Are We Obligated to Establish a Welfare System?

Responsa of the Week: Are We Obligated to Establish a Welfare System?

A weekly series by Dr. Meir Tamari about responsa regarding business ethics issues.

In order to demonstrate the work of the halakhic system and its moral considerations regarding a variety of issues in business and economics, I will present a number of responsa drawn from the literature. These represent questions addressed either by laymen or by rabbis or communities to rabbinical authorities and their answers. They cover a period of close to 2000 years and reflect Jewish life in all the countries of the Diaspora. Even though the answers may vary and conflict with each other so that one cannot draw behavioral conclusions from them, they demonstrate Jewish thinking and values in this field.

Even a casual perusal of Jewish sources will show that immediately from its outset, Judaism understood that it was the community-nation’s duty to provide for the social needs of the individuals in that community, in addition to its responsibility to see that it created a moral market. This obligation flows from 2 concepts, basic to the economic philosophy of Judaism: the premise that part of the wealth of individuals is given to them by the Deity, to provide inter alia for the needs of less successful members of society, and for the desired creation of a holy nation. Implementing these basic concepts meant creating a non-egotistical and socially responsible perspective entrenched in halakhah and regarding the role of wealth, economic justice, the dignity and worth of all individuals, and the moral responsibility devolving on owners of wealth. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that throughout the centuries and irrespective of which countries they inhabited, the Jews have maintained a welfare system in the most ramified modern sense. It should be borne in mind that for many centuries the Jewish communities were in effect mini-states, possessing the hallmarks of such political entities, i.e. the right of taxation and the power to impose legislation. This gives their welfare system relevance to the needs and conditions of national state and therefore it can be translated to meet those needs.

The assistance to the weak members of society is not simply an act of kindness or philanthropy devolving on the individual or on a community, but rather an obligation. This obligation to be involved in welfare programs has two distinct aspects:

(a) Those personal mitzvot that oblige the individual to leave the gifts to the poor, to provide for the sick, the aged, widows and orphans (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Matnat Anyim, chapter 2,halakhot 1-2). Rabbinical courts have the right to force the individual to do such acts just as they have the right to coerce the performance of any positive mitzvah while the community can pass economic legislation to make righteous acts obligatory (Ibid, chapter 9, halakhot 1-3; halkhah 12).

(b) Participation in those acts of welfare that are funded out of tax money. “One who gives less than he is assessed, the bet din forces him and applies corporal punishment until he pays what is his assessment. They have the right to seize his assets for the amount of his debt to the charitable funds, even on erev Shabbat” (Yoreh Deah, Section 248, subsections 1-2).

The Rama ruled that the individual was obligated to bring matters to the attention of the communal authorities as fulfillment of the obligation to provide the poor with all their needs, where his own resources were insufficient. “A Torah scholar [the role model for all Jews] may not live in a town that does not posses these ten things: … And a communal fund for charity” (Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin 17b). The obligation embraces, not only the assistance to the poor, the widow and the orphan, and the sick and aged but also the provision of communal services in the essential for the spiritual and physical well being of the community. Until the modern period, the bulk of these welfare services were funded out of the compulsory charitable funds and not by individual philanthropy. Although every individual, even the recipients of the funds, was expected to contribute as in the performance of all communal mitzvoth (for example the mikveh, Iggrot Moshe, Choshen Mishpat, section 80), nevertheless, the funds for charity were always levied according to wealth (Yoreh Deah, section 250, subsection 5, based on Teshuvat HaRashbah).

The modern terminology for such payments, wishing to escape placing the stigma of charity on the recipient, is welfare. Alternatively and more innocuously, they are termed transfer payments, hinting at a redistribution of wealth in addition to assistance. There is no element of such a purpose in Judaism, rather always the insistence on charity-tzedakah with its common root in tzedek, justice, with all its negative tones. This militates against welfare fraud that is otherwise prevalent, as the welfare, as opposed to charity, is seen as an entitlement from ‘them’, a faceless and anonymous state. There is no entitlement of the recipient, only an obligation on the giver. Furthermore, the giver does not have an obligation to make the poor rich, only to sustain them (Rambam, Hilkhot Matnat Aniyim, chapter 7, halakhah 3). There is definitely a halakhic trend towards only making minimum assistance obligatory and that only to those living below a clearly defined level (Ibid, chapter 9, halakhah13). Furthermore, “We do not force a person to sell his home or his household goods rather that be eligible for charity. However, if one has vessels of gold and silver etc, then these are to be sold and the owner to receive that much less from the funds” (Ibid, halakhah 14).

No less important are the ideological reservations to the development of a “welfare mentality,” in view of the tendency to living on welfare prevalent among recipients and even welfare fraud. There is in Judaism nothing noble in poverty. “A person should flog a carcass [considered to being degrading work], rather than depend on charity” (Talmud, Pesachim 112-113). “One who takes charity when they are not eligible, does not enjoy old age; one should not say I am a scholar, I am a Cohen, support me” (Rambam, Matnat Anyim, chapter 10, halakhot 18-19). The shame attached to receiving charity is the price paid by the poor” (Chatam Sofer).

All of these make the Jewish welfare system opposed to the philosophy of universal benefits that developed after the 2nd World War. Rather, its insistence on the religious and spiritual obligation on all to participate in ‘holy taxation’ meant that the benefits could only be given after either a means test or else taxation based on income levels. The alternative, granting benefits to the rich as well, would be legalized theft from the coerced taxpayer. “We examine [the claims of the poor] in the case of requests for clothing [and other benefits] but not in the case of the requests for food.” (Rambam, Ibid, chapter 7, halakhah 6).

This column presents general principles for approaching business ethics topics. For specific guidelines, please refer to a halachic authority.

Dr. Meir Tamari is the former chief economist of the Office of the Governor at the Bank of Israel, and the founder of the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem.