Panhandlers and the Jewish Tradition

These are hard days for street beggars.  More and more municipalities have tried to ban their activities by law (the courts have held that merely asking somebody for money is free speech, protected by the First Amendment, but that “coercive” panhandling can legitimately be barred. So far there has been no binding precedent on the constitutionality of laws prohibiting camping in public parks, sleeping in public spaces, and searching for food in dumpsters and garbage cans.) Police conduct regular “sweeps” of places ordinarily frequented by homeless people, seizing and destroying their property, and packing the residents off to shelters or jails, or just “away.”  Dumpsters behind restaurants and multi-residential buildings are locked, or noxious or even poisonous substances sprayed on their contents.  Citizens approached by panhandlers are becoming less and less likely to be generous or even polite.  Municipal governments tend to see panhandlers as, at best, a blight on the landscape, and at worst, potential or actual criminals.

The liberal response to panhandling isn’t much better.  Community organizations which have traditionally thought of themselves as “do-gooders” are almost universally taking the position that panhandlers are either people with mental disabilities, who belong in some proper care facility, or substance abusers, who will use cash contributions only to degrade themselves further by feeding their habit.  The best response they can come up with from this perspective is voucher systems–would-be contributors buy vouchers for fifty or twenty-five cents each, and then hand them out to panhandlers.  The latter can redeem the vouchers at local food pantries, soup kitchens, grocery stores, restaurants, and sundry shops, but only for “legitimate” purchases, such as food, non-alcoholic beverages, and personal hygiene articles.  Not surprisingly, in some cities, a thriving black market for vouchers has already developed; the panhandlers sell them to “fences” at a discount, for cash, which they then presumably use for whatever anti-social purpose the vouchers were supposed to defeat, and the fences then use them for purchases of food etc. for which they would have otherwise paid cash, often twice as much. To the extent that they see any ethical quandary in this situation, the “do-gooders” define it as “How can I keep this person from starvation without helping him/her feed an addiction?”  The voucher system in fact does this job more or less adequately.  But it ignores a much older system of ethical priorities.

We Americans of the 1990s did not invent street beggars, or programs to repress and eliminate them, or voucher systems for that matter.  Third World countries take for granted the presence of swarms of beggars in any place likely to generate any surplus food or other resources.  Police may try to keep them from being too much of a nuisance to tourists and honest working people, but they rarely define the mere presence of any beggars as a “problem.”  Nor do the tourists and working people in question; “this is a Third World country,” they presume.  “The poor we have always with us.”  People give to them, or not, based on purely individual decisions.  Those decisions may in turn be motivated by religious tradition, emotion, or political commitment.  This is pretty much the traditional approach to beggary in such countries, dating back to the beginning of money economies.  It was also the accepted attitude in pre-industrial Europe.  Several religious orders, in their early years, supported themselves by begging.  The implicit bargain was that those who donated were freeing the friars to devote their time to prayer and good works, and in return would receive some of the merit therefrom.  This arrangement also existed on an individual basis–”give me a penny, kind sir, and I will pray for you.”  In addition, the medieval Catholic Church defined “feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and sheltering the homeless” as “corporal works of mercy”, meritorious in and of themselves, regardless of the deserts of the beneficiary. Many aristocrats and wealthy burghers retained “almoners” to take charge of giving out alms to people in need.

Islam and Judaism have similar traditions.  The giving of alms is one of the four pillars of Muslim practice.   “Tzedakah”–usually translated “charity”–is one of the obligations to which religious Jews are commanded.  In the Buddhist tradition, the monastic orders supported themselves by begging, and the laypeople who donated to them gained spiritual merit by doing so.

But the coming of industrialization to Europe, and especially the dissolution of the monasteries and religious orders in Britain and Northern (Protestant) Europe, changed this picture.  The presumption took hold that any able-bodied adult (and both terms were defined very loosely) could work, and anyone who could work should work, and deserved no support from anyone if s/he was not working.  “Sturdy [able-bodied] beggars” could be driven out of wherever they appeared, often with corporal punishment, or rounded up and imprisoned in “workhouses.” Substance abuse was not the issue–until quite late in the 19th century, almost everybody drank prodigious amounts of alcohol, and anyone who could afford it could legally obtain various kinds of opiates and cocaine derivatives over the counter for self-medication of various real and imagined ailments. Probably at least half of these people would today be classified as addicted to something.  That was not a major social concern, except among a few minority religious groups like the Methodists and their offshoot, the Salvation Army.

In industrialized Eastern Europe, especially in what is now called Poland, the Jewish community was called on to respond to several waves of increased indigency, often connected with the movement of refugees from the various wars which infested the area over the 17th through the early 20th century.  Community organizations, soup kitchens, food pantries, and other large-scale charitable organizations were set up, drawing on the financial support of wealthy Jewish entrepreneurs and the moral support of the rabbinic establishment.   And some of these organizations set up voucher programs, to discourage beggars from “bothering” working citizens and make sure that only “deserving” poor people received alms.  There is a story about one such campaign in Poland a hundred years or so ago; a meeting of the umbrella community organization was held, and one of the major items of “new business” on the agenda was a proposal for a voucher program, which would prohibit beggars from approaching individuals directly, and require them to apply to some authorized agency for help.  The Hafetz Hayyim, a very holy rabbi, who had been asked to attend the meeting to lend his moral support to its decisions, raised his hand. “Point of order,” he called out. “What is your point of order, rabbi?” asked the chair.  “You have called this proposal ‘new business.’  But in point of fact this is old business.  It is as old as Sodom and Gomorrah.”

This requires an explanation. In Genesis 18:20, the Holy One tells Abraham “The sins of Sodom and Gomorrah cry out to Me.  I am going to destroy them.”  After a charming interlude in which Abraham tries unsuccessfully to talk the Holy One out of His plan, the latter sends a couple of angels into Sodom to tell Abraham’s nephew Lot and his family to get out of town before the sulfur and brimstone hit.  The local citizens, on seeing these personable strangers enter Lot’s house, gather outside Lot’s door and demand “Send out these men, that we may know them.”  As we all learned in Sunday school, when the Bible says “know”, it means “have relations with.”  The angels and Lot’s family get out safely, and Sodom and Gomorrah get what’s coming to them.

Christians read this story as an indictment of the evils of deviant sexuality.   They presume that the sins that “cried out to heaven” and got the Holy One’s attention in the first place were also sexual sins.  But that is not how the Jewish tradition reads it.

To elaborate on this tradition, we need to understand the Jewish concept of midrash. Loosely translated, it means “story- telling.” In practice, it means that, unlike the Saturday Evening Post in its heyday, the rabbis have taken responsibility for what the characters in the biblical narrative do between installments. While the stories woven to account for how the dramatis personae got from here to there do not have the authority of scripture, and may often wildly contradict each other, they provide us with a world-view and a way of looking at scripture that is part and parcel of the Jewish mindset. Jews do not read the Bible raw and unaccompanied; it is always filtered through commentary and midrash.

So what does the midrash say about Sodom and Gomorrah? (My source, for the sake of convenience, is Louis Ginzberg’s  Legends of the Jews.) “If a stranger merchant passed through their territory, he was besieged by them all, big and little alike, and robbed of whatever he possessed. Each one appropriated a bagatelle, until the traveler was stripped bare. If the victim ventured to remonstrate with one or another, he would show him that he had taken a mere trifle, not worth talking about. [Anyone involved in consumer protection work knows that it is vastly easier to steal one dollar each from a million people than a million dollars from one person–and far less likely to be prosecuted and punished.] And the end was that they hounded him from the city….After a while travelers avoided these cities, but if some poor devil was betrayed occasionally into entering them, they would give him gold and silver, but never any bread, so that he was bound to die of starvation.  Once he was dead, the residents of the city came and took back the marked gold and silver which they had given him, and they would quarrel about the distribution of his clothes, for they would bury him naked….

“The cause of their cruelty was their exceeding great wealth.  Their soil was  gold, and in their miserliness and their greed for more and more gold, they wanted to prevent strangers from enjoying aught of their riches.  Accordingly, they flooded the highways with streams of water, so that the roads to their city were obliterated, and none could find the way thither.  They were as heartless towards beasts as towards men.  They begrudged the birds what they ate, and therefore extirpated them.  [Nowadays, in some place, people get arrested for feeding pigeons.]  They behaved impiously towards one another, too, not shrinking back from murder to gain possession of more gold….

“Their laws were calculated to do injury to the poor. The richer a man was, the more was he favored before the law. The owner of two oxen was obliged to render one day’s shepherd service, but if he had but one ox, he had to give two days’ service….For the use of the ferry, a traveler had to pay four zuz, but if he waded through the water, he had to pay eight zuz [one of the earliest examples of the now well-known fact that the poor pay more].” Ginzberg follows with a story of a outsider woman who had married a man of Sodom. “Once a beggar came to town, and the court issued a proclamation that none should give him anything to eat, in order that he might die of starvation. But [the woman] had pity upon the unfortunate wretch, and every day when she went to the well to draw water, she supplied him with a piece of bread, which she hid in her water pitcher.  The inhabitants of the two sinful cities, Sodom and Gomorrah, could not understand why the beggar did not perish, and they suspected that someone was giving him food in secret.  Three men concealed themselves near the beggar, and  caught [the woman] in the act of giving him something to eat. She had to pay for her humanity with death; she was burnt upon a pyre….

“The people of Admah [one of the other “cities of the plain” destroyed with Sodom and Gomorrah] were no better than those of Sodom.  Once a stranger came to Admah, intending to stay overnight and continue his journey the next morning.  The daughter of a rich man met the stranger, and gave him water to drink and bread to eat at his request.  When the people of Admah heard of this infraction of the law of the land, they seized the girl and arraigned her before the judges, who condemned her to death.  The people smeared her with honey from top to toe, and exposed her where bees would be attracted to her. The insects stung her to death, and the callous people paid no attention to her heart-rending cries.  Then it was that God resolved upon the destruction of these sinners.”

Which brings us to the visit of the angels to Sodom, and the locals’ demand to gang-rape them, that actually appears in the narrative in Genesis. Midrash explains it thus: “It was not the first time that the inhabitants of Sodom wanted to perpetrate a crime of this sort. They had made a law some time before that all strangers were to be treated in this horrible way.” In short, the midrashic tradition is that the cities of the plain were punished for their inhospitality to the poor and the stranger. Their proposed attack on the angels, like most rapes, was not a sexual act, but an act of violence. It was especially evil because it was directed against victims especially protected by Heaven–strangers and travelers, people with no other source of protection among the locals.

For the origin of this idea, we need to look at the book of Deuteronomy, for instance 24: 19, where “the widow, the orphan, the stranger, and the poor” are repeatedly described as being under the special protection of Heaven (one might even say that Heaven has placed them under an affirmative action program.)  This protection is necessary, in an agrarian society, because these people in particular have no link to the means of survival–ownership or share-cropping rights on agricultural land.  The Book of Ruth–in which the title character is a widow, an orphan, and a stranger, and is given what she needs to survive and feed her family–is the paradigm of the proper treatment of this protected class.  The Sodom and Gomorrah story, in the Jewish tradition, is the paradigm of the improper treatment of this same class.

So when a rabbi talks about Sodom and Gomorrah, chances are he is talking about mistreatment of  poor and helpless people.  Clearly, that was what the Hafetz Hayyim meant.  And that is the lens through which religious Jews have to decide what to do about panhandlers.  We have a divinely-imposed obligation to help those who cannot support themselves.  Anyone who has any resources whatever to spare (over and above the support of their own family) is subject to that obligation, even poor people–even, in fact, a beggar who has had a good day, vis-a-vis one who has not been so lucky.

Among the most important and best-known pronouncements on the obligation to give to the poor are those of Moses ben Maimon–Maimonides.  Most Jews and many non-Jews are familiar with his classification of the eight grades of charity, of which the highest is enabling a poor person to become self-supporting, and the next highest is the gift in total anonymity on both sides.  It should be noted that he did not intend the higher levels to replace the lower (the person-to-person face-to-face gift, with varying degrees of good grace on the part of the giver.) In his less well-known works, Maimonides, who is writing in the 1200s in highly-urbanized Spain and Northern Africa, is realistic, and perfectly willing to admit that there are phony beggars out there, people who claim needs they do not in fact have.  The Holy One has allowed these fakers to exist, he tells us, to create a benefit of the doubt for people who refuse to give to beggars (Maimonides was realistic about those people, too.)  If all the beggars out there were really destitute, he says, anyone who failed to give to one of them when s/he could afford to would be committing a grave sin.  Since some of them are fakes, those who refuse to give are guilty only in proportion to the ratio of real beggars to phonies.  Maimonides also says that anyone who cannot respond to a beggar’s request for alms by giving money or other physical goods has an obligation at least to give him/her a cheerful greeting.

“Tzedekah” is usually translated “charity.”  But in fact, its meaning is much closer to “justice” or “righteousness”–closely related to what Plato and Aristotle mean by “justice” as “giving to each person what s/he deserves.”  It is an individual obligation, and creates individual rights.  The passages in Exodus and Deuteronomy which impose it are mostly written in the second person singular (for example, Ex. 22: 20ff.; Deut. 15; 7ff.) The beggar who approaches a by-passer is not asking for a favor, s/he is invoking a right.  “Fiddler on the Roof” retells an old Jewish beggar joke–”Alms for the poor,” cries the beggar. “Not this week, business hasn’t been so good,” replies the by-passer.  “So because you had a bad week, I should suffer?” says the beggar.  Maimonides would utterly concur with him.

So we have three possible views of undeserving beggars: Maimonides in the 13th century says that Heaven allows them to exist to keep stingy people from incurring grave sin–and if we refuse to give to them, we are taking a calculated risk; the “Poor Law” administrators of newly-industrialized England say that these are people who are refusing to work despite being able to do so, and giving to them merely encourages their idleness; and today’s “liberal” organizations say they are crazy or addicted, and giving to them only encourages them in not getting the care they need to become sane, sober, self-supporting human beings.  The Poor Law administrators had no trouble distinguishing between deserving and undeserving beggars–any adult (loosely defined) with the usual number of limbs and organs who wasn’t working was undeserving. Period.  But both Maimonides and today’s do-gooders are willing to grant at least some ambiguity in this category–we can’t always tell by looking at or talking to a beggar whether s/he is for real.  Maimonides took the position that, morally, the safest way to deal with this ambiguity was to give; today’s liberals take precisely the opposite position, perhaps because they believe the proportion of really destitute people to fakes has shifted, and possibly even reversed, since the 13th century.  The various surveys and studies of homeless people, street people, and beggars have produced conflicting and admittedly inconclusive results.  We generally don’t know, and probably can’t know, which of the people who approaches us on the street is for real.

And that’s assuming that the currently respectable definitions of “deserving” and “undeserving” are valid.  Suppose every beggar, every homeless person, were to clean up, sober up, and apply for every job currently available.  Suppose–even less likely–that each of those jobs were actually filled with a homeless person or a beggar.  How many people would that leave?  Given the incomplete state of our statistics on homelessness and indigency, we can’t know–but it is hard to believe there really are jobs out there for every one of the people who “ought” to be seeking them.

Certainly it is morally, spiritually, emotionally, intellectually, and physically better to be unemployed and sober than to be unemployed and drunk–but who are we to begrudge the unemployed alcoholic his daily ration of rotgut if we are not willing to help him sober up?

At any rate, the point of voucher programs is to benefit people who, although probably addicted or crazy, are at least genuinely in need and should not be ignored altogether.  There are, I think, three possible ways to deal with such people:
(1) You can assume the panhandler is a person like yourself, capable of making rational decisions about allocating his/her resources and just in need of some help in acquiring resources.  In which case, the appropriate course of action is to give her/him some money. [In this society, the way to acquire full human dignity is to earn or inherit a lot of money.  But one can have at least some dignity simply by virtue of having some money, regardless of how it was obtained, and being free to decide how to spend it.  We grant that much dignity to children over the age of 5 or so, to whom most parents give cash allowances.  Arguably, even the panhandler deserves no less.]

(2) Or you can assume that the panhandler is for some reason not capable of spending money on what s/he needs without degrading him/herself even more.  In that case, if you are genuinely concerned about the panhandler as a person, you will do what I have known both my husband and my father to do on various occasions–take him/her to a restaurant–or what I have, more timidly, done–bring him/her a sandwich from the nearest fast food joint.

(3) But if all you really want is to get the panhandler out of your face so you can go on about your business, you can give him/her a voucher.  This is not a symbol or an instrument of personal concern; it is a substitute for it.  Unlike real charity, it is not a means of bringing giver and recipient closer together, but of setting a distance between them which the giver considers appropriate.

Don’t get me wrong; vouchers aren’t as bad as using the police to sweep the “riffraff” off the “nicer” streets.  And they’re a lot better than shooting street people, as is done in Rio these days. But the program should not be dignified with the name of charity, when it is really nothing but a relatively humane method of crowd control.

A final question:  should our decisions on what to do about street beggars be guided by a general policy–that is, should we always give, or never give, based on some general principle?  Or should we make our decisions one day at a time and one beggar at a time, based on our circumstances and theirs at that particular moment?  I lean toward the latter position.  Can I afford it today?  Maybe my finances fluctuate more than most people’s, but that is often a valid question for me.  Assuming I can, am I obligated to give to every beggar who approaches me, or may I pick and choose?  Assuming I may, on what basis do I make those choices?  As a practical matter, I don’t give to people who scare me, or try to intimidate me, and I have no scruples about that.  And I don’t give to people who really do strike me as phonies.  (But I do try to remember the cheerful greeting when I’m not in a position to give.)

Ultimately I have to use my own judgment, bearing in mind what Maimonides says on the subject.  I believe that part of the obligation to give to those in need is an obligation to look at each person who asks as an individual, rather than merely a vehicle for my virtue.  The Hafetz Hayyim and many orthodox Jews today would probably disagree with that position, and might say instead that if your path today intersects a beggar’s, Heaven has made that happen, for the beggar’s benefit or yours, or both.  Some people find that a really appealing spiritual path. It is the source of many legends–not only in the Jewish tradition, by the way–about beggars turning out to be Elijah the prophet, or some other spiritual VIP, who rewards those who treat him kindly, with either spiritual blessings or, sometimes, material ones.  This may be another way of saying that a beggar who seems phony may turn out to be the real thing, for all we know–an important reminder even to those of us trained in the social sciences, about where we should be applying the benefit of the doubt.

In the abstract, of course, Maimonides is right–the best thing we could do for street beggars is put them in a position to support themselves.  But when clean, sober middle managers with MBAs are being “downsized,” that solution is obviously a long way off.  An economy in which even an unskilled person with episodic mental problems can get a job that pays enough to put a roof over his or her head is what we should be working for, in the long run* .  The long run ought not to be coterminous with the messianic age.  “In the long run,” as Winston Churchill says, “we are all dead.”  Street people, if not cared for decently, are likely to be dead in the short run–some statistics indicate that the average street person will last, at most, ten years or until age sixty, whichever comes sooner.  We now know that changing the political party in power, or its philosophy, does nothing whatever to reduce the number of beggars on the street.  Until we can figure out what will, we have an obligation to tend to the short-run welfare of the poor we have with us.

Jane Grey


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