The Jewish Ethicist – Homeless

The Jewish Ethicist – Homeless

from: by: Rabbi Dr. Asher Meir, Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem

Q. I have a relative who has trouble finding work and supporting his family. He is now homeless, and I am thinking of taking in him and his family. But I am worried that the help he gets from family members is making the situation worse by preventing him from taking responsibility.

A. Your concern is well-placed. Striving for financial independence (independence, not opulence!) is a central value in Jewish tradition. The Talmud tells us, “One who supports himself from his own efforts is greater than one who fears Heaven.” (1) Values in Jewish tradition are expressed not only in philosophical pronouncements, but also in practical requirements of Jewish law, and self-sufficiency is no exception. Its importance is expressed in a number of specific laws. For example, Maimonides writes that the highest level of charity is to help someone become independent, for example by hiring them, making a business partnership, etc. (2) It is also an authoritative ruling that a person should preferably engage even in an undignified trade rather than depend on public support. “Even if he was a great scholar and became impoverished, he should engage in a trade, even an undignified one, rather than becoming dependent on others.” (3)

Yet we must not take this consideration to extremes. While the rabbis are concerned that giving charity could lead to dependence, they were even more concerned that excessive concern with dependence would deter people from giving charity when it is really needed. As we wrote in a previous column

The Talmud goes to the extreme of saying, “Let us be grateful to the fakers, for without them we would sin every day.” (4) The punishment for failing to help a genuinely poor person is very great, yet people commonly fall short in this obligation. “Fortunately”, we have a certain defense; we can always point out that some charity seekers are fakers, and that we didn’t give more so that we wouldn’t encourage the frauds. The message seems to be that we shouldn’t allow a few charlatans to discourage us from helping someone who seems truly needy.

In most cases the best course of action is not to withhold aid altogether, but rather to make it conditional on eliminating the pattern of dependency. For example, you could agree to take in your relative but require him to pay a small amount of rent which would require him to work, yet would be within his means even if he can find only a low-paying, part-time job. You can also make your offer limited in time, explaining that after a few months you will need the space or to raise the rent to a market rate. Above all, whether or not you take your relative in, you should invest some effort trying to find him a job. The Talmud tells us, “A prisoner is unable to free himself from prison”. (5)

Judaism educates us to value financial independence, but we don’t harbor any illusions that any human being is truly “independent”. Even the richest and most capable person has a constant need for the help of others. A needy person may be in need of charity, such as money or a place to live; perhaps the person is in even greater need of someone to accompany him on the sometimes frightening journey to being self-supporting. The Torah commands us to give to the needy person “according to what he lacks”. (Deuteronomy 15:8.) Your relative’s need may be for supportive but insistent guidance in finding gainful employment and gaining control of his budget.

It’s clear your relative is in great need, and you should certainly strive to help him manage. The prophet Isaiah (58:7) tells us, “Don’t hide from your own flesh” — our charity obligation is greatest to our relatives. If you are worried that taking him in will be in itself counterproductive, then by all means find some complementary or alternative way of helping him. But it is seldom true that the best way of encouraging independence is to ignore a person entirely; generally, it means giving supportive guidance without an addictive handout.

SOURCES: (1) Babylonian Talmud Berakhot 8a. (2) Maimonides’ Code Gifts to the Poor 10:7. (3) Shulchan Arukh Yoreh Deah 255 (4) Babylonian Talmud Ketubot 68a. (5) Balylonian Talmud Berakhot 5b

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