Place matters. Even in this globalized, Internet era, I believe in making long-term commitments to specific places, and especially to the places where we live. Our communal social justice efforts should begin by choosing the places where we will make an impact.
Think back to the last time you moved to a new place. How long did it take before that place felt like your home?… In some areas, anyone whose family has not lived there for generations will never be considered to be “from” that place. In some places, the community is so transient that it is easy for a newcomer to feel at home and even to become a community leader within a relatively brief time. Some people move to a new place and immediately seek ways to become involved in the life of the community; others like to take their time becoming comfortable in the place before making commitments. Still others move so often from place to place that they never allow themselves to become deeply involved in any one community.
When members of your own community sit down to plan your social justice activities, begin by asking, “What is our place? And what is our responsibility to this place?” The answer may not be as simple as it seems. Your place may be the town where your synagogue, school, camp, or institution physically stands. Or it may be the place where most of the members live. Or perhaps it is the neighborhood where the institution once stood.
A look at some Rabbinic discussions about responsibility to place serves as a helpful starting point for defining our own places and our obligations to these places.
Where Is Home? Rabbinic Perspectives
The Rabbis of the Talmud defined residence in a place both according to the time one has already spent there and according to the time one plans to spend there. The Rabbis ask, “How long does a person have to live in a city before being considered among the citizens of that city?” The answer is, “Twelve months. But one who buys a home there is considered to be among the citizens of the city immediately” (Mishnah Bava Batra 1:5). A new resident has a year to make a decision about whether he or she will stay in the new city. However, one who purchases a home signals an intention to set down roots in this new place. This person therefore must immediately take responsibility for the well-being of all of the residents of this place.
The move from being an outsider to being a full resident does not happen in an instant. Rather, a person’s responsibilities to the other residents of the city increase as he or she spends more and more time there. The Talmud elaborates:
[A person who resides in a city] thirty days becomes liable for contributing
to the tamchui [soup kitchen], three months for the kuppah
[tzedakah fund], six months for the clothing fund, nine months for the burial fund, and twelve months for contributing to the repair of the city walls.
(BT, Bava Batra 8a)
The more time a person spends in a place, the more he or she becomes responsible for the long-term needs of the residents of that place…. Based on the Talmudic text above, later rabbis identify three categories of people living in a city. Those who have been there less than thirty days are considered simply to be visitors without specific obligations toward the place. People who have lived in the place for more than thirty days but for less than twelve months are called yoshvei ha’ir, or “city residents,” and are obligated to contribute financially according to the Talmudic guidelines. Those who stay in a place for more than a year or who purchase a home there become b’nai ha’ir, or “people of the city”—what we would call citizens. Some rabbis also consider a person who signs a year’s lease on a rental home immediately to become one of the b’nai ha’ir. However, a person who inherits a home in a city where he or she has no intention of living need not take on full responsibility for the upkeep of that city.
But what if a person lives in a place for less than a year, with the intention of eventually returning home? For example, do students automatically become residents of the place where they are studying? The answer to this question has implications for students’ financial commitments to their current and former places of residence, as well as for decisions about where to vote, do jury duty, and pay taxes.
One rabbinic opinion, cited by numerous later authorities, defines intention as the most important factor in determining residence. According to Rabbi Avraham HaLevi Gombiner (Poland, ca. 1637–1683), students who go away to study and plan to return home after graduation, or professionals who take a sabbatical in another city, do not become residents of this new home as long as they maintain the intention to return to their original city (Magen Avraham 468).
But not every rabbinic authority privileges intention above length of residence. Rabbi Avraham Borenstein (Poland, 1838–1910), the founder of the Sochatchov dynasty of Hasidism, writes:
Even in the case of the [itinerant] camel or donkey driver, as it says in Bava Batra (8a), if they stay there thirty days, they are considered to be like the residents of the city [yoshvei ha’ir]. The donkey and camel drivers will eventually return to their place, but even so, they are considered residents of the city. This is the law regarding the people of a city [b’nai ha’ir]—if they stay twelve months, they are considered to be like the people of the city [anshei ha’ir] even if their intention is to return. (Avnei Nezer, Orach Chayim 424)
Borenstein, then, holds that a stay of twelve months confers the status and responsibilities of a citizen, even if the person intends to leave in the future.
While there is no clear consensus among rabbinic authorities regarding when one becomes a full citizen of a place, these opinions suggest some criteria for determining where our responsibilities lie. As individuals thinking about where to invest our time and money, some of the questions we should ask ourselves include: How long do I expect to stay in the place where I am currently living? Where do I expect to live for the long term? Do I feel pulled between two places? Do I think of one as “home” and one as temporary? If so, how do I balance my responsibilities to each? As a community, we should ask ourselves: What is our historic connection to the place where we are living? To other places? What do we envision as our future relationship to this place? To what other places might we also have a responsibility? How will we balance our relative responsibility to these places?
Balancing Our City With Other Cities
Once I determine what my city is, do I obligate myself only or primarily to the people of that city? Jewish law traditionally demands giving tzedakah first to “the poor of your city” before concerning oneself with poor members of any other community (BT, Bava Metzia 71a). If we are to take this requirement literally, perhaps we should devote all of our tzedakah money and all of our volunteer energy to wiping out poverty entirely in the places where we live before even thinking about poverty elsewhere in the world. This approach might result in a vast improvement in the standard of living among poor people in Western countries, but it could have dire results for people living in developing nations.
Some rabbinic authorities recognize problems inherent in devoting all of our resources to the places where we live. For example, in the law code Arukh HaShulchan, Rabbi Yechiel Epstein (Lithuania, 1829–1908) rules that a person’s first obligation is to support his or her poor relatives. However, he worries that tzedakah givers will spend all of their money on their own relatives and that “poor people without wealthy relatives will die of starvation.” According to Epstein, then, a person who has poor relatives should give most of his or her tzedakah money to them, but should reserve some money for others as well.
Rabbi Moshe Sofer (1762–1839), the German rabbi more popularly known as the Chatam Sofer, goes one step further and distinguishes between the life-and-death needs of those in other cities and the less immediate needs of members of one’s own community:
“If there is a poor person within your gates” (Deuteronomy 15:7). Sifrei [an ancient collection of legal midrash on the book of Deuteronomy] expounds this verse saying, “When one is starving, the one who is starving takes precedence,” and then expounds, “The poor of your city take precedence over the poor of another city.” That is to say, this applies if both poor people need food or clothing. However, if the poor of your city have what they need to live, but just don’t have any extra money [and the poor of the other city don’t have food or clothing], then the poor of the other city take precedence over the poor of your city, for the neediest takes precedence.
With this comment, the Chatam Sofer upends the general principle that one should prioritize the people of one’s own city. Instead, he says, the people with the greatest need always come first, regardless of where they live. Only when faced with poor people who have identical needs do we prioritize those who live closer to us.
In somewhat different ways, both the Arukh HaShulchan and the Chatam Sofer begin to address the challenge of globalization. These rabbis simultaneously demand that we take primary responsibility for those closest to us and that we recognize that people far outside of our own orbit may have greater needs than the people in our own families and cities.
Balancing Our Needs and Others’ Needs
One particularly difficult Rabbinic text further grapples with the question of how to weigh the urgent needs of others against our own, perhaps secondary, needs. This text, which comes from the Tosefta, a second- or third-century compilation of laws, considers a case in which one city is asked to share its own water supply with another city that has no water:
In the case of a wellspring that belongs to the people of the city: [in a choice between] them and others [from another city], they come before the others. [In a choice between] the others and the animals [of the people of the city], the life of the others come before the animals. Rabbi Yosi says that the animals of the people of the city come before the life of others.
[In a choice between] their animals and the animals of others, their animals come before the animals of others.
[In a choice between the life of] others and the laundry of the people of the city, the life of others comes before the laundry [of the people of the city]. [But] Rabbi Yosi says that the laundry of the people of the city comes before the life of others.
(Tosefta, Bava Metzia 11:33–37)
When I studied this text with several colleagues, one member of the group immediately responded that sources like these turn her off from text study. How, she asked, can we possibly accept as part of Jewish tradition the view of Rabbi Yosi, who seems prepared to sacrifice the lives of those living in a neighboring town in favor of washing his clothing? Another colleague responded, “We all do this all the time. I take my kids to water parks, even though I know that there are people in the world who don’t have water to drink.”
My two colleagues precisely identified the contours of the debate surrounding our relative responsibilities to our own places and to other places in the world. Do we first ensure the basic survival of everyone in the world, or do we allow ourselves some luxuries—or even basic comforts like clean clothes and regular showers—before attending to the needs of others? In the context of a theoretical conversation, it is easy to say that we should always first provide drinking water to others. But if we are to be honest, we must admit that few of us are willing to accept a life in which we have little more than food, shelter, and basic items of clothing.
The friends with whom I studied this text were not the first to find it problematic. Even the ancient Rabbis struggled to understand the minority position articulated by Rabbi Yosi. Some suggest that dirty clothes cause a certain type of scab, which leads to madness. In contrast, they say, scabs that result from not bathing lead (only) to blindness, meaning that laundry is essential, while bathing is less so (BT, N’darim 81a). While the scientific basis of this statement may be a bit shaky, the Rabbinic claim that dirty clothes are a threat to one’s sanity reflects a basic discomfort with the suggestion that anything could come before human life….
Both versions of the Talmud—the Talmud Bavli (Babylonian Talmud, codified around the sixth or seventh century CE) and Talmud Yerushalmi (Jerusalem, or Palestinian, Talmud, codified around the fourth or fifth century CE)—present a story, in similar but varying versions, of a rabbinical student who is so troubled by this text that he is unable to study for several days. I will present both versions and then discuss their differences. According to the Talmud Bavli:
Isi the son of Yehuda did not come to Rabbi Yosi’s study hall for three days. Vardimus, the son of Rabbi Yosi, found him and said to him, “Why haven’t you come to my father’s study hall for three days?” Isi said to him, “Since I don’t understand your father’s reasoning, how can I come?” Vardimus said to him, “Tell me what he said, and maybe I know his reasoning.” He said to him, “It is taught: Rabbi Yosi said, ‘Their laundry takes precedence over the lives of others’—what is the source of this?” Vardimus said, “The Torah says, ‘The open spaces shall be for their animals [b’hemtam] and their possessions and for all of their beasts [chayatam]’ (Numbers 35:3). What does chayatam mean? Maybe it means ‘their beasts.’ But beasts are included in ‘animals.’ So what does chayatam mean? Maybe it really means ‘their lives’ [chiyuta]. But this would be obvious! Rather, it must refer to laundry, for [not doing laundry] leads to the misery of scabs.”
The version of the story that appears in the Talmud Yerushalmi follows the same contours, but includes some significant variations:
Yehuda of Hutzi went and hid himself in a cave for three days, trying to understand the reason that the lives of the people of this city should take precedence over the lives of people of another city. [After the three days were over,] Rabbi Yosi bar Chalafta bumped into him and said to him, “Where have you been?” He said, “I went and hid in a cave for three days, trying to understand the reason that the lives of the people of this city take precedence over the lives of people of another city.” Rabbi Yosi bar Chalafta called his son Rabbi Aborodimas and said to him, “Explain the reason that the lives of the people of this city take precedence over the lives of people of another city.” Rabbi Aborodimas said to him, “[The Bible says,] ‘Thus shall it be with these cities, each city,’ and afterwards it says, ‘And the open land around it’ (Joshua 21:40).” Rabbi Yosi bar Chalafta said to Rabbi Yehuda, “Why didn’t you consult with your friends [about this question]?” (JT, Sh’vi’it 8:5)
In both of these stories, a student—not yet a rabbi—finds Rabbi Yosi’s statement about laundry so difficult that he disappears from the study hall for three days. In each case, Rabbi Yosi’s son (whose name varies slightly in the two versions) offers an explanation based on a biblical verse. For both Talmuds, this explanation seems to suffice. That is, in neither case does the student ask additional questions or argue with the logic presented.
While both stories refer to the same statement by Rabbi Yosi, the two students focus on different aspects of the problem. In the Bavli, the student is troubled by the prospect of prioritizing laundry over human life. But in the Yerushalmi, the student asks the more basic question of why one person’s life should take precedence over another person’s life at all. For this student, the fact that the wellspring in question happens to be located in one city should not necessarily mean that the lives of the people of that city should take precedence over the lives of anyone else. This student, therefore, challenges not only Rabbi Yosi—the minority opinion in the text in question—but also the Rabbinic majority, who prioritize the people of the city also in regard to drinking water.
What is most striking about both versions of the story is the weakness of the eventual answer to the problem that the student presents. In the Bavli, the explanation rests on an unorthodox reading of the word chayot, which literally means “beasts.” Vardimus begins with the assertion that this word is redundant, as the Torah already refers to b’hemot, which also means “animals.” The easiest interpretation of this biblical verse would define b’hemot and chayot as referring to two different types of animals. Instead, Vardimus chooses the more improbable option of noting that the word chayot comes from the word chayim, “life,” and then equating “life” with “laundry” based on an earlier assertion that dirty clothes cause painful scabs. In the Yerushalmi, the rabbi’s son explains the reasoning by citing a biblical verse that refers first to the cities the Jews are building for themselves, and only later to the space around the city. As read here, this verse suggests that a person should first take care of his or her city, and only then worry about the space outside of this city. Both of these explanations rely on fairly improbable readings of the biblical text. It is not uncommon for the Rabbis to justify a legal detail by reference to a supposedly extraneous or difficult word or letter in a biblical text; however, in the case of a complicated moral problem, we would expect the Rabbis to engage in some amount of logical argumentation. The decision to respond to a serious ethical question through a stretched biblical interpretation effectively amounts to an admission that the problem at hand is an impossible one.
The Yerushalmi version of this story adds two intriguing elements not present in the Bavli. First, the student in question does not simply skip class; rather, he hides out in a cave for three days, presumably meditating on the problematics of the situation. Second, when he reappears, his rabbi chides him by asking why he didn’t consult with his friends. There are two ways to read the rabbi’s criticism here. The easiest reading would have us understand Rabbi Yosi as saying, “You just wasted three days sitting in a cave when your friend had the answer all along.” But given the aforementioned difficulty of the response, I hesitate to read Rabbi Yosi in this way. Instead, I understand Rabbi Yosi as telling his pupil, “You’re right. There is no easy answer to this impossible moral quandary. But difficult moral problems aren’t resolved by meditating alone in a cave. These problems are resolved by talking them through with friends, in the context of a human community in which we learn from the perspectives and experiences of others.”
Of course, the dilemma that the Rabbis wrestle with in the Talmud has not gone away. In various forms it preoccupies philosophers and ordinary people to this day. The clearest modern articulation of the argument against Rabbi Yosi comes from Peter Singer, an Australian philosopher. In the introduction to his book The Life You Can Save, he presents the following scenario:
On your way to work, you pass a small pond. On hot days, children sometimes play in the pond, which is only about knee-deep. The weather’s cool today, though, and the hour is early, so you are surprised to see a child splashing about in the pond. As you get closer, you see that it is a very young child, just a toddler, who is flailing about, unable to stay upright or walk out of the pond. You look for the parents or babysitter, but there is no one else around. The child is unable to keep his head above the water for more than a few seconds at a time. If you don’t wade in and pull him out, he seems likely to drown. Wading in is easy and safe, but you will ruin the new shoes you bought only a few days ago, and get your suit wet and muddy. By the time you hand the child over to someone responsible for him, and change your clothes, you’ll be late for work…
But consider that, according to UNICEF, nearly 10 million children under five years old die each year from causes related to poverty…. By donating a relatively small amount of money, you could save a child’s life. Maybe it takes more than the amount needed to buy a pair of shoes—but we all spend money on things we don’t really need, whether on drinks, meals out, clothing, movies, concerts, vacations, new cars, or house renovation. Is it possible that by choosing to spend your money on such things rather than contributing to an aid agency, you are leaving a child to die, a child you could have saved?
In accordance with his argument that failing to save the faraway child is as immoral as ignoring the drowning child, Singer advocates living on the amount necessary for basic subsistence—as of 2001, he suggested thirty thousand dollars for the average American family—and donating the remainder of one’s income toward ending world poverty. At the very least, he says, those able to provide for their own basic needs should devote 5 percent of their family income to fighting global poverty. In the context of our Talmudic debate, we may understand Singer as supporting the majority Rabbinic view that the people of the city should first distribute drinking water to everyone who needs to drink, and only then use the water for less essential purposes of their own.
Singer’s approach to the distribution of resources may be the most rational one, yet few of us act accordingly. As Singer points out, we can attribute some of the discontinuity between what we believe is right and what we actually do to a blindness toward those who are not in our line of sight. But there is also deep wisdom in Rabbi Yosi’s position and in the Rabbinic injunction to care first for those in our own family or our own city.
The ancient Rabbis demonstrated an understanding of the limits of rational utilitarianism when they factored intimacy into the hierarchy of responsibility. Our primary responsibilities are toward our families, our people, and the residents of our own town because of our intimate relationship with members of these groups—and not because we believe certain individuals to be more worthy of saving than others.
The rabbis refuse to let intimacy trump all else. The commentators who seek to explain Rabbi Yosi’s position go to great lengths to demonstrate that laundry is an essential human need. But ultimately, the halakhah goes along with Rabbi Yosi (She’iltot d’Rav Ahai Parshat Re’eh 147). Some even allow the residents of one city to cut off water flow to another city in order to take care of their own needs (Rashi, comment on N’darim 81a). The rabbis refuse to prioritize intimacy above all other needs, and therefore stop short of classifying laundry as a mere luxury. At the same time, these rabbis demand that we do take intimacy into account when we make decisions about allocating money, time, and other resources. And, of course, our decisions in this regard must be made in the context of a rich and nuanced debate with our friends, family members, and colleagues.
Taking Responsibility for Our Neighbors
At this point, we have taken some steps toward defining our place(s) and toward envisioning what these places would look like in an ideal world. Now, we turn our attention to our own responsibility in transforming these places. I previously discussed the various conditions—including duration of residence and intention to stay—that define a person as a member of b’nai ha’ir, the “people of the city.” As we have seen, the b’nai ha’ir must contribute to the city’s various tzedakah funds, as well as to the establishment of infrastructure such as city walls and other means of security. In this way, b’nai ha’ir help to guarantee both the short-term well being of other residents and the long-term sustainability of the city as a whole.
The Talmud and other early sources describe the b’nai ha’ir as a sort of co-op, the members of which make collective decisions that become binding on all members of the group. In order to protect the city from intruders, the b’nai ha’ir, for example, can force each other to contribute to the construction of “a wall, doors, and a bolt” and to pay the wages of a security guard (Mishnah Bava Batra 1:5).
The Tosefta, a Rabbinic text from the second or third century CE, offers a laundry list of decisions that the b’nai ha’ir may make and enforce:
The people of a city compel each other to build a synagogue for themselves, and to purchase for themselves a Torah scroll and scroll of Prophets. The people of the city are also permitted to determine prices, weights, and workers’ wages. They are permitted to establish penalties. The people of the city are permitted to say, “Anyone who is seen at so and-so’s home will give such and such amount,” or “Anyone who is seen with governmental officials will give such and such amount.” Or “Anyone who lets one’s cow graze in the vineyards will give such and such amount.” Or “Anyone who brings such and such an animal out to graze will give such and such amount.” They are permitted to establish fines. (Tosefta, Bava Metzia 11:23)
This text grants the b’nai ha’ir both authority and responsibility for the religious, political, and economic health of the city. Through their enactments, the b’nai ha’ir may ensure that the people have a place to pray, as well as scrolls for the Torah and Haftarah readings; that prices and wages are fair; that no member of the city compromises the safety of the others vis-à-vis the presumably hostile government;that city residents do not have contact with people shunned for one reason or another; and that animals do not run wild over the property of city residents. In all of these cases, the b’nai ha’ir may exercise their power by enforcing penalties on anyone who does not abide by the agreed-upon conditions. Medieval Jewish communities regularly enacted takkanot hakahal—new communal legislation—that either addressed an issue not covered by older Jewish law or, at times, even circumvented existing law. These takkanot covered areas ranging from the distribution of tzedakah to criminal justice to employment practices. For city residents, the force of these takkanot was equal to that of biblical or Talmudic halakhah….
There is no question within Jewish legal texts that all city residents must contribute toward certain basic elements of the public infrastructure.There is a question, however, about whether each person should contribute the same amount, or whether assessments should depend either on personal wealth or on the extent to which an individual will benefit from a particular institution. In considering the fairest way to distribute tax responsibility for the construction or repair of city walls, the Talmud weighs three possible factors: the number of household members, wealth, and proximity to the walls:
Rabbi Elazar asked Rabbi Yochanan: When the people of the city collect [for walls and other security infrastructure], do they collect according to the number of people or according to wealth? He said to him, “They collect according to wealth. Elazar, my son, fix this ruling firmly.” Some say that Rabbi Elazar asked Rabbi Yochanan: When the people of the city collect [for walls and other security infrastructure], do they collect according to the number of people or according to proximity to the walls? He said to him, “They collect according to proximity to the walls. Elazar, my son, fix this ruling firmly.” (BT, Bava Batra 7b)
Despite Rabbi Yochanan’s reported insistence that the law concerning the allocation of tax burden be, literally, “fixed with nails,” the Talmud can’t seem to remember exactly what the law is. It is clear that we do not collect the same amount of money from each household. But do we collect according to household wealth or according to the extent to which a particular household benefits from the infrastructure project?
Most of the early commentators on the Talmud, beginning with Rabbenu Tam (Jacob ben Meir, France ca. 1100–1171), try to reconcile the two versions of Rabbi Yochanan’s statement by suggesting that money should first be collected according to wealth, and only then according to proximity to the walls of the city. That is, the wealthiest people give the most, regardless of where they live, and the poorest people give the least. The question of who benefits most from the infrastructure comes into play only in the case of two people whose household wealth is identical.
These rulings constitute the ideological basis of a progressive tax. We can imagine that the wealthiest people might choose to live as far as possible from the city walls, leaving those who cannot afford to live farther from the perimeter more vulnerable to bandits and burglars who might infiltrate gaps in the walls. The wealthy people in the city center might then argue that they should not be forced to pay for infrastructure repair from which they are unlikely to derive any direct benefit. Instead, Jewish law responds, each of us must contribute according to our ability, regardless of our personal need for a certain public works project. In modern contexts, this means that even people without children in public school are expected to pay taxes that support the school system, and even people who live in housing developments with private security or trash collection services are responsible for ensuring adequate policing and sanitation for the entire city or town.
In defining our relationship to the places where we focus our social justice work, we need to be clear about our own position and interests. Do we approach these places as b’nai ha’ir—as residents who consider ourselves obligated regarding the well being of the community? Or are we outsiders who will never take on the status of community members? How do our own financial and other interests figure into our communal activities? When will pursuing a communal ideal also serve our personal material interests? When will our immediate interests conflict with what is best for the community? How will we navigate any conflicts that might arise?
This article was excerpted and adapted from chapters two and three of Where Justice Dwells: A Hands-On Guide to Doing Social Justice in Your Jewish Community by Rabbi Jill Jacobs, 2011 (Permission granted by Jewish Lights Publishing, www.jewishlights.com).
(To return to the Winter 2013 Table of Contents, click here.)