Rabbi Arthur Waskow
HOUSING THE POOR: JEWISH VALUES
On the general problem of establishing homes for the poor within a local community, this is an old Jewish question. The Talmud, discussing the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, defines their sin, for which the cities were destroyed, as hatred of the stranger.
Out of this understanding grows a wonderful story of the great Gaon of Vilna. He sat ex officio with voice but no vote on the council of the Jews of Vilna. His task was to comment on new legislation brought before the council, bringing a Torah viewpoint. When there was no new legislation, he left.
One day a proposed new law was brought forward. It was intended to deeply restrict the immigration of Jews without money to Vilna, so as to eliminate the community's burden of supporting indigent immigrants. When the bill was proposed, the Gaon rose to leave the council.
"But Rabbi," said a council member, "please stay! We must consult you concerning this proposed new legislation!"
"What new legislation?" said the Rabbi. "This law is very old. It was already the law of Sodom and Gomorrah!"
And he walked out.
The law was not passed.
So I would say a Jewish approach to the problem would have two elements:
1) It is correct that the poor should be able to live in the community as a whole, and this should not be prevented for a whole class of people because some are either ignorant of how to maintain an apt or uncaring to do so.
2) Part of the provision of housing must be provision of training in how to care for the housing.
This same approach is taken by successful community-development loan banks, where money is lent to enterprises (often minority-owned or woman-owned) that regular banks would reject. These grass-roots development lenders not only lend the money, but provide "technical assistance" (i.e. advice) to the borrowers. Their default rates are EXTREMELY low.
Similarly, in a project in Washington ("Jubilee Housing") where a foundation lent up-front money for purchasing run-down apartment houses, refurbishing them, and selling apartments as coops to the poor, whose "rent" was purchase money for their own apartment, the foundation grant also included training in upkeep of the building.
All of Jewish experience is that people who are treated (either with punishment or subsidy) as isolated individuals, wthout a social and communal network, will act in ways that are disconnected from and hostile to the web of life.
In fact, I would say that this is one of the foundation stones of Jewish theology -- not just sociology. Certainly as we read the 2nd paragraph of the Sh'ma, about what happens to the earth and ourselves if we cut ourselves off from YHWH, the Breath of Life, the teaching is clear: the earth becomes cut off from and daangerous to us.
From a Jewish-renewal perspective, where many of us see God mostly as the web of sacred interconnection between and within us as well as beyond us, -- as Ruach Ha'Olam, the Breath of Life, always intertwined as the breath of trees and human beings is intertwined, rather than as Melech, King -- and see "mitzvot" as actions-that-connect, rather than obedience-to-royal-commands -- we would tend to see sacred life as made up of inertwined webs and networks that include families, communities, whole cultures, the human race, and all species and forms on the earth -- the earth itself as such a network, within even broad networks of the Universe.
So the solution to problems of individualism run amok is -- community.
by Rabbi Arthur Waskow
Director, The Shalom Center.