Rabbis' letter urges Jews to participate in programs to aid poor, give to charity

Assembly in Baltimore OKs 41-page document

April 29, 1999|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

It is a "sacred task" and a religious obligation for Jews to work to alleviate poverty in their communities and in the world, according to a rabbinical letter on the poor approved yesterday by the world's Conservative rabbis.

The rabbis, who wrap up the five-day meeting of the Rabbinical Assembly at the Sheraton Inner Harbor Hotel today, approved "You Shall Strengthen Them: A Rabbinic Letter on the Poor," which urges their congregations to participate in local action programs, to give to charity and to study what Judaism teaches about their religious obligation to those less fortunate.

Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff, chancellor of the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, who wrote the 41-page rabbinical letter, said yesterday in a seminar on the letter that most Jews are aware their religion requires them to give to charities that aid the poor but that many aren't aware of why.

"We immediately assume we ought to be concerned about the poor. It's deeply ingrained in our tradition," he said. "But where do those assumptions come from? One of the things the letter does is to underscore the theological and legal grounds for being concerned about the poor."

One thing the rabbis did not seek to do is to condemn the rich, Dorff said.

"The tradition is deeply committed to helping the poor. But I have to say at the same time, there's absolutely nothing wrong in Jewish tradition with being rich. The question is, what do you do with it?" Dorff said. What it does say "is that the obligation that the tradition imposes on everyone falls more heavily on you, because you are able to help people more than people who are less wealthy."

The beginning of the letter outlines the Jewish theological tenets on poverty and the obligation to relieve it. It notes that the main concern in relation to poverty is to provide the underprivileged with sufficient food and shelter to sustain themselves. Concern for human health and safety "takes precedence in Jewish Law even over the Sabbath and Yom Kippur," the letter says.

Caring for the poor plays a role in fulfilling Israel's covenant with God, and is a part of the biblical responsibility to uphold the dignity of all human beings, who are made in the image of God.

The letter does not make specific policy recommendations, leaving those to individuals and communities. It calls for extensive job training for those who would be cut off from public assistance through welfare reform, and it calls for the restoration of the safety net for those unable to find work.

But in the resolution overwhelmingly adopted yesterday approving the rabbinical letter, the Rabbinical Assembly called for support of legislation that would raise the minimum wage to $6.15 per hour; called upon the Clinton administration to restore food stamp benefits to legal immigrants; and urged legislation requiring transitional safety nets, particularly including Medicaid and food stamps, for families making the transition from welfare to work.

Pub Date: 4/29/99

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