Thursday, September 15, 2016

We've Come a Long Way, Baby / Parshat Ki Teitzei 2016-5776

When I was young, girls were not permitted to wear pants to the public school attended—dresses, skirts, or jumpers were required. This impinged on what and how we played during recess. Personally, I loved hanging upside down from the monkey bars and flipping off them onto the ground, so I wore shorts under my skirt. My teacher told me it was impermissible to wear shorts under my skirt because shorts weren’t allowed. I pointed out that I was wearing a skirt, as required. She said yes, but when I flipped upside down on the monkey bars, one could see my shorts. I asked her if she would prefer to see my underwear, and told her to take it up with my mother. Wisely, she didn’t. More significantly, the sexist dress code of my childhood had repercussions for what girls and boys were exposed to and encouraged to do. For example: In second grade the Cub Scouts were planning a visit to a fire station where they would tour a hook-and-ladder truck and slide down the firefighters’ pole. I pleaded with our Brownie troop leader to plan the same field trip for us. She explained that this would not be possible because we wore skirts. I told her I would wear shorts under my skirt. No go. While the boys visited the fire station the following Tuesday, we girls sat in a classroom hand-sewing burlap aprons with apple-shaped pockets for our mothers. (You won’t be surprised to know that my mother never wore the one I brought home. I could hardly blame her. Would you wear a burlap apron?) What message did this deliver about what boys are capable of doing, and aspiring to do? Upshot: I quit Brownies.

In this week’s parashah, Ki Teitzei, we find a prohibition against wearing clothing that is not socially designated for one’s sex, perhaps the earliest iteration of the school dress codes of my childhood. The Torah has in mind cross-dressing.

לֹא-יִהְיֶה כְלִי-גֶבֶר עַל-אִשָּׁה, וְלֹא-יִלְבַּשׁ גֶּבֶר שִׂמְלַת אִשָּׁה:  כִּי תוֹעֲבַת יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ,       כָּל-עֹשֵׂה אֵלֶּה.

A woman must not put on man’s apparel, nor shall a man wear woman’s clothing; for whoever does this things is abhorrent to Adonai your God. (Deuteronomy 22:5)

Rashi’s (11th century, France) commentary on the verse has prevailed through time. Rashi explains that “a man’s item/utensil” means “that she should not appear like a man so she can go out among men, for this is only for the purposes of adultery.” Concerning “woman’s clothing” he writes: “So he can go and be among the women.” And concerning to’eivah, which is variously translated “abomination” or “abhorrence,” he tells us: “The Torah forbids only garments that might lead to a to’eiva (abomination).” Is Rashi saying that the purpose of the law is to restrict behavior that could lead to sexual impropriety? Or is he saying that if the purpose of dressing like the other sex is to engage in sexual impropriety, only then it is forbidden? Sefer ha-Chinukh (13th century, Spain) sides with the former interpretation: “The root of this commandment is to keep us from sexual sin… and there is no doubt that if men and women’s clothing were the same, [men and women] would mix and the earth would be filled with impropriety.” But the Shulchan Arukh permits cross-dressing on Purim, because its purpose is simchah (happiness, which is a mitzvah on the festival) and not fraud. Hence, it weighs in on the side of the latter interpretation of Rashi. Clearly, there is no universal ban on cross-dressing derived from Torah.

The effects of Deuteronomy 22:5 have been felt beyond the realm of clothing; this verse has been used to render halakhic rulings on whether and where men and women may shave the hair on their bodies or dye it. (Although you may be plotzing for the details, I don’t have room to delving into them here.) But does anyone truly believe that cross-dressing is a ploy to commit adultery?

Where once the concern was the style of clothing men and women wore as well as possibility of men appearing like women and vice versa (remember Yentl?), today concern is expressed about far more: sexual orientation and people whose gender identities don’t conform with what others believe they ought to be, with implications for marriage, the use of public accommodations, the dispensing of medical services, and much more.

Today the war in our changing understanding of the fundamentals of being human takes place in the arena of rest rooms and locker rooms. And sadly, it is a war, with far too many people firing shots and far too few listening and considering what those on the firing line are thinking, feeling, and experiencing in their lives. Rancorous debate about the use of rest rooms and locker rooms by transgender people who refuse to live secret lives of shame (thank goodness!) has vaulted to the the headlines again and again. We should be grateful for their courage to teach a stubborn society that the binary nature of our social accommodations is problematic, as are the labels “male” and “female,” slapped on at birth based on apparent anatomy, but not necessarily reflecting an individual’s identity and experience of themselves. And it is high time to recognize that the obdurate and inflexible insistence by far too many “religious” people that ancient Scriptural stories read in a limited literal manner do not accurately define humanity in the face of abundant scientific and human evidence to the contrary.

In the Jewish community, the response has been predictable. Many (but not all) in the Orthodox world doubled-down on their rejection of same-sex marriage. In the wake of President Obama’s endorsement of same-sex marriage, Agudath Israel of America declared, “We hereby state, clearly and without qualification, that the Torah forbids homosexual acts, and sanctions only the union of a man and a woman in matrimony. The Orthodox Jewish constituency represented by Agudath Israel of America, as well as countless other Jews who respect the Jewish religious tradition, remain staunch in their opposition to redefining marriage.”[1] Yet Torah does not portray marriage as “a union a man and a woman.” Abraham and two wives simultaneously; Jacob had four wives and children with each.

Although Torah imagines a gender-binary universe, Talmud is well aware of people who don’t fit neatly into binary gender categories. The Rabbis discuss אנדרוגינוס androginos (hermaphrodites), טומטום tumtum (indeterminate gender because genitalia are hidden”), אילונית eylonit (a masculine woman), and סריס saris (a feminine man). For the most part, the criteria for discerning which category a person fits into pertains to anatomy because that is what they understood—but they recognized there is more variety than simply “males” and “females.”

In the responsa literature we find questions raised by people whose gender and identity do not conform to Torah’s claim concerning the nature of humanity. What is most striking is that alternative ways of being human are acknowledged and affirmed; it is halakhic questions about marriage and divorce that are debated—and it is not always the case that the latter (marriage) impugns the former (identity). Let me explain further.

In a volume of responsa entitled Besamim Rosh, usually attributed to R. Asher b. Yehiel (Rabbeinu Asher, early 14th century, Spain), sexual identity for the purposes of halakhah is taken to be a function of genitalia, not secondary characteristics. The question posed is whether a man whose genitalia have been removed must divorce his wife in order to effect dissolution of their marriage, or whether the sexual transformation effects dissolution of the marriage automatically because a new body has appeared and is comparable to a woman’s.” No definitive conclusion is reached in the responsum concerning whether divorce is required, but the responsum holds that the transgendered person is no longer competent to contract marriage as a man. At first blush, this seems like a problematic decision, but in addition to recalling that this was written in the 14th century, let me point tout that Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg (d. 2006), referring to Besamim Rosh writes that if a person has changed in such a way so as to be unable to contract a marriage as a male, this automatically terminates any existing marriage.[2] He thereby acknowledges that the surgery affects a halakhic change in sexual identity. We might well argue (as I certainly would) that the halakhic change in sexual identity does not terminate the existing marriage, but if the couple chooses to end the marriage, that is their right. But even Rabbi Waldenberg acknowledges that a man can become a woman.

The reciprocal case is found in a responsum of R. Yosef Pelaggi (Yosef et Ehav 3:5), wherein he acknowledges that sexual reassignment surgery changes one’s sexual status. Written in the 19th century, it concerns a woman who underwent surgery to acquire the sexual characteristics of a male. Pelaggi concludes that divorce is not necessary to dissolve the marriage because the woman has become a man. Here is a portion of the responsum:

         Question: A question came if a get [divorce decree] is necessary if this should happen, namely, Reuven married a woman in the manner that Jewish women get married, and he had intercourse with her as men and women do, and after a number of years something occurred to her and she changed from a woman to a man in all ways. What is the law concerning this woman who was a woman and a married woman, and then became a man? Does Reuven have to divorce her with a get in accordance with Jewish Law since she was his wife, a married woman, or perhaps he doesn’t have to give her a get since she isn’t a married woman but a man.
         Answer: …In regard to our question it seems that a get is not necessary for he is a man now and not a woman. The get procedure is that the man gives a get to his wife and writes in the getyou my wife,” and we have no woman before us but rather a man…and he also writes in the getyou are permitted to any man” and she is not a woman who is permitted to any man...therefore in my humble opinion it seems that Reuven does not have to give a get to his wife who became a complete man.

These responsa establish a strong halakhic precedent for acknowledging that not all human beings fit into a narrow binary universe and that a sex change actually affects a change in one’s sex.

Joy Ladin, a transgender woman who teaches English at Stern College for Women of Yeshiva University, writes movingly of her own experience as a transgender person:

            Because my family wasn't religious, I didn't grow up with institutionalized voices insisting that the Torah has no room for people like me. In fact, when I started reading the Torah on my own – I was 9 or 10 – I saw God AS someone like me, someone struggling to join a human community despite lacking a body that human beings could see, love, understand. The Torah portrays the Israelites as unable to perceive, conceive or even believe in the presence of God even after decades of visible daily miracles, like manna.
                  To me, God's rage at not being perceived and frustrated longing for love seemed to reflect my own feelings as a closeted transkid. So even though the Torah said that God abhorred me for crossdressing, I clung to it, because the Torah was the only text, the only voice that spoke to my transgender fears and longings. To me, the Torah was not just a Tree of Life – it was the Tree of my Life, rooting my struggles in the three-thousand-year-old struggles of the Jewish people, leading me along its ramifying branches toward the God who, inexplicably, had created me.
            Jewish tradition holds that every Jewish soul is represented by a letter in the Torah. So when I say the Torah speaks to me as a transgender Jew, I'm expressing a radically but profoundly traditional view – because tradition insists that I too am part of the Torah, that its stories are my stories, that its paths are mine. And why shouldn't they be? Being transgender is just a particular mode of being human, and despite all the space devoted to God, the Torah is essentially about being human.[3]

Kol ha-kavod to Yeshiva University for awarding Joy Ladin tenure when she was a man, and for promoting her to full professor following her transition. I hope that the Orthodox movements arise to more enlightened direction halakhah is moving. It is time to forge ahead with compassion, not hide behind fear and insecurity. As for the liberal Jewish world, most everyone’s on board. You might be interested in the following:
    The Reform Movement’s resolution the rights of transgender and gender non-conforming people, affirming its commitment to full equality and inclusion of all gender identities and expressions, and complete protection for all people, regardless of gender identity.
    The Conservative Movement’s Rabbinical Assembly's resolution affirming rights of transgender and gender non-conforming people encourages all branches of the Conservative Movement to strive to be welcoming and inclusive, and supports the civil rights of transgender and gender non-conforming people.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

[2] Tzitz Eliezer X, no. 25, chap. 26, sec. 6.
[3] Joy Ladin, Reading Between the Angels: How Torah Speaks to Transgender Jews,” accessible at Ladin has published five books of poetry and one memoir: Through the Door of Life: A Jewish Journey Between Genders (2012).

Friday, September 9, 2016

The Problem of Prayer / Parshat Shoftim 2016-5776

A friend called this morning and described a shabbat morning service he recently attended with his family. It was three hours long; it covered many pages of dense liturgy, included long scriptural readings (in Hebrew, of course), and was punctuated by numerous speakers who droned on about matters that were meaningful only to their family members but not to the rest of the community. Although he was primed to appreciate the service as an opportunity for prayer and learning, he found himself mostly waiting for an opportunity to get up and stretch his legs. Does my friend’s experience sound familiar to you? Have you, as the expression goes, “been there and done that”?

For many of us, prayer and study in a service are a challenge on several levels. Prayer requires both an intellectual background to understand the structure of the service and the meaning of the prayers, and then enormous concentration, focus, and effort to actually engage with the service in a productive way. By nature, we are easily distracted. If we find it difficult to focus and truly pray, or truly learn from the Torah and Haftarah readings, this shouldn’t come as a surprise.

Some comfort and help comes to us from the 18th century hasidic master, Rabbi Ze’ev Wolf of Zhytomir, a disciple of Dov Baer, the Maggid of Mezeritch through his novel interpretation of a passage in this week’s parashah, Shoftim, that is not about prayer at all—it’s about war. And further insight comes from the great 20th century mind and soul of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.  Both Ze’ev Wolf and Heschel understood just how difficult real prayer is.

Let’s begin with parshat Shoftim. Toward the end of the parashah, we find a discussion of war that opens with these words:

 כִּי-תֵצֵא לַמִּלְחָמָה עַל-אֹיְבֶךָ, וְרָאִיתָ סוּס וָרֶכֶב עַם רַב מִמְּךָ--לֹא תִירָא, מֵהֶם:  כִּי-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ עִמָּךְ, הַמַּעַלְךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם. וְהָיָה, כְּקָרָבְכֶם אֶל-הַמִּלְחָמָה; וְנִגַּשׁ הַכֹּהֵן, וְדִבֶּר אֶל-הָעָם. וְאָמַר אֲלֵהֶם שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל, אַתֶּם קְרֵבִים הַיּוֹם לַמִּלְחָמָה עַל-אֹיְבֵיכֶם; אַל-יֵרַךְ לְבַבְכֶם, אַל-תִּירְאוּ וְאַל-תַּחְפְּזוּ וְאַל-תַּעַרְצוּ—מִפְּנֵיהֶם.

When you take the field against your enemies, and see horses and chariots—forces larger than yours—have no fear of them, for Adonai your God, who brought you from the land of Egypt, is with you. It shall be when you draw near to battle, that the priest shall come forward and address the troops. He shall say to them, “Hear, O Israel! You are about to join battle with your enemies. Do not let your courage falter. Do not be fear, or in panic, or in dread of them. (Deuteronomy 20:1–3)

Rabbi Ze’ev Wolf points out that the word וְהָיָה (“It shall be”) is usually a term expressing joy, but what joy could there be in war? He thereupon offers us a novel interpretation of the passage that encapsulates a keen psychological insight. With Rosh Chodesh Elul now behind us, and Rosh Hashanah only a few weeks away, our thoughts turn to two of the most difficult tasks before us: prayer and study. There will be plenty of both throughout the High Holy Days, but for many people they are difficult, confounding, confusing, impenetrable. Ze’ev Wolf understands that for many people they are so challenging that they are the enemy with whom we feel we are doing battle:

It appears that the hidden meaning here refers to study and prayer, which are the essential battles we face through life. Happy is the one who fills his quiver with them (Psalm 127:5), shooting arrows at [the wicked angel] Samael. Have sharply pointed “arrows” in your hand, arouse yourself with letters filled with love and fear. Then let your heart trust that you will come to victory and not defeat.

Most people, we see, come to the inner heart-work of prayer bearing neither words nor speech; their voice is not heard (Psalm 19:4). Only their bodies sway, like trees in the forest. The battle is heavily turned against these people; they have fear in their hearts before the enemy who dwells within. That foe, the evil urge, takes away their weapons of war, the letters, reforming them into words that support the foe, confounding their minds with vain, worldly thoughts. Indeed they have no arrows to shoot into the darkness, to triumph in chasing this hidden one from their heart. This is indeed defeat. When they turn to study and prayer, they come away empty-handed.

Does this sound familiar to you? Does this reflect your sense of things and your experience? Do you go to synagogue and find that the words of prayer and Torah don’t move you, don’t speak to you, don’t penetrate into your soul? There is an internal battle, Ze’ev Wolf affirms, raging inside us for our attention. Even when we struggle to focus on prayer and study and get something out of the service, the idiom of traditional prayer may be foreign to us and we are sometimes easily distracted from the task at hand. 

Rabbi Ze’ev Wolf goes on to say that most people are consumed by the quotidian of life: earning a living, raising a family. “They spend most of their years in pursuit of food and clothing. Service, the real reason they were created, is forgotten from their hearts.” This is why Torah employs the term וְהָיָה (“It shall be”)—when we take the field against our enemies “in the war of study and prayer,” vanquishing thoughts that distract us from seeing realizing our true purpose in life, we are headed toward a joyous victory. He suggests that the very effort is, itself, success, and that any success, however small, is a major victory—one that should bring us joy.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, in the 20th century, couched the problem of prayer somewhat differently. He noted that contemporary psychology (of the time) tended to understand prayer in terms of what it accomplishes for the one who prays. Whether or not this is an appropriate metric, using a beautiful analogy from music, Heschel asserts:

The drive toward practical consequences is not the force that inspires a person at the moment of his chanting praise to God. Even in supplication, the thought of aid or protection does not constitute the inner act of prayer. The hope of results may be the motive that leads the mind into prayer, but not the content which fills the worshipper’s consciousness in the essential moment of prayer. The artist may give a concert for the sake of promised remuneration, but in the moment when he is passionately seeking with his fingertips the vast swarm of swift and secret sounds, the consideration of subsequent reward is far from his mind. His whole being is immersed in the music. The slightest shift of attention, the emergence of any ulterior motive, would break his intense concentration, and his single-minded devotion would collapse, his control of the instrument would fail… Prayer, too, is primarily kavanah [intention, direction of the heart], the yielding of the entire being to one goal, the gather of the soul into focus. (Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, ed. Susannah Heschel. 1996: Farrar, Staus and Giroux, p. 348.)

For Heschel, a prayer service is a venue for achieving a spiritual experience—however you understand that. The prayers, themselves, are a springboard into your own consciousness. You need not understand them (or intend them) literally. The experience of prayer is key. For some, that might be inner exploration. For some, it might be meditative. For some, the beauty of the prayers and music might be transcendent. For some, being amidst community might be transporting. For some, the texts of prayer and scripture might be revelatory. 

Combining the views and insights of Ze’ev Wolf and Heschel, here’s my take: Don’t worry about achieving total focus and concentration through the service. Find meaning where you can, allow the tunes to transport you, enjoy the ruach, schmooze with people you are happy to see, and don’t forget to have a nosh before you go.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Friday, September 2, 2016

Closing the Wealth Gap Enriches Us All / Parshat Re'eh 2016-57

Labor Day Weekend is upon us—that last hurrah of the summer, a time for vacationing and partying. But too many in our country can afford neither. Their income doesn’t stretch to meet their expenses even though they work full time. Today, the average income of the top 10% of American earners is nearly nine times the income of the bottom 90%; the top 1% average nearly 40 times the income of the bottom 90%. UC-Berkeley economist, Prof. Emannuel Saez, and his Paris School of Economics collaborator, Prof. Thomas Piketty, calculated that American’s top 1% earn 23% of the total U.S. income and hold 42% of the country’s wealth.[1] The Brookings Institute, in its calculation, claimed that the same 1% earn 18% of the income and hold 33% of the country’s wealth.[2] Even using the Brookings Institute’s lower numbers, the picture of income inequality is stark.[3] And it’s growing.  The author of Proverbs warned long ago: עָשִׁיר, בְּרָשִׁים יִמְשׁוֹל; וְעֶבֶד לֹוֶה, לְאִישׁ מַלְוֶה / The rich rule the poor, and the borrower is a slave to the lender (22:7). Is that the direction our country is moving? Some would say we are already there.

In an age of rampant and growing income inequality, this week’s Torah portion provides much-needed wisdom and guidance.

The biblical institution of Shemittah (the sabbatical year, from the root meaning “drop” or “release”) reflects Torah’s abiding ethical concern for those who have fallen on hard times and into debt, and the enormous and widening gap between the haves and have-nots that can result in the course of time. Given the vagaries of weather in the Land of Israel, where agriculture is entirely dependent upon dew and rainfall, drought and famine are ever-present threats. If crops fail, farmers cannot feed their families, let alone sell surplus produce to buy other necessities. If farmers have no surplus to sell, those who earn a living selling farmers their wares cannot earn a living. At such times (as today) people would borrow money to tide them over until their situation improved. But it is often the case that one who is insolvent, rather than digging themselves out of the hole, falls further and further into debt and becomes part of an underclass living in penury. Torah, recognizing this situation as an injustice, declares that every seventh year there is to be a remission of the debts of the poor. The outstanding balance is erased, and those whose fortunes have plummeted have the opportunity to begin again.

מִקֵּץ שֶׁבַע-שָׁנִים, תַּעֲשֶׂה שְׁמִטָּה. וְזֶה, דְּבַר הַשְּׁמִטָּה--שָׁמוֹט כָּל-בַּעַל מַשֵּׁה יָדוֹ, אֲשֶׁר יַשֶּׁה בְּרֵעֵהוּ:  לֹא-יִגֹּשׂ אֶת-רֵעֵהוּ וְאֶת-אָחִיו, כִּי-קָרָא שְׁמִטָּה לַיהוָה.  אֶת-הַנָּכְרִי, תִּגֹּשׂ; וַאֲשֶׁר יִהְיֶה לְךָ אֶת-אָחִיךָ, תַּשְׁמֵט יָדֶךָ.
Every seventh year you shall practice remission of debts. This shall be the nature of the remission: every creditor shall remit the due that he claims from his fellow; he shall not dun his fellow or kinsman, for the remission proclaimed is Adonai’s. You may dun the foreigner; but you must remit whatever is due you from your kinsmen. (Deuteronomy 15:1-3)

In the ancient Near East, remission of debts was not unique to the Torah. The son of Hammurabi, King Samsu-iluna of Mesopotamia (ruled 1750-1712 B.C.E.), and King Ammitsaduka (1646-1626 B.C.E.) after him, proclaimed a misharum (“justice” or “equity”) that cancelled debts and released indentured servants.[4] Some scholars have suggested that the remission of debts often occurred when the monarch ascended to the throne; it was a political gesture to gain popularity and loyalty. In the sixth century C.E. the Athenian statesman and lawmaker Solon (c.638-c. 558 B.C.E.) similarly cancelled the debts of serfs, restored their farms, and redeemed those who had been sold into slavery.[5] It is not clear that his economic reforms were successful, but between ancient Mesopotamia and sixth century Athens, we see that the remission of debts was considered good policy in several societies.

The Torah’s goal is clear, as is the inducement it provides:

אֶפֶס, כִּי לֹא יִהְיֶה-בְּךָ אֶבְיוֹן:  כִּי-בָרֵךְ יְבָרֶכְךָ, יְהוָה, בָּאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן-לְךָ נַחֲלָה לְרִשְׁתָּהּ.  רַק אִם-שָׁמוֹעַ תִּשְׁמַע, בְּקוֹל יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, לִשְׁמֹר לַעֲשׂוֹת אֶת-כָּל-הַמִּצְוָה הַזֹּאת, אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ הַיּוֹם. כִּי-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ בֵּרַכְךָ, כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר-לָךְ; וְהַעֲבַטְתָּ גּוֹיִם רַבִּים, וְאַתָּה לֹא תַעֲבֹט, וּמָשַׁלְתָּ בְּגוֹיִם רַבִּים, וּבְךָ לֹא יִמְשֹׁלוּ.
There shall be no needy among you—since Adonai your God will bless you in the land that Adonai your God is giving you as a hereditary portion—if only you heed Adonai your God and take care to keep all this Instruction that I enjoin upon you this day. For Adonai your God will bless you as [God] has promised you: you will extend loans to many nations but require none yourself; you will dominate many nations but they will not dominate you. (Deuteronomy 15:4-6)

This statement is followed by a warning: Do not harden your heart and refuse to lend money to those in need, thinking that when the seventh year arrives, their debt to you will be cancelled. If you do, the poor will cry out to God, and God will respond.[6] The concern that people with wealth will harden their hearts to the plight of the poor is an ever-present problem throughout history.  Douglas A. Knight writes:

…[A]ncient Israel—like so many other cultures in ancient Southwest Asia and elsewhere—was characterized by an asymmetrical distribution of wealth and power, which directly determined their laws and protective provisions. Villages were typically characterized by subsistence living standards; a relative absence of goods with significant market value; a direct dependence on the vagaries of weather, pests, and other natural circumstances affecting food production; and vulnerability to the elites who hired them, lent them resources, and enslaved them when they defaulted on their loans. Those elites, on the other hand, lived at some remove from the locales where their food and other goods were produced. Some occupied rural manor houses, but most resided in the nation’s cities, sites dedicated to the well-being and security of the upper class, including royalty. There they could luxuriate in relative comfort and ease, exercising their power and influence, enjoying their acquisitions, and being served by slaves and laborers.[7]

This is hardly an ancient phenomenon. Every year, the Walmart stores in my area put out bins so that employees can donate canned goods to their co-workers, Walmart's own employees, who cannot afford a Thanksgiving dinner. Would this be necessary if Walmart[8] paid them a living wage and provided full-time work, rather than so many part-time positions that make it possible for them to avoid paying benefits? Americans for Tax Fairness estimates that the government pays out $6.2 billion (that’s billion, not million) each year in federal assistance programs to subsidize the low wages Walmart pays its employees. (And that doesn’t include the human price of suffering and indignity.) Collectively, Walmart’s owners, the Waltons, are worth just shy of $130 billion. The wealth of the Walton heirs exceeds the total wealth of the bottom 40% of the country, yet over the past 23 years they have donated just .04% of their wealth to charity.[9] Two years ago, employees delivered a huge bin of their own to heiress Alice Walton’s $25 million Park Avenue duplex. On the side it said,

Walmart Owner Alice Walton:
We don’t want charity.
We want decent pay.
Love, Walmart Workers

One employee, 20-year old La’Randa Jackson of Cincinnati, Ohio, addressed an open letter to Alice Walton, heir of the Walton family fortune, in 2014:

I’m writing to you because it hurts to see the pain in my younger brothers’ eyes when we can’t afford food to fill their stomachs. Sure, they see that I’m working hard, taking the bus an hour each way to get to work at Walmart. Even though they know that things are tight right now, that our mom is often too sick to work, they just can’t understand why last year on Thanksgiving they didn’t get turkey and gravy like other kids their age… It's not just Thanksgiving dinner that's an issue; it's dinner every night... Ms. Walton, my co-workers and I don't want your food bins. We work hard and we don't want your charity. We want you and your family to improve pay and hours for Walmart workers like me so that we can buy our own groceries. We want fair pay for the work that we do to help your family add $8.6 million a day to your $150 billion in wealth.

More than a century ago, Teddy Roosevelt addressed the danger of “a small class of enormously wealthy and economically powerful men” cultivating disproportional power and clout, to the detriment of the majority of Americans. One hundred and six years ago this week, Roosevelt warned that “ruin in its worst form is inevitable if our national life brings us nothing better than swollen fortunes for the few and the triumph in both politics and business of a  sordid and selfish materialism.”[10] Roosevelt’s prescient warning is the reality we see today, and it is threatening our freedom and our democracy. The political sphere is the province far more of big business than it is ordinary Americans. Massive inequality undermines trust, so evident today. Consider how distrustful and cynical people are concerning their elected leaders and the possibility that government could serve their needs and deliver justice. Health is taking a hit, as well, with staggering rates of of anxiety, mental illness, addiction, obesity rising.  As Yale University Nobel Laureate economist Robert Shiller summed it up in 2013, “The most important problem that we are facing now today, I think, is rising inequality in the United States and elsewhere in the world.”[11] Two months later, President Obama identified income inequality as the “defining challenge of our time.”

Many antidotes have been suggested: Raise minimum wage to a living wage; fund public higher education so that students don’t leave college with an enormous debt package; increase the state and gift tax to eliminate loopholes and evasions for the wealthy; reinstate the Glass-Steagall Act to separate commercial and investment banking; pass sensible campaign funding reform; reign in Wall Street.

Proverbs tells us:

עָשִׁיר, בְּרָשִׁים יִמְשׁוֹל; וְעֶבֶד לֹוֶה, לְאִישׁ מַלְוֶה
זוֹרֵעַ עַוְלָה, יקצור (יִקְצָר-) אָוֶן; וְשֵׁבֶט עֶבְרָתוֹ יִכְלֶה
טוֹב-עַיִן, הוּא יְבֹרָךְ:    כִּי-נָתַן מִלַּחְמוֹ לַדָּל.
The rich rule the poor, and the borrower is a slave to the lender.
He who sows injustice shall reap misfortune; his rod of wrath shall fail.
The generous person is blessed, for he gives of his bread to the poor. (Proverbs 22:7-9)

Does Torah have something to say about this situation? You bet it does.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

[2] The authors of the report are Jesse Brickner, Alice Henriques, and John Sabelhaus of the Federal Reserve, and Jacob Kimmel of the Wharton School of Business.
[3] The CIA’s World Factbook reports that 70% of the countries on the planet have a more equal distribution of income.
[4] Ammitsaduka’s Edict is translated in James B. Pritchard, ed., Ancient Near Eastern Texts, pp. 526-528.
[5] As reported by Herodotus and Plutarch, who lived much later: Herodotus lived ~150 years later and Plutarch lived seven centuries later.
[6] You may have noticed that Deuteronomy 15:2-3 stipulates that the remission of debts applies only to fellow Israelites. “Foreigners” are excluded from this benefit. Etz Hayim, uncomfortable with this apparent bias, notes that King Ammitsaduka cancelled only the debits of fellow Akkadians and Amorites in Babylon, and seeks to explain this feature of the Shemittah: “Collecting debts is a legitimate right, and forgiving debts is an extraordinary sacrifice that members of society are willing to forgo only on behalf of those who have a special family-like claim on their compassion.” (Etz Hayim Torah and Commentary, p. 1077)
[7] Douglas A. Knight, Law, Power, and Justice in Ancient Israel (2011: Westminster John Knox Press), pp. 217-218.
[9] Apparently, it’s a family tradition. Sam Walton refused to contribute to philanthropic causes, explaining that his family could not be expected to “solve every personal problem that comes to [their] attention” and that Walmart should not be in the “charity business.”
[10] Theodore Roosevelt’s New Nationalism speech of August 31, 1910.