September 1, 2008
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Aryeh Cohen

At the most intense moment of the Jewish liturgical year — Yom Kippur/the Day of Atonement — the tradition dictates that the portion we read from the Prophets, the haftorah, is one that challenges the very practice embodied in that holy fast day. The reader chants the words of Isaiah, as Isaiah channels the fury of God: “Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for a man to humble himself?…Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter…!”

Feeding the hungry and providing shelter for the homeless (together with clothing the naked) are established as the prerequisites of righteousness. It is impossible for an individual to make a claim on piety without first having passed this threshold. This sentiment was translated from the language of the prophetic harangue to the day-to-day language of law — both directly (Maimonides’ statement in his code of Jewish law: “Any fast day on which the people ate and rested and did not distribute charity to the poor, behold they are akin to murderers.” Mishneh Torah: Laws of Fast Days: Chapter 9:4 ) and indirectly as the sentiment behind the social welfare legislation in the Jewish legal system.

Isaiah’s righteous rage for personal piety was also translated into the idiom of communal obligation. The city is defined in rabbinic law as a community of obligation. Becoming a resident of a city — becoming a “citizen” — is defined by assuming the obligations of the city. These are varied: “At 30 days [one is assessed for] the soup-kitchen, at three months — the welfare fund, at six months — the clothing fund, at nine — the burial fund, at twelve — the city’s infrastructure.” (Babylonian Talmud Baba Bathra 8a)

Defining the city as a community of obligation means that the needs of the poor are seen on an equal footing with legal privileges, such as private property. For example, the Talmud, in discussing the obligations stated above, says that once the money is collected, it can be put toward any of those obligations as long as the   “needs of the poor” are addressed; the 12th-century Spanish Sage, Meir haLevi Abulafia wrote, the poor have a claim on that money. While discretion may be exercised in deciding whether the soup kitchen or general welfare fund should get the money, that discretion does not extend to using the money for other communal purposes (building a synagogue or study hall, e.g.) since the money is owed to the poor.

In another case the Mishnah (Baba Metzia 8:6) does not allow a person to evict a tenant if the eviction will result in the tenant being “thrown in the street.” (Maimonides Mishneh Torah Laws of Hiring 6:7)

The Mishnah (Pe’ah 8:8) teaches that “[If a person is poor and needy] we do not obligate him to sell his house and his utensils [so that he be eligible to receive money from the community].” In other words, owning a house is not considered a privilege that would disqualify one from receiving money from the community.

When an individual or the community is obligated to provide “support” ( parnassah ) for another — whether an individual’s support for an ex-wife, the community’s support of a widow, a master’s support of a Hebrew slave — that support always includes housing (mador). 2

This obligation of the community to provide housing was explicitly articulated by scholars beginning in the 12th century. The Spanish scholar Rabbi Joseph ben Rabbi Meir HaLevi ibn Migash (1077-1141) is the first to have explicitly included housing among the “needs of the poor” mentioned earlier. In quick succession, however, many others followed.3 It seems clear that this was the next step in translating Isaiah’s vision into legal reality.

In our day, Isaiah’s vision is far from reality. In Los Angeles, the city in which I live,   homeless people (over 60,000 according to the 2007 Los Angeles Homeless Service Authority study) number more than the populations of many cities. Over the course of a year more than 100,000 people are homeless in Los Angeles according to the same study.

Homelessness strikes at the heart of what cities are. There is a basic way in which the fact that people live unsheltered — without roof or sustenance — deconstructs the very idea of a city. Cities whose citizens feel no obligation to those who live under their freeways and on their sidewalks claim their ancestry from Sodom.

Homelessness is, however, a complex problem to understand and address. The web of urban dysfunction that leads to homelessness includes: the lack of a living wage; a dysfunctional health care delivery system and an inadequate educational system; a failing infrastructure that allows those with housing to lose it; insufficient market, consumerist, and government incentives for creating mixed-income housing; insufficient housing stock; an exclusionary vision that allows development to displace people.

These are daunting, though not impossible, challenges. The reward for success will be a future in which, once again, our cities will be “filled with justice, where righteousness dwells.” How can we aspire to anything less than that?

1 There is a debate on this point. Some say the money can be redirected to any communal use. However, the opinion we are championing is very forcefully held by many of the medievals.
2 Tashbetz III:301 (Responsa of Rabbi Simeon ben Tzemach Duran, 1361-1444)
3 Rabbi Meir Halevi Abulafia, Rabbi Shlomo ben Adret, Rabbenu Hananel

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Dr. Aryeh Cohen, a Sh'ma Advisory Board member, is associate professor of Rabbinic Literature at the American Jewish University (formerly University of Judaism). Cohen is the author of Rereading Talmud: Gender, Law and the Poetics of Sugyot (Scholars Press) and co-editor of Beginning/Again: Toward a Hermeneutics of Jewish Texts (Seven Bridges Press).

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