for black education, as well as for a variety of specifically Jewish charitable causes, was predicated on the Jewish principle of self-help.

Rosenwald's greatest and most enduring philanthropic contribution was the building of public schools for blacks in parts of the rural South. Firmly convinced that charity would not ameliorate black poverty, but that vocational training and higher education could, Rosenwald passionately supported his friend Booker T. Washington's philosophy of self-help for blacks. At Washington's suggestion, Rosenwald decided to finance the building of schools for blacks throughout the South, where white authorities had refused to provide them with school facilities.

Rosenwald financed the program on a "matching" basis: He offered black communities a specific sum for the construction of a small schoolhouse if its local patrons would match it in money, materials, or labor. He insisted on this arrangement "so that Blacks would not think of the program as charity but would participate intimately in funding their own education." By asking black communities and the beneficiaries themselves to contribute, Rosenwald stimulated local philanthropy and investment. Compassion and almsgiving alone, cautioned Rosenwald, would not ameliorate poverty as effectively as strategies of communal self-help.

After a few years, Rosenwald was sufficiently pleased with the progress of his Southern School Building Program, as it came to be called, that in 1916 he agreed to pay one-third of the cost of all additional schools for black children. Between 1917 and his death in 1932, he was responsible for the construction of 5,357 public schools serving 663,615 black children throughout the rural South. By 1932, more than half the black population of the rural South owed their education to Rosenwald schools.

Rosenwald's advocacy of self-help for both Jews and blacks went hand in hand with a profound distrust of the liberal policies and programs of the welfare state. As a staunch Republican, he felt they fostered dependency upon government. Prior to the New Deal, the suggestion that their poor might look to government for public assistance, or that Jewish charities might actively seek to become beneficiaries of government aid would have been virtually unthinkable among Jewish leadership circles. Yet Jewish community leaders and social-work executives began to advocate precisely such ideas during the 1930s and 1940s, provoking an unprecedented and emotional debate about the community's obligation to care for its own members.

Self-Sufficiency Undermined

The Great Depression and the New Deal presented the first serious challenge to the principle of communal self-sufficiency. One prominent Jewish social-work executive characterized 1933 as the year that "the Jewish community in the United States, for the first time in its history, has been forced to transfer to the state primary responsibility for relief to its dependents."

Most Jewish leaders, lay and professional, supported this radical shift, arguing for the necessity of Jewish acceptance of public relief and pointing with pride to the national role that Jews were playing as "architects of the welfare state." Isaac Max Rubinow, one of the most prominent Jewish social-work executives of the era and an architect of the New Deal Social Security Program, encouraged his colleagues to abandon the tradition of Jewish self-sufficiency as a parochial and antiquated relic. Other Jewish social-work leaders argued that American Jews had a "distinct obligation" to support the New Deal's ever-expanding welfare programs and relief efforts; as one said at the time, "The recognition that unemployment relief is a job for the Government and [for] Washington, rather than for private Jewish charity, is a major step forward."

Beginning in the 1930s, the secular liberal ideals of the Jewish social-work profession had a profound influence on Jewish philanthropic life. Although some leaders at this time expressed concern about public relief undermining private Jewish philanthropy, a growing number of Jewish social workers and community leaders repudiated the Stuyvesant Promise and championed active Jewish participation in the emerging welfare state. By the mid-1970s, Jewish charities had become dependent upon government funds, with government funding accounting for as much as 66 percent of the budgets of several major Jewish charitable institutions.

The continuing liberal Jewish embrace of the principles and policies of the welfare state represents a radical and profound departure from centuries of Jewish tradition, and a repudiation of the enduring religious and communal principles upon which this tradition had for so long been based.