Politics, poverty and prosperity


“With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated; and those that survive commonly exhibit a vigorous state of health. We civilized men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed and the sick; we institute laws for the indigent, and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of everyone to the last moment. … No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will ever doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man.”

So Charles Darwin opined in his “The Descent of Man.” Thomas Malthus in “An Essay on the Principle of Population” disapproved of relief for the poor on the grounds that war, disease and poverty are natural antidotes to the rapid explosion of the population. Adam Smith projected an ideal laissez-faire state that would not interfere with society, leading many to oppose government assistance to the poor. 

There is a considerable history of contempt for the poor. Its echoes sound even louder these days. “There must be something wrong with people who can’t or won’t take care of themselves, who live off charity, depend upon the public dole.” I never heard anything like this in my home. Poverty, if it was a disgrace, reflected poorly upon God, not upon the hungry. It raised questions not about the character of poor men and women, but about the powerful and good God who — as we are reminded by the grace after meals — nourishes the whole world with food and sees to it that we never lack for food. “Blessed are You, Lord, who feeds everyone.” The Birkat ha-Mazon (grace) concludes with the bold assertion: “Once I was young and now I am old, yet in all my days I never saw a just person abandoned and his children begging for bread. The Lord will give His people strength. The Lord will bless His people with peace.”

Poverty is no virtue. As Mendele Mocher Sefarim put it, “It is no disgrace, but neither can you be proud of it.” Incorporated in the grace after the meal is the poignant prayer that we “not be in need of gifts from flesh and blood nor of their loans.” However benevolent the donor, it is no joy to receive alms. “Make us dependent only upon You, whose hand is open, ample, full, so that we may not be embarrassed or ashamed.” 

In my home, not poverty but wealth was something of an embarrassment, and the tradition, for all its this-worldliness, kept us at arm’s length from opulence. 

A Torah written in gold is pasul, invalid, and legend reports that when Alexander of Macedonia ordered such a Torah written, it was discovered by the rabbis and summarily buried. God’s name in gold?

A shofar covered with gold may not be used, and its sound is invalid. The sound of the broken notes from a sobbing heart out of a shofar of gold would make it lose its voice. 

The high priest on Yom Kippur must shed his vestments of gold and silver before entering the Holy of Holies. Who could appear to ask forgiveness in gold and silver apparel?

On Shavuot, the bikkurim (first fruits) could be brought into the outer court in gold baskets, but into the inner court only in baskets of straw. 

On Shabbat, money is to be neither touched nor seen. Before the Sabbath, the mitzvah is to search one’s clothes, to break off relations with “the pocket.”

At home I was taught that if a piece of bread fell from the table, it should quickly be picked up and kissed. Bread was God’s gift. I heard wondrous stories about the sacredness of a shtikel broit — “a little piece of bread.” Once, around the third meal of the Sabbath, the disciples of the Rebbe persisted in asking him to tell them where God is. He remained silent, but at last recited the Motzi and pointed to the loaf of bread on the table. God in a piece of bread? There is theology in a piece of bread. And it is important, particularly for children of entitlement living in the Garden of Gucci, to understand Ben-Zoma’s observation: “What labors did Adam have to carry out before he obtained bread to eat? He plowed, he sowed, he reaped, he bound the sheaves, he threshed and winnowed and selected the ears, he ground, then sifted the flour, kneaded and baked, and then, finally, he ate. And I get up and find all things done for me” (Berachot 58a). 

Hamotzi lechem min ha-aretz — that which brings bread out of the earth is godly. Consider the process, the givenness of earth and water and seed, as well as the human energy and ingenuity to turn sheaf into edible cake. “Which is greater, the works of man or of God?” the pagan Tinneius Rufus asked. Rabbi Akiva replied that the works of man are greater than those of God, and illustrated his contention by presenting Tinneius Rufus with sheaves of wheat and loaves of cake. The cakes are greater, not that the works of God are less worthy, but that the full measure of divinity is expressed through the interaction between God’s nature and the crown of His creation. The Motzi is not recited over sheaves of wheat and the Kiddush is not recited over clusters of grapes. The Motzi is recited over the bread, which is made through human effort, and the Kiddush is recited over the fruit of the vine, which human ingenuity cultivates. Both benedictions exemplify the power and goodness of God expressed through the works of human beings. 

Our sages knew that “a blessing does not prevail except through the work of human hands.” And it is in our hands to give bread to the hungry and to do so without ulterior motives, even for the sake of piety. Consider the Chasid who boasted to his rebbe that he had made a fellow Jew pray. A poor man had come asking for a meal, but the Chasid sought to save his soul. “First we must pray,” the Chasid insisted. They both prayed Mincha, then Ma’ ariv, and before the Chasid gave him the bread, he had him wash his hands and recite al netilat yadayim. Hearing his story, the rebbe grew sad. “You meant well, but you have not acted well. There are times when you must act as if there were no God in this world.” “No God in the world?” the Chasid wondered about this blasphemy. “Yes, no God. When a person comes to you in need, you must act as if there is no one, no God, no man, in the world except you yourself and that needy person.” “And what of his soul, his neshamah?” “Take care of your soul and his body,” the rebbe answered. 

Poverty is no blessing, but abstemiousness is no virtue. If you are blessed with wealth, you are bound to live accordingly. Once, some disciples overheard the rabbi chastising the village gevir, the wealthiest man in town, not because he was profligate with his money, but because he was stingy with himself. He would eat only black bread and drink water. The rabbi reminded him that he was a man of means and ordered him to eat fine meats and drink good wine. “Why such strange counsel?” they asked the rabbi. “Because if such a wealthy man is content to eat bread and drink water, he will be more likely to tell a poor man who comes to him, ‘If I, a man of affluence, can make do with food and drink, it is enough for you to eat rocks and sand.’ ” This wisdom the rabbi likely learned from the genius found in the book of Deuteronomy, where those who go up to Jerusalem with the second tithe are told to bestow the money “for whatsoever the soul desireth, for oxen or for wine or for strong drink, or for whatever thy soul asketh of thee.” But in the third and sixth years of the sabbatical year, instead of consuming the second tithe, let the tithe be given for the “Levite, because he has no portion nor inheritance with thee, and the stranger, and the fatherless, and the widow” (Deuteronomy 14:22 f.). He who experiences the joy of food and drink may more likely feel the anguish of those who hunger. “Ye shall eat and be sated and bless the Lord thy God” (Deuteronomy 8:10). The chronology is suggestive. On an empty stomach, blessings grumble in resentment. 

And whom are we to feed? For whom is the Passover Ha Lachma cry, “Let those who are in need come and eat; let those who are in need come and celebrate the Passover”? Why the redundancy? Rabbi Jacob Emden, the Ya’avetz, a distinguished talmudist of the 18th century, offered this explanation in his commentary on the haggadah. The first call to “all who hunger” refers to non-Jews who are ra’ ev la-lechem ve-lo ledvar ha-Shem, those who are hungry for bread and not for the word of God. The second call is for Jews who require the ritual celebration of the Passover, for whom matzah, not bread, is needed. Our obligation, Rabbi Emden declared, is toward both Jews and non-Jews. Here he cites the Talmud Gittin 61: “Our rabbis have taught: We support the poor of the heathen along with the poor of Israel, and visit the sick of the heathen along with the sick of Israel, console the bereaved of the heathen together with the bereaved of Israel, and bury the dead of the heathen together with the dead of Israel.” We do this for the sake of peace, for the sake of God. 

We begin the meal with bread, among other reasons, to remind us that we are men of flesh and blood, not angels. So it is told of Rabbi Israel Salanter that he would recite Shalom Aleichem, the hymn which greets the angels who visit us on Shabbat, after the Motzi, and not, as others practice, before the breaking of the bread. For angels do not eat or drink, but we and our family and the guests around the table are not angels. We have bodies and hungers. Eat first, and greet the angels later. 

There is much instruction in a piece of bread. 


More stories for Sukkot: 

Rubashkin Revenge: Ethical Certificates at Center of Dispute


About eight months ago, when Katsuji Tanabe agreed to display the Tav HaYosher certificate in the window of his one-year-old restaurant on Pico Boulevard, the head chef and owner of Mexikosher knew that the “ethical seal,” issued by the Modern Orthodox social justice organization Uri L’Tzedek, would inform customers that he treats his workers with respect and in accordance with California labor laws.

Tanabe didn’t know that in displaying the certificate he was also, in effect, choosing a side in a mostly covert battle between two segments of the Orthodox Jewish community.

On one side is Uri L’Tzedek, a four-year old nonprofit promoting social justice causes that has been supported by a handful of prominent Jewish foundations, including the Joshua Venture Group, Bikkurim, and the Jewish Federations of North America. On the other are an unknown number of individuals who are acting independently and largely anonymously.

At Mexikosher, the certificate hung in the window for between four and six weeks; during that time, Tanabe said he received phone calls from individuals identifying themselves as being from “different Chabads,” and threatening to boycott his restaurant if he didn’t take the certificate down.

Tanabe, who said he hadn’t changed any of his policies to earn the Tav, decided to remove it.

“I don’t talk about politics or religion in the restaurant,” said Tanabe, 31, who describes himself as “Mexican-Japanese-Catholic.” “We only talk about food.”

Although the pushback against the Tav appears to be coming primarily, if not exclusively, from individuals affiliated with the Chabad Lubavitch movement, there is no evidence that any official encouragement came from Chabad, according to the organization’s leaders and those involved in the anti-Tav efforts.

The headquarters of Chabad of California is located on Pico Boulevard, within blocks of a dozen Kosher-certified restaurants, including at least one that displays the Tav. In a recent interview, the group’s CEO, Rabbi Chaim Cunin, said he hadn’t heard of the Tav or Uri L’Tzedek until very recently, and that he knew of no coordinated effort to oppose the program.

“If there’s any such conspiracy it’s deep underground,” Cunin said.

The battle between Uri L’Tzedek and the mostly nameless Orthodox Jews threatening to boycott the 100 restaurants nationwide that participate in its signature program may be taking place in the shadows, but it illuminates a rift within American Orthodoxy stemming from the 2008 raid on the Agriprocessors kosher meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa.

Uri L’Tzedek established the Tav Hayosher in 2009 as a free certification. To qualify, employers must demonstrate that they calculate worker’s hours accurately, pay wages—including overtime – promptly and in full and grant breaks to their employees, as required by law. Studies have shown that many food-service businesses – both kosher and non—fall short of these basic legal requirements.

Over the last few months, multiple owners of kosher-certified businesses who display the Tav have been urged to take it down.

“People are threatening the 100 Tav owners around the country, saying they are going to hurt their business and boycott them,” Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, the founder and president of Uri L’Tzedek, wrote in an email to The Journal on July 9.

The hardest-hit are in Los Angeles, Yanklowitz said, where Tav-certified businesses have received more complaints than in any other city. Yanklowitz said three local restaurants chose to drop the certification in the face of this controversy. As of July 20, nine Los Angeles-based businesses were listed among the certified restaurants on the Tav’s website.

The issue appears not to be the Tav certification, per se, but rather that in 2008, Uri L’Tzedek was the instigator of a boycott of products from the Agriprocessors meat processing plant in Postville, Iowa, in the wake of the massive immigration raid that closed down the plant.

Aron Markowitz, 31, a self-described “Chabadnik” who has a book of the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s teachings on his desk in his Wilshire Boulevard office, is among those who’ve objected to the certificates. He said in an interview that he first heard about the Tav less than a month ago, and, initially, the principle behind the Tav certification sounded to him like a good idea.

Heads of young innovative Jewish organizations debrief L.A. Jews on their work


As part of their visit to Los Angeles last week, the outgoing class of Joshua Venture Fellows, all leaders of innovative Jewish organizations that are less than five years old, spent a few hours one evening talking to a group of L.A. Jews.

At an event co-presented by Jumpstart and LimmudLA, the fellows presented the work of their own organizations. Headquartered around the country, their nonprofits engage in work that ranges from the very hands-on, to the heady, to the overtly political, to the radically reductive. 

For a few hours on May 8, though, the fellows functioned as the hub of a self-contained ecosystem of Jewish innovation that popped up in a shared office space in Culver City. The approximately 80 (mostly young) Angelenos who joined the (also youngish) fellows included leaders of more established Jewish organizations, aspiring Jewish innovators, and staff members from Jewish Community Foundation and The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

It was both an opportunity for the Joshua Venture Group, the New York-based organization that funds the two-year fellowships, to present the fellows to Los Angeles and a chance for the fellows themselves to seek out partners to help advance their work.

While the crowd talked, noshed, networked and (occasionally) Tweeted, the fellows themselves made clear their awareness that they were coming up to the end of two years of both training and exposure to other Jewish resources for innovation, as well as grants from the Joshua Venture Group to each of their organizations of up to $100,000.

“We are working on replacing that funding,” said Rabbi Ari Weiss, executive director of the Modern Orthodox social justice nonprofit Uri L’Tzedek. In addition to the Joshua fellowship, Weiss and Uri L’Tzedek have been supported by other organizations, including getting funding, office space and other resources from Bikkurim over the last four years.

Weiss said the organization is stronger today than it was before those programs invested in it.

“I think we’re a much more mature organization, having been in this ecosystem, he said.

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