Recently, as I was exploring the internet, I came across a site called JEW OR NOT JEW. This is a site that gives people a score on a scale from ZERO to 15 to rank just how Jewish they are. For example, Fidel Castro scored a 3 out of 15; it turns out he claimed to originate from hidden Spanish Jews many years ago. So you might be wondering, who got a 15? Well, there were about 20 or so in that category, but—to name a few—they include Anne Frank, Albert Einstein, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Mel Brooks, and MAIMONIDES. So who’s a 14? I was a little surprised to see three names who missed being fully Jewish by one point: they were JACKIE MASON, SANDY KOUFAX, and MOSES!!
OK, so what does this have to do with today’s parsha? Well, as I perused these lists, I began to think about how many Jews have been socialists or at least left-wing thinkers. Bernie Sanders may come to mind immediately (Bernie got a score of THIRTEEN, by the way), but there is a long history of Jews who supported left-wing principles and causes. Karl Marx himself, for example. He had a maternal grandfather who was a rabbi and his paternal line included many rabbis. (if you’re wondering how he scored on the JEW OR NOT JEW scale, he got an ELEVEN; that’s pretty Jewish!). In addition, socialists founded the state of Israel. Think about David Ben Gurion and Golda Meir, for example. And remember that the kibbutz system that so characterized Israel until at least very recently was based on principles of socialism. And it’s not hard to think of other Jewish radicals—Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, Herbert Marcuse, and Noam Chomsky, just to name a few.
So: does being Jewish mean being a socialist? Let’s look at what our parsha—Re’eh—tells us:
If there will be among you a needy person, from one of your brothers in one of your cities, in your land the Lord, your God, is giving you, you shall not harden your heart, and you shall not close your hand from your needy brother.
Rather, you shall open your hand to him, and you shall lend him sufficient for his needs, which he is lacking.
I think the message here is clear. Jews must give to the needy. And not only that. Jews must give to the needy and give with an OPEN HEART. And notice too that we are told to give the needy person not what WE think he needs, but rather what he is lacking. If that’s a loan, then it should be a loan. If that’s a job, that it should be a job. And our hearts should be open as we do so. In other words, we shouldn’t begrudge what we give to the needy; our parsha tells us that God will bless us if we follow these instructions.
So is that socialism? I’m not sure, though I think you can read it that way. But later in that same aliyah, Re’ei tells us
For there will never cease to be needy within the land. Therefore, I command you, saying, you shall surely open your hand to your brother, to your poor one, and to your needy one in your land.
Socialism strives to eliminate need, but this verse seems to have a clearer handle on reality. This verse seems to be telling us that we can never erase need. But that doesn’t mean that we should ever stop trying—when we see need, we should do our best to mitigate it. Doing so doesn’t mean making the other person wealthy, but it does mean finding some way to give them the dignity that every single person deserves.
So I’ll leave it to each of you to decide what sort of political system you think that leads to.
Shabbat Shalom שבת שלום.
Rabbi David Grossman