Response to this essay by: Harold Kravitz and Joel Pitkowsky (my response at the end -ed.):
As rabbis and members of the Board of Directors for MAZON: a Jewish Response to Hunger, we were dismayed to read an article in Mosaic from 4/4/17 entitled “Does the Torah mandate charity for those who don’t wish to work”. The article refers to testimony that MAZON’s Vice President of Public Policy, Josh Protas, made before a Congressional hearing on SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, previously known as Food Stamps) on March 28, 2017. The article asserts, incorrectly, that Mr. Protas claimed that the Torah “mandates the distribution of charity without regard for whether the recipients are able to earn money themselves”.
With all due respect to Rabbi Student, we were dismayed by his comments because Mr. Protas actually did not say what Rabbi Student claims he said, as his written testimony (https://agriculture.house.gov/uploadedfiles/protas_testimony.pdf) and a YouTube search can prove. Mr. Protas was using biblical sources to support the idea that as Jews we have a collective responsibility toward other human beings and to treat the most vulnerable among us with dignity. Mr. Protas did not say, nor has MAZON ever said, that the government or private organizations should support all people who can work and simply choose not to do so.
In fact, the testimony offered by MAZON highlighted the wisdom of the commandment in Leviticus that was cited and noted that the SNAP program embodies the same values, including respecting the dignity of those who are poor, and supporting work. Mr. Protas’ testimony included this statement, “In Leviticus, we are commanded to leave the corners of our fields and the gleanings of our harvest and vineyards for the poor and the stranger. This commandment is a clear expression of our collective responsibility for each other. It’s wisdom respects the dignity of those who are poor and gives them a role in taking care of their needs by harvesting the corners of the fields themselves.”
Much of the discussion at the hearing focused on the issue of work requirements that are part of the guidelines for SNAP eligibility and the availability of employment and training support to help those who are unemployed and in poverty transition back to work. MAZON contended that the federal government needs to do more to robustly fund needed employment and training initiatives, making them more widely accessible, and set up with reasonable parameters, including individualized case management. In order to encourage workforce participation and pathways out of poverty, it is necessary to establish realistic expectations and provide the necessary supports.
Congressman Jodey Arrington (TX-19) was not present for much of the hearing, and though he acknowledged the compassion contained in the citation of Leviticus by Mr. Protas, he went on to quote 2 Thessalonians 3:10 “If a man will not work, he shall not eat.” Unfortunately, Congressman Arrington seemed to miss the discussion in the hearing about how SNAP effectively supports work and suggestions for improvements to encourage greater workforce participation. Instead, Congressman Arrington incorrectly inferred that Mazon was arguing against the concept of work requirements. Unintentionally, we are sure, the post in Mosaic furthers that incorrect interpretation of MAZON’s testimony.
Rabbi Gil Student (whose comments in the article are fleshed out more completely in the blog www.torahmusings.com), presents a few different views on the subject and near the end of his comments has the following remark from the late Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, the former Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion in Israel, “the effort to encourage sensitivity on the one hand and responsibility on the other…reflects Halakha’s values.”
The two of us, on behalf of MAZON, could not agree more with this sentiment. By looking at the massive problem of hunger through a Jewish framework, we encourage the United States government to support a program (SNAP) that does exactly what Rabbi Student (paraphrasing Rabbi Lichtenstein) says, take into account the context of why someone is not working. In fact, over 50% of SNAP participants are either children or senior citizens, two groups who are not generally considered part of the regular workforce. Furthermore, 41% of SNAP households have at least one working person living in that home. The statistics clearly show that the ability and desire to work will not solve this issue of hunger.
As a final note, we are not sure why the Mosaic article on 4/4/17 has the words social-justice in quotation marks when discussing MAZON, a Jewish organization solely devoted to ending hunger in the United States and Israel. Do the quotation marks imply that working to end hunger is not a valid social justice cause? We beg to differ. We hope you will all join us in working together to end hunger for people of all religions and backgrounds both in the United States and in Israel.
Rabbi Harold Kravitz
Rabbi Joel Pitkowsky
Gil Student responds:
When describing the view with which I was disagreeing, I used the word “apparently” in the attribution and did not mention the organization’s name because I was basing my understanding on a third party’s report, that of Congressman Arrington. The congressman disagreed with Mazon’s representative and presented the issue as one of Christian vs. Jew, to which I responded that we actually agree. I confirmed that the quote he used was accurate but did not investigate further. I am glad that the congressman’s description was incorrect and apologize for failing to adequately caveat my discussion.