Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Occupy Wall Street, Sodom, and Tzedakah in Yad Binyamin - Part 1



Like many other Orthodox communities, Yad Binyamin - the Yishuv in which I reside, often finds itself besieged by pan handlers. Whatever the cause, whatever the reason - for a wedding, a sick relative, an illness, a yeshiva, a kollel - they collect for it in Yad Binyamin. And the people of Yad Binyamin, like those of so many other communities - are generous. They gave, and continued to give. Sadly though, many of the collectors turned out to be fabricating some part of their tragic tales. A recent young Chattan, collecting for his wedding, turned out not to have actually met his kallah yet. But when he does, he'll have money for the wedding.
So, as is the custom in communities across the Diaspora, the rabbinate in Yad Binyamin formed a rabbinic committee which would issue a document to approved collectors whose credentials could be verified. The committee recommends that citizens of the yishuv donate more generously to collectors armed with a certificate, and to those without one, we should give a shekel. (Truth be told, it was not unusual to give a shekel to collectors in any case. People in Israel give far less to tzedakah collectors at the door than we did in the U.S.)
Yesterday in shul, a man made the rounds after davening collecting for his kollel in Yerucham. I had given money to the kollel previously, so I considered him reliable, and gave him five shekel. Everyone else in shul recognized him from previous rounds - he comes rather often - but due to the new protocol, no one else gave him more than a shekel. He began acting like many collectors do when they don't get what they think they should, and began muttering indignantly, under his breath, but in a manner that everyone could hear, "Imagine...you can't collect in Yad Binyamin....No one will give more than a shekel...I've never heard of a place that won't allow you to collect for tzedakah..." And then he said the magic words, that actually got people angry, "This reminds me of Sodom." Ouch.

This isn't just a local issue. The world has watched with some amusement as the Occupy Wall Street movement fizzled, as police forced them out of the streets and in from the cold. Yet, the Occupy movement came at the heels of - and perhaps in response to - a similar tent-city protest in Israel demanding social change: better access to housing, cheaper childcare, lower grocery prices, and greater parity between the poor and the wealthy. In truth, the American protesters can only dream of achieving social change that would bring them to parity with Israeli norms now . Let's set aside the political undertones of each movement, which are significant but not relevant for this discussion of the larger issue. What does Judaism have to say about balancing wealth between the rich and the poor? Where does the Torah fall on the spectrum between Capitalism and Socialism? Does God want us to accumulate for ourselves, or share equally between all? Do the Occupiers have a point? Has capitalism run so rampant as to have warped American society completely out of balance?
Judaism has a great deal to say about these issues, and they are, of course, not black and white. But the way I read them, they take us in a direction that many in America might find surprising.

To be continued...