What Draws Us to the Issue of Poverty?

Rabbi Renée Bauer
September 30, 2014
Greater Madison Poverty Summit

Thank you Rev. Anderson. It is an honor to be here today for this very important gathering. When the committee asked me to speak this afternoon the question they posed was, “what draws us to be involved with the issue of poverty.” I ask myself this a lot. What draws me as a white Jewish woman from an affluent background to work on issues of economic and worker justice?

I sometimes think it is my legacy as an American Jew to be fighting poverty. Not long ago my people were the mistreated, immigrant workers in the sweat shops. I stand here today on the shoulders of great Jewish women such as Clara Lemlich, Emma Goldman and Rose Schneiderman, who were instrumental founders and leaders of the American Labor Movement at the turn of the last century. They are part of who I am; part of my heritage as an American Jewish woman.

Yet it is not just Jewish people who are motivators of this work but the tradition itself. The text that has been speaking to me lately around these issues comes from the book of Deuteronomy chapter 15 verses 4-11. This passage articulates a powerful and important vision of economic justice and how we can pursue it. In Deuteronomy 15 Moses is giving the Israelites instructions for when they enter the Promised Land. The text says:

4 There shall be no needy among you — since God will bless you in the land that the God is giving you as a hereditary portion — 5 if only you heed God and take care to keep all this Instruction that I enjoin upon you this day.

We are being told here that if the people who are about to enter the Land of Israel obey the commandments there will be no poor among them.

However a mere 3 verses later it says,

7 If, however, there is a needy person among you, one of your kinsmen in any of your settlements in the land that your God is giving you, do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman. 8 Rather, you must open your hand and lend him sufficient for whatever he needs.

Huh? I thought there will be no needy. If Verse 4 says there will be no poor people how come in vs. 7 we are told what to do when there are needy in the land? Not only do we learn what to do if there are needy people: “Give readily and have no regrets when you do so” but a few verses later in verse 11 we are taught:

There will never cease to be needy ones in your land, which is why I command you: open your hand to the poor and needy kinsman in your land.

There will never stop being poor people in the land. We start this section by saying if we follow the commandments that there will be no needy and end by saying there will always be needy ones in the land.

The Torah otherwise known as the Hebrew Bible, is imagining a perfected world where there is no one in need and then giving us plans for the imperfect world we live in. We start with a vision statement and end with roadmap. We as contemporary religious people need both these things. We need speak to the ideal and maintain hope in a world of cynicism but we also must be realistic about the human proclivity to greediness and self-centeredness. We cannot depend on the generosity of the spirit.

This text teach us that we must advocate for a world without poverty, while creating just systems that undo, and then prevent the reoccurrence of, the gap in power and wealth between people in our communities, and at the same time we need to take care of the needs of the poor today. While providing immediate help we advocate for systemic change.

The fact that this blueprint for the work of economic justice is found in our most sacred scripture is a powerful message. It teaches us that we bring holiness into the world not only by praying and celebrating holidays but also by creating a more just and equitable society and opening our hearts to those in need.

These and other texts are powerful motivators for working against poverty. But of course there are plenty days that I feel distant from my religious texts and traditions. It is then that I have a vague sense that it was a calling from God that led me to this work. When I first thought of being a rabbi it was in the context of creating social change, and I don’t know why that is.

We cannot always articulate why we come here, why we struggle in solidarity with those who have less than us. We may just show up. That is OK too. Part of our religiosity is about living in the mystery. The mystery of why some of us were dealt an easier path than others and why some of us recognize that gift and others don’t.

So whether we fight because of where we came from, because of the wisdom our faith tradition has taught us or because of a mysterious call we are all here. And that is what matters- that we are motivated and willing to join in the holy work of creating a more just society.

Thank you.

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