The Torah does not just command us to give to the poor but to advocate on their behalf. We are told in Proverbs 31:9 to “speak up, judge righteously, champion the poor and the needy.” We learn that tzedakah, helping fellow human beings in need, is not simply a matter of charity but of responsibility, righteousness, and justice. As Jews, we see a moral obligation to advocate for children, the elderly, the poor, the disenfranchised, the sick, the disabled, and the “stranger among us.”
Hebrew scripture details for us one of the world’s earliest social welfare systems, teaching us to leave the corners of our fields and the gleanings of our harvest to the poor (Leviticus 19:9) and to open our hands and lend to people whatever they need (Deuteronomy 7-11). Jewish history also provides us with an example for helping the needy. During Talmudic times, much of tzedakah was done though tax-financed, community-run programs that provided to the poor, the hungry, the ill, and the children – a close parallel to the types of social service programs the Reform Movement fights to preserve in our society today.
The Torah and Jewish tradition explicitly command us to feed the hungry. The Talmud explains that each Jewish community must establish a public fund to provide food for the hungry, and our sages explain that feeding the hungry is one of our most important responsibilities on earth: “When you are asked in the world to come, ‘What was your work?’ and you answer: ‘I fed the hungry,’ you will be told: ‘This is the gate of the Lord, enter into it, you who have fed the hungry’” (Midrash to Psalm 118:17). In Isaiah 58:7, God commands us to “share [our] bread with the hungry and bring the homeless into [our] house.”
Guided by these values, Reform Jewish views lend support to a variety of anti-hunger programs in the United States, including emergency assistance programs, food banks, food stamps, and child nutrition programs.
Housing and Homelessness
The prophets exhorted us to follow a tradition of hospitality among the Jewish people. According to one midrash, Abraham is judged to be greater than Job because while the latter “opened his doors to the road” (Job 31:32), Abraham left his tent to seek guests among the passersby (Genesis 18:1-8). More recent Jewish history, with its exiles and expulsions, is a powerful reminder of our special obligation to provide for those with no protection. Reform Judaism, then, supports public policies in that will address and answer the grievous need for low-cost housing among people in low-income categories and improve the quality and availability of housing for impoverished families.
The Torah emphasizes the importance of fairness to workers. “You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer”, but you must pay him his wages on the same day, for he is needy and urgently depends on it (Deuteronomy 24:14-15).” Since the advent of labor unions, many American workers have had a voice in the terms of their own employment. Unions are models of self-sufficiency, allowing workers to stand up to demand their own rights. Unionization has brought real benefits to hard-working Americans in addition to the dignity that comes with workers negotiating as equals with their employers. As Jews, we have an obligation not only to assist the downtrodden but also to help those in need become self-sufficient (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah), a goal we can pursue by promoting unions.
We have a responsibility to reaffirm our deep Jewish commitment to the achievement of a just society in which all people can live in dignity and respect. Such a commitment leads us to support and actively advocate for employment programs, family planning, social welfare entitlements for public housing, health and legal services, and income maintenance assistance programs. In the same vein, we oppose efforts to cut funding to education, job training, food subsidies, and many other social programs that are in danger of losing some, if not all, of their funding. Though we recognize the importance of prudent fiscal reforms and welfare reform, tradition compels us to speak out to ensure that these reforms not be made at the expense of helping the most needy.