Justice in the City

Every December, a Los Angeles organization called The Giving Spirit packs thousands of survival packs containing apples, bars of soap, crackers, notepads, Slim Jims, tuna, wool hats,  and more—the alphabet of bare coping in a desperate environment. The packs are distributed to Los Angeles residents whose only home is the street.

Justice in the city

Rabbinic Judaism demands that city residents care for and accompany every person who passes through. What would it take to make such acts of care everyday occurrences rather than special events? Credit: Timothy Bruehl (artistincalifornia.com).

Each year my family and I go to a local Modern Orthodox synagogue on a Sunday to break down boxes of toothbrushes, tissues, lip balm, skin cream, and tuna fish and then, working as a human conveyor belt, we fill plastic containers with these items, which are shipped to a Presbyterian Church where other volunteers place these supplies and more in large duffel bags. On the next weekend, we gather at the church and move the duffels and camp blankets out of the large auditorium and into our cars. We drive off to areas with heavy populations of homeless folks to distribute our wares and to meet a small percentage of the sixty thousand or so Angelenos who live on the streets. The most depressing part of the activity is the speed with which we are able to distribute the packs.

For a few hours, a thousand or so volunteers stand face to face with people who share our city but not our privilege. We make a small dent in one side of a structural problem. Hopefully, as a result of our actions some more folks will make it through the winter. Hopefully, after distributing the packs and meeting the people, more folks will start asking why so many residents of this great city are living on the streets. These are the thoughts that I hope will shadow the plastic snow in the downtown windows and the warm glow of candles in the windows of our homes.

I believe that out of Rabbinic Judaism a model of responsibility emerges which, while recognizing the poor and homeless in society, citizen and noncitizen, as groups in need of care and deserving of support and shelter, sees the answer to homelessness and poverty also in political terms. It is an idea that I have developed at more length in my book on Justice in the City. The responsibility is placed on the city as a community defined by obligation toward those who reside in its boundaries. The boundaries of obligation are not the geographical boundaries of intimacy or municipality. The central argument here is that the boundaries of responsibility redraw and exceed the boundaries of intimacy, community, and municipality.

The Ritual of Accompaniment

There is a ritual, obligatory in Jewish law, that serves as a recurring reminder that the boundaries of obligation exceed the boundaries of geography or intimacy. When a guest leaves one’s house, one is legally obligated (according to Jewish law) to accompany that person for a set distance beyond the front door or the front of one’s property. The rabbis ground this ritual in one of the more interesting of biblical laws: the law of the “broken-necked heifer.” In the section of laws of war in Deuteronomy, the following situation is described: “Someone slain is found lying in the open, the identity of the slayer not being known.” The biblical authors face two questions. First, whose responsibility is this corpse? Second, how can the blood guilt be purged from the land, since there is no known murderer to atone for the sin?

The solution they proffer is both technical and moral. Since the victim was found “in the open,” that is, not in the municipal boundaries of any settlement, those who discovered the body must take measures to find which town is closest, and then that town must assume responsibility for the purging of the blood guilt. The elders of that town (and I am simplifying the ritual a bit) bring a young heifer to a river bed and kill the heifer by breaking its neck while reciting, “Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it done.”

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