Helping people exercise their social rights

A beggar on Jerusalem’s Ben-Yehuda Street (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
A beggar on Jerusalem’s Ben-Yehuda Street
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

AN AMENDMENT has recently been made to the Social Welfare Service Law requiring welfare bureaus in Israel to “assist the needy in exercising all their legal rights, including as regards welfare, health, education, employment, and housing.” And indeed, it’s not enough for the law simply to extend rights to those of limited means, as in many cases these people do not demand the provision of their rights from the authorities, whether due to lack of information or to the relevant authorities being insufficiently accessible. Thus, this amendment to the law now instructs welfare bureaus to take an active stance in helping needy citizens to fully exercise their rights.

This amendment is of great moral and philosophical importance. The discourse of rights, which is predominant in modern society, plays a double role. On the one hand, it emphasizes the fact that needy people have the right to assistance from society, which is a matter of law and not voluntary kindness. On the other hand, rights discourse also makes clear that individuals must claim the rights that they deserve. According to this way of thinking, which is individualist by nature, people who don’t demand the fulfillment of their rights, for whatever reason, have no one to blame but themselves. This recent amendment to the law introduces an element of social responsibility that expands the boundaries of rights discourse. Even if needy people do not claim their rights, this does not absolve the state from its responsibility to ensure that they are given what they deserve. Moreover, it is precisely people of reduced means who are more likely to suffer from a lack of information about their rights and from a lack of access to the relevant bodies, and thus emphasizing this responsibility is particularly important.
A basis for this change can be found in rabbinic texts. Rather than rights, the rabbis chose to speak the language of obligations: the community is obligated to support the welfare of the poor. In this context, the rabbis of the Mishna were aware that it is not enough to determine an obligation to assist those who ask for help, because many people may prefer not to ask, often because they feel ashamed to do so. Thus, the rabbis also made it an obligation to actively extend aid to those who do not ask for it, for whatever reason. The way in which the rabbis chose to formulate this principle is illuminating. They refer to the passage in the Torah that commands extending aid to the needy:
If there be among you a needy man, one of thy brethren, within any of thy gates, in thy land which the Lord thy God giveth thee, thou shalt not harden thy heart, nor shut thy hand from thy needy brother; but thou shalt surely open thy hand unto him, and shalt surely lend him [“ha’avet ta’avitenu”] sufficient for his need in that which he wanteth. (Deuteronomy 15:7-8)
Based on these verses, the rabbis formulated a unique category of needy people who require a special form of attention: “ Ha’avet ” – this refers to one who does not have funds and does not want to be supported by charity. The policy is that the charities provide him with funds as a loan and go back and give the funds to him as a gift. (Babylonian Talmud, Ketubot 67b)
That is to say: There are poor people who are deserving of aid from the community but who prefer not to ask for help in order to preserve their own sense of dignity. The fact that needy people may be too ashamed to ask for the assistance they deserve does not absolve the community of the obligation to find other ways to help them. Instead, the community should extend a loan to the person in financial difficulty, which they would be more likely to accept because it does not involve a loss of self-dignity; and should they struggle to repay the debt, the community will not seek its full return.
As an idea, this obligation as described by the rabbis expresses an insight that should continue to guide us today, particularly in Israel – that the community has a responsibility to help all people in need, and not just those who are able to exercise their rights. It would appear that those who drafted the new amendment to the Social Welfare Service Law had a strong basis for their approach in the millennia-old rabbinic tradition. In the future, Members of Knesset (religious and secular both) would do well to consult the treasures of Jewish tradition when seeking to address social justice issues.
Dr. Benjamin Porat is the head of the Matz Institute for Research in Jewish Law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and a research fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute. His book ‘Justice for the Poor: Principles of Welfare Law in the Torah and Rabbinic Tradition’ is due to be published shortly.