Thursday, 14 April 2016

Do We Have to Feed Everyone Who is Hungry?

I'm seeing more beggars on the streets, sitting outside supermarkets on scraps of cardboard, waving paper cups at me as I walk by. And the situation here is nothing compared to the influx of strangers in elsewhere in Europe. We are struggling - us liberal Westerners. We are struggling to live up to the demands of our souls, the demands of every articulation of human rights. We are struggling to know how to make this situation improve. We are struggling to protect our own interests as strangers make their own calls on resources we perceived as 'ours.' And we are struggling to understand the security implications of so many arrivals from Muslim countries. That goes for the entire British community. As Jews, in addition, we are struggling to work out whether we side principally with the indigenous who can advocate for self-protection or the outsider for whom a welcome for other outsiders is a necessary part of what makes this a society in which we wish to live.

The Talmud (Gittin 61) states there is an obligation to assist the non-Jewish poor along with the Jewish poor because of 'darkei shalom - the ways of peace,' but, tantalisingly, it's very difficult to penetrate the inner meaning of this term. On the one hand darkei shalom could be a moral charge, a command to lift all humanity from the grip of suffering and poverty. On the other hand darkei shalom could be a utilitarian piece of advice, be nice to the non-Jews so they won't hate you back. If the obligation to act for the sake of darkei shalom is moral then whether we like or trust these new hungry strangers we are obligated to open our wallets and our hearts. But if the obligation is utilitarian, if this is just political advice, then we can weigh up the pros and cons of today's challenges with cool calculation.

Sifting through the great Rabbinic commentators of our tradition it's hard to understand which stance is more normative. Maimonides in Hilchot Melachim suggests two Biblical prooftexts for the obligation to take care of the non-Jewish poor for reasons of darkei shalom, 'God is good to all in God's mercy,' and 'Her ways are of gentleness and all her paths are of peace.' This seems to be a vote in favour of a universal Jewish morality. But elsewhere in his great legal code (Hilchot Avodah Zarah), we read that darkei shalom obligations only apply 'when Israel is exiled among the nations,' and when Israel has 'the upper hand over the nations' not only do these obligations not apply, but one doesn't even tolerate an idolater to walk the streets. That suggests the driving force behind the principle of darkei shalom is solely the avoidance of enmity. Elsewhere - in commenting on the obligation to stand in honour of the funeral procession of a non-Jew (another obligation imposed, in the Talmud, because of darkei shalom) it seems that Joseph Caro sides with the universalists and the Bach sides with the utilitarians. It is complex.

Ultimately, I side with the moralists, partly because of my deepest conviction that the image of God resides in all of humanity, and partly because of the deep belief that our redemption from slavery has to stand for more than our narrowest sense of self-interest. Our journey from bondage to freedom cannot be secured when others are left in darkness.

These are mighty - and eminently Seder-night-suitable - questions. They are questions about how we understand ourselves as Jews living in twenty-first century Britain. I hope their discussion can enrich your engagement with this most special part of our journey through the Jewish year. I hope you will side with me, with the moralists. And I hope that your intellectual engagement will drive a practical, and equally a financial, commitment to be involved in the bettering of the lives of today's strangers. In particular I am delighted to commend the work of World Jewish Relief supporting both impoverished Jewish communities and non-Jewish refugee communities in our name, and for the sake of darkei shalom. Please look at their web site and consider supporting their important work.
Our actions and charitable gifts won't solve the problems of the hungry, but it will allow us to utter the words, 'may all who are hungry come and eat,' with a degree of honesty and the sense of pride we should feel at the Seder night.

No comments:

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...