Ethics are only difficult at the margins. It’s hard to find a person who disagrees with the command, “Do not kill.” Likewise, nearly everyone acknowledges that it is a goal to “love our neighbor as ourselves.” However, things get complicated when two “right” values conflict with one another.
Charity, for example, is ethically challenging because it is the meeting point between selfless love for the other and another important Jewish idea, self preservation and protection. If we give too little, we will be hardhearted. Yet, if we give too much, we will quickly find ourselves in destitution.
It is for these reasons that the following text, found in this week’s Torah portion, brings up so many questions:
If your kinsman is in straits and has to sell part of his holding, his nearest redeemer shall come and redeem what his kinsman has sold (Lev 25:25).
Here, the Torah speaks of a case where a person finds himself in deep poverty and is forced to sell his property to survive. If he is so poor that he must choose between his home and his next meal, a relative is obligated to come forward and buy back the property (redeem it) and gift it back to its original owner.
However, as progressive as this text might seem, there are troubling tensions inherent in the command. Should the redeemer use his whole savings to buy back the land for his relative? How poor does a person need to be before requiring the sale of property? Does the relative need to agree to the sale in the first place before being required to save his kin? Should a person privilege short term gains (selling all his property for his immediate needs) over the long term security of holding on to some land?
Each of these questions involves a tension: helping others vs preserving ourselves, future needs vs present needs, personal agency vs commanded action. And it is between these conflicting values that true sacredness and holiness lie.
While our Jewish texts make a point of choosing sides in these controversies, even our classical Jewish teaching, taken as a whole, are self contradictory.
If we examine one tension, that of helping others vs preserving ourselves, we notice conflicting rulings.
On the one hand Jewish law prohibits giving away more than 1/5th of your property to charity or bequeathing ⅓ on your deathbed (Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 34:4). No one should fall into poverty because of their desire to be kind. Likewise, someone who has little and gives little is better than someone who has much and gives much (ibid 34:2). Small gifts are important; if you are poor they are deemed equal to large donations, but here is no need to take out loans to earn merit for giving. Finally, the needs of your family take precedence over that of others. Since feeding your children is an act of “charity” you can abstain from giving to the poor if you need to save that money for your offspring (ibid 34:6).
In essence, these “self protecting” texts conform to an important principle found in a very famous ethical conundrum:
If two people were walking on a desolate path and there was a jug of water in the possession of one of them, and the situation was such that if both drink from the jug, both will die, as there is not enough water, but if only one of them drinks, he will reach a settled area, there is a dispute as to the law. Ben Petora taught: It is preferable that both of them drink and die, and let neither one of them see the death of the other. This was the accepted opinion until Rabbi Akiva came and taught that the verse states: “And your brother shall live with you,” indicating that your life takes precedence over the life of the other. (Bava Metzia 62a)
As the text explains, Akiba wins the debate. You matter above all else. Though there is a need to help others, harming yourself in the process is not part of the obligation.
Yet, there are many texts that have an opposite tilt. Here are a two examples:
How much should be given to a poor person? "Enough to meet all his needs" (Deuteronomy 15:8). This applies to a poor man who receives charity without anyone knowing of it. The people of his city are obligated to give him enough for all his needs, (allowing him to maintain) the same standard of living as before he became impoverished. (Shulchan Aruch 34:3)
And another one:
What is the meaning of the Biblical verse “Do not rob the destitute” (Prov 22:22)? Is there actually a person who robs the destitute? And what is there to steal from him, being that he has nothing? Rather it means that if you supported him on a regular basis, and you change your mind and say, “How much longer do I have to provide for this one,” and you refrain from giving him, if you do this, you should know that you are robbing him. (Midrash Tanchuma Behar 2).
Each of these texts are radical in their own right. The first text says that if someone becomes poor it is your obligation (if he asks you directly) to return him to his former economic standing. In other words, if he is used to living in a nice house and eating nice food, our job is to help him continue as before. The second text tells us that if someone has become dependent on our charity, taking that away is akin to robbery. We must ensure that they have a new source of income before pulling away. Hard love is antithetical to Jewish ethics.
These messy, complicated, conflicting texts are what make Judaism so beautiful. Our tradition presents us with absolute and opposite truths. Wholly protect yourself and care totally about the dignity of others. Make hard choices but never upset your fellow. Then it opens the door to navigate those extremes.
God lives between our ethical poles and we find God when we open a conversation between them.