God Is On Everyone’s Side, And No One’s – Rosh Hashanah 5778 (first day)

Many of the ideas in this D’var Torah were taken from a presentation by Yehudah Kurtzer of the Hartman Institute.

Upon election to his second term, Abraham Lincoln delivered as his inaugural address one of the greatest speeches in American history.  It was four years into the Civil War.  The war would end and the President would be assassinated just a few weeks later.  Lincoln articulated one of the most profound statements of religious humility ever spoken.

He was meditating on the use by pro-slavery Confederates and abolitionist Unionists of religion to support the morality of their respective claims.  How is it possible for diametrically opposed sides to claim God’s blessing with equal passion and conviction?

Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has his own purposes.

This is not to say that Lincoln wavered one iota in his belief in the evil of slavery and the moral imperative of eradicating it.  The best that President Lincoln can hope to do is, through his own wisdom and faith, choose a course and pray that it aligns with the will of the Almighty.

In the Torah portion for the first day of Rosh Hashanah, God is on everyone’s side, and no one’s.

As the reading opens, God takes note of Sarah, as promised, and she becomes pregnant with Isaac.  At her son’s birth, Sarah declares, “God has brought me laughter.”  (Genesis 21:6)

Some time later, Sarah demands that Abraham send away her maidservant Hagar along with Hagar and Abraham’s son, Ishmael.  Abraham is upset, but God reassures him, instructing, “whatever Sarah tells you, do as she says…”  And regarding Ishmael, God “will make a nation of him, too, for he is your seed.”

When the provisions run out, Hagar places Ishmael beneath a bush and walks a distance away so that she can weep without having to watch her son die.  It is then that God sends an angel who declares that “God has heeded the cry of the boy where he is.”  The angel reveals a hidden well and reassures Hagar that Ishmael will father a great nation.

In the same story, God is on Sarah’s side, Abraham’s side, Isaac’s side, Hagar’s side, and Ishmael’s side – even while these individuals oppose each other.

What does God stand for in this story?  Life.  The flourishing of human potential.  Each of these characters, Isaac and Ishmael, Sarah and Hagar, and Abraham have a path before them that they cannot discern.  They cannot see the world as God sees it.  Each of them chooses what he or she thinks is the best course of action.  Those choices bring them into irreconcilable conflict with one another.

And yet God’s role is not to negate one or another person’s choices, but rather to direct them towards the paths that will lead to blessing.  God enters the story at three critical points.  The first is to bless Sarah with fertility.  The next is to reassure Abraham that Sarah’s seemingly cruel demand will in fact turn out okay, something that Abraham is incapable of realizing on his own.  God appears for the third time when Hagar has given up hope.  Once again, God directs Hagar to the well that will save Ishmael’s life and lead to his thriving.

These characters are blessed to have God step in at just the right moment to redirect them and let God’s will be known.  We are not so blessed.

We suffer from a terrible case of moral hubris.  It is a pervasive disease across the entire political spectrum: right to left, liberal to conservative, Democrat to Republican.

As we celebrate the world’s birthday, it is hard not to consider the extreme rancor that exists in society.  There is so much partisan hatred.  People are feeling more politics-derived anxiety in their personal lives than ever before.  It is tearing the social fabric apart.

Some of us right now are thinking, “It’s not me.  It’s the people on the other side who are unable to see things as they really are.  They are the ones who are full of hate, who are naive, who are blind to the truth.”

Consider the following:

A 2015 study published in the American Journal of Political Science found that “the level of partisan animus in the American public exceeds racial hostility.”  In other words, Americans hate people from the opposing political party more than they hate people of different races.  Further, partisan differences are driving people apart with regard to behaviors and identities that have absolutely nothing to do with politics.

We all know about the divisions between red states and blue states.  But increasingly, people of the same political parties are segregating themselves by neighborhood.  Parents are often upset when a child intermarries into a family of the opposite political persuasion.  A 2009 survey found that only 9% of marriages were between a Republican and a Democrat.

Dating websites have reported that party affiliation is a more important criteria in a potential mate than physical appearance or personality.  And it is not that people of similar values end up falling in love.  This political discrimination comes into play at the initial mate choice.

The animosity that we feel towards those from the opposing party is stronger than the favoritism we feel towards those from our own party.  Partisanship pushes us apart more than it pulls us together.

It has gotten so bad that party affiliation even compels us to change our preferences for things that have absolutely nothing to do with morality or politics.  The author of a recent study summarized the issue like this:

Imagine that you walked into an ice cream shop on Election Day.  You discover that the shop is filled with supporters of the presidential candidate you oppose, and you find supporters of that candidate morally abhorrent.  When you get to the front of the line, the worker tells you all of the other customers just ordered red velvet – normally your favorite flavor.

[The] studies demonstrated that when asked to order, you are likely to feel an urge to stray from your favorite flavor toward one you like less, politically polarizing an otherwise innocuous decision.

We are willing to abandon our favorite ice cream flavor because we perceive it to be popular with our partisan opponents!

This trend affects the Jewish world as well.  Increasingly, communities are become segregated by party affiliation.  Synagogues have split in half over politics.  It is tragic, because our Jewish values, shared history, and beliefs should be bringing us together.  Instead, partisanship is driving us apart.

But God does not have a party.  God is not from a “Red State” or a “Blue State.”

As a Rabbi, I struggle with how and when to engage with what happens out in the political realm.  As the Rabbi of a diverse congregation, what is my role?  What should Sinai’s role be?

Should it offer an apolitical respite?  Is it a sanctuary in space in the way that Shabbat is a sanctuary in time?

Or perhaps the synagogue is the place where we come to affirm our moral grounding.  Maybe we need a place to engage constructively and thoughtfully on what happens “out there.”

Some congregants urge me to get more political.  Others come to shul looking for a break from all of the noise and contentiousness “out there.”  Let synagogue be a place in which politics is not mentioned.  Let it be a place where we can focus on our inner lives, on the spiritual.

I would kind of like it to be both.  A place where we come together as brothers and sisters in unity.  Celebrating what we share in common, which is a lot.  And learning from each other’s differences with love and respect.

The truth is, regardless of our politics, most of us share the same essential moral beliefs.

Morality is a system of values and principles of conduct having to do with good and bad, right and wrong.  They are developed throughout childhood, strongly influenced by the people who raise and teach us.  They are molded by the standards of the communities in which we live.  Of course, religion plays a huge role.

Our core moral beliefs should direct our political viewpoints.  Let’s say that my moral code tells me I have an obligation to feed the hungry.  There are people in every society who do not have enough to eat, and cannot satisfy their basic needs.  The Torah tells me that I cannot remain indifferent.  I must do something about it.

That should lead me to take a political position.  What do I think is the best way to feed the hungry?  Should the government redistribute wealth from those who have it to those who do not?  Or, should it be left to individuals and private groups to take the lead, with the government either encouraging such efforts from the sidelines or simply staying out of the way?

While the Torah and the Rabbis legislate specific ways to give, the rules around tzedakah focus mainly on individual responsibilities, or those of a tight-knit community, not on society’s obligation.  They do not provide any specific guidance for determining how or even whether a government should provide welfare, food stamps, or social security.

This means that people with similar moral beliefs could end up embracing completely opposite policy solutions – even though we are pursuing the same goal.  This is a good thing, as none of us knows how to end poverty.  The best way to find solutions is through open political systems.

This is how it should work:  our moral convictions should lead to our political positions.

Unfortunately, things are working exactly backwards.  Partisanship has co-opted politics and corrupted morality.

The research shows that my primary allegiance is to my party, not to my morals.  When the opposing party embraces a particular idea, my knee-jerk inclination is to oppose it – not because my morals tell me to, but simply because my opponents favor it.  And the idea itself, along with those who support it, become morally tainted.

It is a serious problem when vast swaths of Americans label each other evil, racist, fascist, and communist because they hold different political views.  After all, it is possible for intelligent people to reach different conclusions.

Religion bears some responsibility for the extreme polarization that we now experience.  In the last century, Judaism and Christianity in America embraced the biblical prophets as models of righteousness.  This may sound surprising, but this embrace of the prophetic ideal has created some rather severe moral traps.  The left has been particularly drawn in.

The first trap is an oversimplification of the moral imperative.  Think about the central message of just about every single prophet in the Bible.  Let’s take, for example, Isaiah’s rebuke in the Haftarah that we will read next week on Yom Kippur.  It is beautiful and inspiring:

This is the fast I desire: to unlock fetters of wickedness, and untie cords of the yoke to let the oppressed go free; to break off every yoke.  It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked, to clothe them, and do not ignore your own flesh.”  (Isaiah 58:6-7)

Isaiah seems to think that, if we only dedicated ourselves to it, we could end human suffering, inequality, and poverty.  The prophetic era lasted for hundred of years.  Most of the prophets offered some version of Isaiah’s message.  At no time did a prophet ever say:  “You guys are doing a great job.”  At no point in human history has a society ever managed to achieve Isaiah’s vision.

Why? Because the problems of human suffering are really complicated.  There is a reason why none of the biblical prophets succeeded.  They were overly simplistic and quite inflexible.

Think of Jeremiah.  He runs around speaking truth to power.  He lambasts the people for their greed and corruption.  He ends up getting himself thrown into a pit for his moral high-mindedness.  There is no doubt that Jeremiah was right.  He was living in a society that had lost its way.  He could see the righteous path forward.  But his message, like so many of the other prophets, failed to take into account the complexity of human beings.  He did not consider how they might feel if he insulted them.

The prophets label behavior as either good or bad, moral or immoral.  If you are not with us, you are against us.

This kind of righteousness is lonely, and if taken too far, can turn violent.

When Moses comes down from the mountain after the sin of the Golden Calf, he declares, Mi L’Hashem Elai!  “Whoever is for God, to me!”  There is no in-between.  The Levites heed the call.  At Moses’ instruction, they take their swords and march back and forth through the camp, killing “brother, neighbor, and kin.”  Three thousand die that day.

The Rabbis, in transforming Judaism, understood the risks inherent in the prophetic tradition.  Rabbi Yohanan declares, “Since the Temple was destroyed, prophecy has been taken from prophets and given to fools and children.”  (BT Bava Batra 12-12b)

Where the Bible speaks in absolutes, the rabbinic tradition is steeped in uncertainty.  The Talmud is filled with mostly unresolved arguments.  There is deep suspicion of anyone who would claim to know the will of God.

Another righteousness trap that we have made is in elevating the idea of tikkun olam as the religious goal.  Tikkun olam means, literally, “fixing the world.”  The term has been applied differently over the millenia.  At first, Tikkun Olam referred to a rabbinic decree that fixed a specific problem created biblical law.  Later, it took on mystical aspects.  The idea that tikkun olam is about social action and the pursuit of social justice is a uniquely 20th and 21st century innovation.  In many segments of American Jewry, however, tikkun olam has become the central religious message.

And this is a problem.

To speak of a fixed world implies, first of all, that I know what a fixed world looks like.  What does that say about someone who does not share my vision?  And finally, is it not a little audacious to imagine that the Jewish people, comprising less than two tenths of one percent of the world’s population, are going to be the ones to fix it?

Should we really be pursuing a perfect world?

A story in the Talmud relates a conversation between philosophers in Rome and Jewish elders.  “If your God has no desire for idolatry, why does He not just abolish it?”  “If it was something of which the world had no need,” they replied, “God would abolish it.  But what do people worship?  The sun, moons, stars, and planets.  Should God destroy the universe on account of fools?  Rather, olam k’minhago noheg.  The world pursues its natural course…”  (BT Avodah Zarah 54b)

We live in an imperfect world.  It is never going to become perfect.  There is no “fixing” the world.  The better model is that taught by Rabbi Tarfon in Pirkei Avot.  Lo alekha hamlakha ligmor, v’lo ata ben chorin l’hibatel mimenah.  “It is not for you to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.”  (Avot 2:16)  The world remains a work in progress.

The Rabbinic model, as opposed to the prophetic, is one of moral humility.  It is one of engagement with others, including especially those who disagree with us.  It is making sure, always, that the solutions we pursue emerge from the core moral principles of the Torah.  But we recognize that no human being can know the mind of God.

It is through struggle, together, that we get closer to it.

Lincoln concludes his second Inaugural Address with an appeal for compassion for the common humanity of all and a prayer for peace, knowing full well that the fight to end slavery had to continue until its conclusion.  We would do well to embrace his words.

… With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan–to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.

Coming Face to Face with Poverty – Vayechi 5774

In the last few weeks, I have been approached on two separate occasions by people, both Christians, about our community getting involved in charitable causes.

The first was for limited involvement in Santa Clara county’s Faith-Based Reentry Collaborative.  For a criminal who has served his or her time, getting back into society can be extremely difficult.  There is a high rate of recidivism, of people not being able to get their lives back together and winding up back in prison.  People often don’t have the social resources to become self-sufficient.  Perhaps they have burned their bridges with family members who could take them in.  Or maybe their criminal record makes it difficult to find work.  They fall back in to unhealthy social circles.

As a society, we do a terrible job of helping people reintegrate into society in a healthy and productive way.  The county has recently begun to establish partnerships with local houses of worship that will welcome former prisoners into their communities and provide them with mentorship and support.  So far, three local churches have opened up reentry centers, and the county is still trying to figure out ways for other faith communities to help.

I was approached about getting the Sinai community involved in a limited way.  A newly released prisoner often has nobody to come and pick him or her up.  Furthermore, the prison does not issue clothing, so they wear what they came in with, which may not be sufficient.

Members of our community could help out in that critical first 24 hours by picking up a released prisoner at midnight, bringing a set of warm clothes, dropping him or her off at a motel which we paid for, and providing them with a meal.  There would not be any further obligations.  Just that one night.

The second program about which I was approached is called Refugee Foster Care.  It is sponsored by Catholic Charities of Santa Clara County.  It would involve a far more substantial commitment.  A family or individual would become foster parents for a child who has no parents, either because they were killed, or because they gave them up.  The kids are between 12 and 17 years of age and come from war-torn places around the world.

These two solicitations for our community’s involvement got me thinking.  Would Sinai members be interested in taking on causes like these – causes which bring us face to face former criminals, with children who have experience suffering most of us cannot even imagine?

Why is it that many Christian communities seem to be so motivated to get involved with human suffering in this way?  Why are we not involved in projects like these?  Projects of bringing people into our cars, or our homes.  Causes that demand us to give of ourselves?  Aren’t these essential Jewish values?

Our ancestors make the transition from a family into a people in this morning’s Parshah, Vayechi.  Jacob dies, and his sons carry out their promise to return his body to the land of Canaan to be buried in the Cave of Machpelah.  After the mourning period ends, the brothers are terrified that Joseph has only been behaving civilly to them out of respect for their father.  Now that he is gone, they worry that Joseph is going to take revenge for what they had done to him so many years before.  They send word to Joseph that their father had wished for him to forgive his brothers.

Joseph’s reaction surprises them.  He cries.  So they appear before him themselves, offering to become his slaves.  Joseph reassurs them that it was all part of God’s plan.  He has no intention whatsosever of taking revenge.  Not only that, he offers to help.  “And so, fear not.  I will sustain you and your children…” he says.

Joseph has introduced the idea that will be elaborated extensively throughout the Torah – that a Jew who is in the position to do so has an obligation to provide for other Jews who need help.

It is significant, perhaps, that the transformation into a people and Joseph’s commitment to care for them occurs outside of the Promised Land, in the Diaspora.  For millenia, Jewish communities in far-flung locations around the world found themselves in situations of having to take care of their own.

Until the last century, most Jewish communities were poor.  They also tended to be tightly knit.  Most people knew each other.  The community had to take on the responsibility of caring for its own poor – because there was nobody else to do so.

This was done in a variety of formal and informal ways.  There was a communal tzedakah fund called the kupah, with elected collectors and distributors.  It served as a kind of tax to cover communal expenses and provide a safety net for the poorest members of the community.

In addition, there was the tamchui, which was kind of an ad hoc soup kitchen.  The official collector might show up at your doorstep to collect a meal on behalf of another individual or family in the community who needed it.

At celebrations, the needy would be welcomed to attend.  They did not need an invitation.  People would go out of their way to invite poor people to their Shabbat and holiday tables.

Consider the passage that we recite at the beginning of the Passover seder.  We open the door and announce “Let all who are hungry come and eat…”  I don’t think it used to be a metaphorical statement, as it is for most of us today.  I think there were times, until very recently, when those who could afford it would invite those who could not to their dinner tables, including those who might have been homeless.

In Pirkei Avot (1:5), the collection of ethical teachings that was compiled nearly 2,000 years ago, Yossi ben Yochanan of Jerusalem teaches “Let your home be wide open, and make the poor into members of your household.”

Just think about all of the folktales from our tradition, covering all periods of history except the modern era, in which poor Jews are welcomed into the homes of other Jews.  I assume that those stories exist because things like that used to actually happen on a regular basis.

Synagogues used to function kind of like homeless shelters, especially on Shabbat.  Travelers, poor students, and people who did not have anywhere to stay would sleep on the benches of the shul.  The community would often provide them with a meal.

As Jews, we used to come face to face with poverty regularly.  Thankfully, Jewish communities today are wealthier than ever before.  It’s not to say that there are not plenty of Jews who struggle financially.  There are.  It is undeniable, however, that the global Jewish community has thrived in contemporary times.

Our empasis on tzedakah (charity) and gemilut chasadim (act of lovingkindness) remains important, but the way that we express those values has shifted along with economic and social realities.  Jews continue to give a lot to charity, but instead of a mandatory tax on the members of our community, everything is voluntary.

With the almost total acceptance of Jews into American society, the proportion of funds donated to Jewish non-profit organizations has fallen dramatically, especially among younger generations.  Our giving is directed to causes that we care about.  But rarely is money or assistance given face to face to needy members of our own community.

Like in most synagogues, a minuscule portion of Sinai’s annual budget goes towards charitable activities and social action.

Sinai has had some great Tikkun Olam activities over the past couple of years.  But for the most part, our efforts have not put us into direct contact with poverty.  We have served several meals at local soup kitchens, but even then the contact with the homeless is limited.

We have not invited the homeless into our synagogue.  We have not sponsored programs that would assign members of our community to be mentors to people who could really benefit from that kind of guidance, whether former prisoners, kids who cannot read, or refugees.

How would we respond if someone who was obviously homeless walked into the synagogue during Shabbat services?  Would we welcome that person with open arms?  Would we be worried about safety?  Would we ask him to leave?

In the Bar Area, there are churches, and even some synagogues, that house rotating homeless shelters.  Why not us?

There are other religious traditions that seem to place a much greater theological emphasis on direct service to the poor.  For example, there is a story in the New Testament of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples’ feet.  The new Pope, Francis, recently made news when he washed the feet of 12 juvenile prisoners.  Back when he was the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he would frequently wash the feet of AIDS patients and drug addicts.  It is about humbling oneself in service to other human beings.  For Christian communities who are trying to literally follow Jesus’ example, having that direct contact with the poor makes sense, theologically.

For most of Jewish history, our communities could not afford to direct so much of our charitable activities beyond our own communities.  Facing so much discrimination, Jews had to take care of their own – and they did a phenomenal job of it.  But now that the direct need is either not as great, or just more hidden, what should we be doing?

My goal this morning is to raise questions.  Should we be devoting considerable resources to directly serve those who need it most?  Should we open up our synagogue, or even our homes, to people who would otherwise never enter our lives?  Should we give substantively of ourselves to non-Jews?

The answer is not easy.  Jewish communities around America are struggling to retain and attract sufficient members and funds to remain viable.  Can we afford to send our limited resources outside our community?

When asked, American Jews seem to recognize the importanec of serving humanity.  A 2001 study asked American Jews about involvement in this kind of work.  It found that around ninety percent of American Jews agreed to the following statements:

  • “Jews have a responsibility to work on behalf of the poor, the oppressed, and minority groups”
  • “When Jewish organizations engage in social justice work, it makes me feel proud to be a Jew.”
  • “Jews’ involvement in social justice causes is one good way to strengthen ties with other groups in society.”

The difficulty is, it is possible to feel just as strongly about working on behalf of the underserved without attributing those motivations to Judaism.  I do not need to be Jewish to help the poor.  What is it from our own tradition that would compel us to give so much of ourselves to non-Jews?

It is an open question.  The invitations stand  As a Jewish community, do we want to help human beings who have made some wrong decisions in life get back on track after they have been released from jail?  Do we want to encourage and support Jews in our community who are willing to foster a teen-ager whose life has been torn apart by war?

I would like to hear from you – either today during kiddush, or some other time.  What should we be doing as a kehillah kedoshah, as a holy Jewish community?

When Joseph makes the commitment to his brothers, “fear not, I will sustain you and your children,” he is committing to serve his own siblings.

In the 21st century, who are our brothers and sisters?

Income Inequality – Behar 5771

As you know, economists have officially declared the recession over.  That may be true on paper, but there are still millions who have lost their jobs, and their homes, and are struggling to get by.  Despite the immensity of the recession, it has not impacted everyone the same. Some have come through just fine, and even prospered.  One of the recent critiques we have heard is that the national unemployment rate is still well over 8 percent while some of the largest American corporations are making record profits and sitting on billions of dollars.  There are vast differences between the economic experiences of Americans.  I don’t think there is much disagreement that there is something broken in the socio-economics of this country.  There is a lot of disagreement about what is broken and how to fix it.

As a Diaspora people, Jews have lived in many different societies.  But wherever we have lived, we have taken our Torah, and our teachings with us, and we have applied their lessons to the situations we face.  This morning’s Torah portion has a lot to say to us about the relationship between the rich and the poor in society.

Most of Parshat Behar, is a presentation of the laws of land ownership in ancient Israel.  It describes an economic system that is vastly different from what we have today.  It is agriculturally based.  There is no money.  And land is apportioned to tribes, clans, and families.  As in some other societies in the Ancient World, land could not really be sold.  Great value was placed on keeping ancestral land within the family.  The Torah adds an innovative, and powerful moral concept with far-reaching implications.  God instructs the people, “But the land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me.”  (Lev. 25:23)

The Israelites get this reminder every seven years, when they observe shemitah, and let the land lie fallow.  Every fifty years, they observe the yovel, the Jubilee.  In that year, all land reverts back to its original owner.  Any Israelite who had to indenture himself into servitude regains his freedom, and his land.  All debts are cancelled.

This economic model, if fully implemented, would have some pretty significant effects.  Families would not fall into multi-generational poverty, since there would effectively be an economic reset every fifty years.

Also, it would be impossible for anyone to accumulate huge amounts of property, since any land or debt that a successful business person acquired would revert on the Jubilee year.  There is not even such a thing as selling land, just leasing it for a period of time up until the fiftieth year.

The result would be a flattening of economic disparities.  You can imagine that the gap between the richest and the poorest in society would never get that huge if everything reset itself every half century.

What I especially appreciate about the system that the Torah dscribes is that it is not a pie in the sky utopia.  It does not say that everyone will be equal.  This is not “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.”  This system understands that some people are going to be wealthier, better educated, shrewder, and luckier, than others.

Remember, the underlying moral value is that the land ultimately is owned by God, and not us.  While prosperity is important, there are values that are more important to pursue than the accumulation of wealth.

In his commentary on the Book of Leviticus, Jacob Milgrom describes these laws as trying to stop the loss of land by debtors to the rich, as well as reduce “the ever widening gap between the rich and the poor.”  The Biblical Prophets condemned the mistreatment of the poor in their particular prophetic style.  They harangued a society for ignoring the light of the poor, the stranger, the widow, and the orphan.  Here in the Book of Leviticus, Israel’s priests are trying to fix the immorality of economic inequality, not through moral pronouncements, but through law.

Nevertheless, the historical evidence suggests that the Jubilee year as presented in the Torah was never actually practiced.  What are we to make of its appearance here?  It is a presentation of values.  An ancient reader would see in this theoretical economic system a critique of what was probably a less just society in which those with less money, and less power, did not have many opportunities.  A society in which bankruptcy risked dooming a family to poverty for generations.

We seem to have some of the same issues today.

As you no doubt are aware, the last several decades have seen a significant rise in income inequality around the world.

Of all developed countries, the income gap between the rich and the poor is greatest in the United States.  In 2008, the top earning 20 percent of Americans, who earn at least $100,000 per year, received 49.4 percent of all income generated in the country  The bottom 20 percent received  just 3.4 percent of all income.  The relative gap is the widest that it has been since the U.S. Census Bureau started collecting data in 1968.

We are not going to get into what causes income disparities, or how to reduce them.  But I do want to talk about the effects.

There has been a lot of study over the last few decades about the impact that large gaps between the rich and the poor has on society.

Robert Putnam, the professor of political science at Harvard University, conducted a study on the relationship between social capital, or the connections between members of a society, and economic inequality.  He found that throughout the twentieth century, social connectedness and civic engagement moved “in tandem” with economic equality.  The flatter the gap between the rich and the poor, the more society was interconnected.  The high point in social capital, according to Putnam, occurred during the 1950’s and 1960’s, which was also the most economically egalitarian period in the twentieth century.  “Conversely,” he writes, “the last third of the twentieth century was a time of growing inequality and eroding social capital… The timing of the two trends is striking: somewhere around 1965-70 America reversed course and started becoming both less just economically and less well connected socially and politically.”

In other words, when the rich-poor gap is smaller, society functions better.  There are more interactions between people.  Communities are tighter-knit.  Individuals are more engaged politically, meaning that they are more involved in shaping the course of society.

There are many other social factors that have been also statistically correlated to income inequality.  To the extant that the income gap is reduced, societies in the developed world experience lower homicide rates, fewer mental health problems and less teen-age pregnancy.  But the gap is expanding.

It was not always like this.  In 1831, in his book Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville talked about how wonderful the economic equality was that he witnessed.  He writes:

Among the new objects that attracted my attention during my stay in the United States, none struck me with greater force than the equality of conditions.  I easily perceived the enormous influence that this primary fact exercises on the workings of society.  It gives a particular direction to the public mind, a particular turn to the laws, new maxims to those who govern, and particular habits to the governed…  It creates opinions, gives rise to sentiments, inspires customs, and modifies everything it does not produce…  I kept finding that fact before me again and again as a central point to which all of my observations were leading.

De Tocqueville was describing an engaged, inspired population.  I don’t think de Tocqueville would be able to make those comment today.

Today, with the widest gap between the wealthy and the poor this country has seen since the 1920’s, it seems that there is a tremendous  despair among individuals about our ability to affect society.  With corporations now defined as people, and large PACs with unknown sources of funding able to influence politics with huge amounts of money, that despair seems justified.

The point I want to make this morning is that our Jewish tradition has always understood large gaps between the rich and the poor to be highly problematic.  Such disparities are harmful to a cohesive society, and are antithetical to the Jewish notion of justice.  To be clear, our tradition encourages us to be involved in the material world around us.  We pray for God to bless us with prosperity.  Wealth and prosperity are things to pursue.  But not as ends in and of themselves.  Only as means to do the more important work of serving God by creating a just world.

It is said that you can always cherry pick a text that will support your position.  I don’t think that can be said about this issue.  I have never heard or read any Jewish thinker, speaking from within the tradition, defend the idea that the rich should be free to acquire as much as they can without regard to the consequences on the rest of society.  As Jews, we have a moral and a legal obligation to create opportunities for the people at the bottom to succeed.  We can argue about strategy – raise taxes, lower taxes, expand social services, cut medicaid – but from a Jewish perspective, something has to be done about income inequality.