Judaism holds up before us a vision of an ideal society in which there would not be any “evyon
” [needy person] among us (Deuteronomy 15:4). And yet, until such time as we achieve that ideal, Judaism teaches us to take responsibility for the poor, spelling out for us practical steps designed to train our hearts and minds to compassion and caring (Deuteronomy 15:11).
To this end, the Bible included specific commandments, including the mitzvot
[commandments] of pe’ah
[leaving the corner of the field for the poor] and leket
[fallen sheaves of grain] which was to be left on the ground for the poor during the harvest.
These, and other Biblical commandments relating to the religious obligation to care for the needy in a primarily agricultural setting, were expanded in the Rabbinical period and adapted to urban settings as well.
Realizing that individuals need to work together to attain the level of caring that the Torah envisioned for the poor, Jewish communities established various societal mechanisms to feed the poor on a daily basis, to aid indigent newly weds, and to care for the deceased.
In the Middle Ages, Maimonides (Mishneh Torah: Hilkhot Tzedakah 10:7-14) outlined eight levels of giving, emphasizing the need for individuals to contribute to those in need at whatever level they could sustain. At the top of the ladder of giving, Maimonides placed the inspiring goal of raising up the needy person to a level of economic self-sufficiency.
While not losing sight of the ideal, a society in which none are needy, it is important to keep in mind that many elements affect the gap between rich and poor and that in the past, as in the present, no individual, community, or government, can be expected to provide unlimited support while retaining its ability to serve effectively in the future.
So, for instance, In the United States today, one of the many elements that affect the economic gap between rich and poor is the issue of health care. In relation to this one element, see Rabbis Elliot N. Dorff and Aaron L. Mackler’s “Responsibilities for the Provision of Health Care” in Responsa1991-2000: The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Conservative Movement, Rabbinical Assembly, NY, 2002 pp. 319-336.
This responsum first addresses the responsibility of patients and of their families, then it addresses the responsibility of physicians and of other health care professionals. Part III of the responsum, pp. 330-336, “The Responsibility of the Community,” reveals a thoughtful discussion of the legitimate goals and expectations we may have of our communities versus the limitations that necessarily must be taken into account, if community is to function effectively on its many levels of service to the public.
To circle back to your original question, you ask: Is it a Jewish value to support the notion that government should do more to reduce the gap between the rich and the poor?
Certainly government can and should play an important part in reducing the gap between the rich and the poor since the goal of caring for the poor and of enabling them to live in dignity is both an individual and a shared communal Jewish value. However, reducing the gap is not intrinsically a governmental task as opposed to the task of individuals, of local community organizations, or of the private sector and, historically, Jewish communities have employed a combination of resources to achieve our shared communal goal.
The Jewish values of human dignity and mutual responsibility should guide us as we search for practical ways in which to be as effective as possible in caring for the needy amongst us, given the particular circumstances of our times.
Hopefully, the debate surrounding the question of who is responsible: the government or the private sector – will not derail us from our true objective – relating to the needy among us with respect, with an open hand and with an open heart.