Friday, April 16, 2021

Corrupt Giving, or Genuine Tzedakah?

 Can I choose which poor person receives my tzedakah?

Question:  Every once in a while a very well-meaning and generous person approaches me and wants to give money to a specific person as tzedakah (charity) through the synagogue, but with a catch.  They want to deposit the funds in a tzedakah fund of the synagogue for a specific person.  Is this permitted?  

The answer as a legal point is definitely no.  For example, you can not give funds to a school, which is a legitimate non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, for any identified person.  You can give for the poor.  You can create a fund to give to children of a particular aptitude (students with A's) or background (children of Latino heritage).  But the school needs to legitimately offer and administer scholarships openly for any and all qualifying students in those categories.  The attempt to give through an intermediary is basically money-laundering and an attempt to evade the tax codes of the United States of America.  By evading those codes, the recipient would not have to report the income and the donor would seek a tax break for the charitable gift.  It is illegal, and therefore unethical.  

If you wish to give tzedakah for a category, such as "widows, orphans and strangers," then give freely and without restrictions to a non-profit that serves those needs.

But what is the religious view of this action?  The Talmud raises an interesting case in B. Gittin 11b-12a, about the corner of the field (Peah) that needs to be left for the poor.  According to Vayikra (Leviticus) 19:9-10; 23:22),

"When you reap your land's harvest, you shall not finish off the edge of your field, not pick up the gleanings of your harvest.  And your vineyard you shall not pluck bare, nor pick up the fallen fruit of your vineyard.  For the poor and for the sojourner you shall leave them. I am the Lord your God."

The system seems clear:  You must leave a dependable portion of your productive harvest unharvested for the poor and the wanderer to come and harvest for themselves, and you must leave anything that drops on the grounds as you work for them to come and take after you have done your work.  The needy have a right to that portion of your field and work because God is your God. It must be available, and they may come to do the work necessary for themselves.  It seems very straight forward.

But what if there are no poor or wanderers near your field?  Do you leave it to rot?  And what if you know some poor or wanderers back in town that you want to help?  Can you gather this for them, and deliver it to them?  And more disturbingly, what if you don't like these poor  or wandering people, and prefer to save it for other poor or wandering people?

The question is about distributive justice - an ancient Aristotelian concept that is at the heart of the debate in our country about welfare, entitlements, and equity.  Distributive justice asserts that all members of society must have access to reasonable economic resources, education, social services, and other resources based on the ethical principles of equity and solidarity among the least privileged.  It can also be understood as the fair distribution of benefits and burdens.  

Only an unjust society, by Torah Law,  would have only some people access the benefits of society.  The Torah is quite clear that while there will always be poor people whom we are commanded to support, we also must create a system of access to the benefits of society for disadvantaged people to receive through their own labor.  

The rabbi's questions really are based on concepts like unequal access to transportation (I can't get to the field), residential segregation (the poor people don't live near the resources), corruption and bias (I prefer these poor over those poor).

Let's see how they handled it.

Raising a debate between Rabbi Eliezer and the Sages from Mishnah Pe'ah 4:9, the Gemara in B. Gittin 11b says, "One who gathered pe'ah and said, 'behold this is for this specific poor person,' R. Eliezer said he has acquired it for him but the Sages say he must give it to the first available poor person."   Rav Ameimar points out that the wealthy land owner could renounce his property, effectively becoming poor in the moment, and then be eligible to acquire the pe'ah for himself.  The Torah therefore, according to the Sages, says specifically "You shall not gather... for the poor."  By moving the comma in the underlined verse above, they read a Torah command that you may not gather for the poor.  They must do it for themselves.  Therefore you may not gather at all - and you may not choose who is to receive the fruits of your harvest.

I love the flexibility in Torah interpretation that the debate reflects.  Thousands of years later, the text clearly speaks to us.  

There are no "undeserving" poor when it comes to our religious and moral obligation to provide for society.  You may not "play favorites" among those in need.  And we must create systemic equity in people's access to the benefits of society.



Thursday, January 14, 2021

Text of January 8, 2021 Sermon on Capitol Attack

 The following is the written text of my sermon immediately following the Capitol Attack.  The video of that sermon can be found here.

Shabbat Shalom.  This morning's sermon will be delivered without interruption or questions as I wish to emphasize the singular moral authority of my voice as your rabbi speaking to the congregation in the pulpit.  I don not consider the content to be subject to debate for two reasons.  First, nothing that I say today is new.  I have spoken of these topics in major moments before even in major moments like the HHD's for the past two years.  Second, these are facts and it is precisely the questions against matters of fact that have been at the heart of the current crisis.

This morning I will speak about the events of January 6, 2021, a day of national shame, from the basic concept din d'malkhuta din hu - the concept that I have often taught and you know well that civil law has the force of Torah law.  Within this, I will have two points of focus: Law and Order and the role of antisemitic extremism.  It is not my role to give a complete picture or a political roadmap.  It is my role to speak to the morality and ethics of law.  It is my role to speak of the threat that anti-smites pose to this nation.  By choosing these topics I am limiting my voice, not twisting some political gambit.

On the High Holidays I spoke forcefully of Law and Order.  Why supporting the rule of law, and those who serve to enforce it, is a core Jewish value commanded in the Torah.  On Wednesday, the entire assembly was urged to stop the Constitutional process in the Congress.  They were urged to stop the rule of law.

We have the right of free speech, within the rule of law.  We have the right of political advocacy, within the rule of law.  We have the right to fair trail and to petition government - to make our case to the Executive and Judicial branches for the redress of perceived wrongs.  All this was done following the November election loss by Donald Trump.  And I vocally - and in writing - supported those rights.  The facts were not proven to be on his side, and the courts ruled on the law.  He lost his appeals.

When you lose an election, you have lost.  When you lose in court, you have lost.  You do not have the rule of law on your side to continue to act against the rule of the court, the rule of law.  And yes, political freedom is important, and you can protest your viewpoint freely, verbally and peacefully.

But the Constitution is the supreme law of the land.  Once the states certified their electoral slates, those electors voted.  Once they voted, the states certified their votes.  That is the end of the electoral process - by law, with the single constitutional mandate for Congress to meet and count those certifications.  They must, under force of law, do so on January 6th.  Any deliberate interference with that act is against the law.

Definition: Insurrection.  The intentional (unarmed) attempt to thwart a legitimate governmental authority from performing its duty.  

It doesn't matter if you feel or believe that the courts are wrong.  No one is above the law.  These are facts.  They are not subject to debate.

An essential point of my HHD services was the establishment of Judges and police enforcers.  Our chief enforcer is the President.  What do you do if that person breaks the law?

In Judaism we have two models to help us to form our moral and ethical viewpoint of a leader in abrogation of the law:  King Saul and King David.  King Saul broke the law, intent, paranoid and disturbed - acting against the interests of the nation and was removed from the throne.  King David broke the law, and tried to cover up his sin.  Publicly exposed, he did teshuvah, admitted his wrongs and repented.  He paid a serious consequence for his actions, and remained on the throne going on to achieve more great things before he was done. This is the view of authority in the Torah. This is also a fact, and not subject to debate.

Now, it is clear.  President Trump himself said out loud before the insurrection that he wanted the crowd to pressure congress to stop its legal ministerial duty of counting the Electoral College on January 6, 2021.  He and his lawyer, and others, repeatedly tried to influence legislators to break that law to to not count - to "send it back to the states" he said - so that he would be President again.  Insurrection does not require violence and the violence does not define the essential insurrection.  He said on January 6, that his goal was to be President again, which was contrary to the law.  His plan was to stop the electoral college count, which was against the rule of law.  On January 5th he could say anything.  On January 7th he could say anything.  But on January 6th, as chief enforcer of the Constitution, he has to bow before the rule of law and the Constitutional Authority of the day.  He did not.  All by itself, that is a betrayal of his sworn oath to uphold and protect the Constitution.

Now, as for what actually happened.  We all agree.  No democratically minded citizen can tolerate the riot and the insurrection.  We are now talking about a specific sub-set of the protestors - and that sub-set are the rioters and the insurrectionists. We know that they do not define the Trump nation of 75,000,000 people who supported the President in the last election.

My second topic is about a primary driving force among the rioters, that smaller group.  White supremicists and anti-smites, among them.  The hate of Nazis and white-supremacist bigots was all over the riot.  Flags, hats, t-shirts and more.  Their on line movements brought hundreds upon hundreds all tolled, and they have always seen the Trump banner as their greatest hope in America.  They are hateful, bigoted, violent and dangerous.  And we have long shown that they are empowered by Trump rhetoric - whether or not he intends it.  We are all responsible for the impact of our words and our tolerance of what is done in our name.  The ADL, the SPLC and more have tracked, identified these people and groups.  They are known.  They are predictable.  

The anti-semitism under Q-Anon and other conspiracy theories are inevitable ever since the first publication of the horrific lie, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.  Behind every dark fantasy of a deep state lies an antisemitic trope ready to say the Jews are in power.  The Jews are the enemy. 

Not all of the insurrectionists were anti-semites.  Some were Jews! But so stupid, so deluded, that they could even attack the Capitol arm-in-arm with antisemites who hate them.

Every person who passed a barricade and climbed the steps is a rioter.  Every person who entered the building is an insurrectionist.  Every person who planned, published and encouraged those acts is an inciter.  And we have laws for each of them.

Once again we see police attacked - one murdered - dozens hospitalized - in the name of political violence.  As I did last summer I repeat now.  Support legitimate political voices of freedom. Pursue Justice.  Condemn hate, extremism, violence and anti-semitism.  And hold all those who actively sought to thwart the constitution to account.  The law of the land is Torah law.  

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Robert L Tobin