The following is an excerpt of Michael’s recent speech to the United Synagogue’s Biannual Conference of Rabbis.
I was invited to participate in a study trip to Rwanda. It was run by OLAM, a shared platform to promote global Jewish service and international development.
The trip was designed to inspire Jewish community conversations about shared responsibility towards vulnerable populations in the developing world.
This was the first time that I had spent meaningful time in a developing world country. I saw the enormous personal challenges that confront many people every day.
Rwanda experienced genocide just 25 years ago and is coming to terms with the reality of the fact that the slaughter of a million people was perpetrated by their neighbours.
In our globalised world, development is relevant to all of us. I believe it is the fundamental issue facing the human race in the 21st century.
There is much to celebrate about the world’s development in the last 40 years. Poverty has been radically reduced. Illiteracy rates are falling, as is infant mortality. Life expectancy is rising. Fewer people are dying from malnutrition and more have access to clean drinking water and sanitation.
But the United Nations still estimates that 21% of the world’s population lives in poverty. That’s 1.6 billion people…
The numbers are staggering. 774 million people are illiterate – the majority of whom are women – and, indeed, poverty disproportionately affects women more than men.
2 billion people still don’t have access to quality sanitation. 748 million lack access to safe drinking water. 1 in 7 people live in hunger despite the world producing more than enough food to feed its global population. By one estimate, the western world throws away 33% of the food it produces.
Global conflict and unrest has resulted in some 65 million refugees, 26% of whom are in Africa.
Why am I telling you this? It is clear from my conversations with our younger members that more and more of them feel a responsibility to the developing world.
I believe it is our responsibility too. There are many calls on our time and philanthropy and Jewish perspectives on this issue are nuanced.
In this week’s Sidra (Torah portion), we are told not to wrong a stranger, not to mistreat a widow or orphan otherwise our own wives, God forbid, will become widows and our children, orphans.
The next passuk (verse) says: “If you lend money to My people, to the poor among you, do not act toward them as a creditor; exact no interest from them.” (Exodus 22:24)
The medieval Jewish commentator Rashi quotes the midrashic compilation Mechilta, who says that usually the word ‘im’ means ‘if’ – i.e., optional. But here ‘im’ means ‘when.’ Because it’s not optional to help Jews in need or other people.
Poor people exist and we have a duty to help them. And more than that, says Rashi, quoting the midrash Tanchuma, you must look at yourself as if you were a poor person.
How does this work in practice?
The Gemara in Tractate Bava Metzia page 71a says: “The poor of your city take precedence over the poor of another city.”
The 19th Century rabbi the Chatam Sofer says that this applies if both cities’ poor people need food or clothing. However, if the poor of your city have at least the basics to live 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 take precedence (Responsa Yoreh De’ah 231).
What does ‘local’ mean today? During Talmudic times, cities and their surroundings formed a single economic unit with their own markets, prices, values and regulations. It must have been obvious for communities to identify their own poor.
Today, world economies are inextricably interlinked. Most of the food that we eat is grown in other countries and many of the people with whom we interact on a daily basis have ancestry in countries far from here. Much of the ownership of the corporations in which we transact will be found in places thousands of miles from these shores.
This is not an easy subject. We live in a privileged time. There are enormous demands on our resources, particularly our time. Yet, as we navigate our way through the 21st century, global issues will become more and more important. Whether it be clean energy, women’s empowerment or global warming, these issues will have an increasing impact on us all. What I am clear about is that these issues will have increasing resonance within our community and there are Torah-true responses to them.
Let me suggest two different responses we should be thinking about.
The first is to acknowledge that these issues are important. As leaders, we all have a voice. We should make ours heard. The Chief Rabbi [of the Commonwealth] has led the way on issues including the plight of refugees and the environment. We must remain part of those conversations.
Secondly, as we have seen with Tribe’s visit to Rwanda and the Chief Rabbi’s Ben Azzai programme, there is a role for us to play in understanding other cultures and global volunteering.
I have been extremely proud of the growing areas in which the United Synagogue has been involved in supporting asylum seekers, feeding and sheltering the homeless and making wishes come true for the terminally ill. These are areas that are important and should grow in volume.