Thoughts on Justice and Charity
Is the order to pursue justice in Torah a collective or individual mandate?
Does the mandate to take care of the stranger of the orphan imbue them with rights, or merely that we must meet our obligations to them under the Law?
How does that gel with modern society? Should we necessarily be looking to reconcile Jewish law with mishpat hamelukha (laws of the king), which Samuel warned us against? Is a Republic to be regarded the same way as a king, and does “the law of the land is the law” apply in a frame with self-determination unknown to sages in antiquity?
I ask all of these questions, because when a friend says to me, “we should vote for Democrats because it’s a Jewish value to vote for social programs.”
I don’t think he’s right. At the very least, I don’t think it satisfies any mandate we have to care for the orphan or the stranger. Asking everyone around us to participate in shouldering the tax burden for their care seems like justice, but is it really?
Aside from what we’ve penciled into contemporary Jewish notions of social justice, especially post-haskalah, it’s not clear that our obligations to orphans, widows even necessarily imbue them with the right to the things we give them, but rather establish our obligation to them.
I’m leary of assigning qualitative religious value to most political philosophy. Can you vote to have mishloach manot sent by the government to someone? No. My opinion is generally that voting to allocate tax dollars, especially in a progressive system where someone who does considerably more charitable giving than you is also paying more than you in taxes, is a poor substitute for individual charity.
It’s also a matter of efficacy. I am a strong believer of solving problems at the lowest possible level, where problems are immediate to us and solutions are more evident. And maybe government is the only institution sufficiently capable in many places to ameliorate horrible conditions. But it’s still not a substitute for your individual responsibility.
Nevertheless, I don’t think it’s sustainable to say, “voting for social programs is a Jewish ideal.” You may feel voting for social programs is a Jewish ideal, but your mandate is individual, and cannot be satisfied with a visit to the voting booth or your yearly 1040 to the IRS.