Why Jews Have No Need to “Occupy Wall Street”

Although the goals of the “Occupy Wall Street” protests taking place around America are not so well-defined, one thing is certain: many of the protesters are upset because they have lost jobs and/or are unable to obtain them. While it is unfortunate that so many people are going through financial difficulties, one cannot help but question how taking to the streets in ambiguous protest of economic disparity will be effective in getting a job.

The Jewish approach to unemployment is quite different. First, the Torah in fact obligates us to ensure that others do not fall into poverty. “If your brother becomes impoverished . . . you shall strengthen him . . . so that he can live with you.”(1) In other words, one must provide him with a means of supporting himself. With this verse as his source, Rambam explains that the highest form of charity is providing someone with a loan, partnership opportunity, or job so that he does not need to beg for financial assistance.(2) The Talmud relates a similar idea:

R’ Abba said in the name of Reish Lakish: One who lends money to a poor person is greater than one who merely gives him charity; and one who provides capital for a partnership is greater than all.(3)

But besides for the actual obligation to help others achieve financial stability, Jewish communities have historically taken the initiative in helping those in need of employment and loans. For example, in the synagogue of the ancient Jewish community of Alexandria, the congregants purposely sat with others of their trade––goldsmiths, silversmiths, blacksmiths, coppersmiths, and weavers all sat in their own sections. This was done so that if a poor person would be in need of employment, he could easily find work to match his skills.(4) In more recent history, when European Jewish immigrants came to the U.S. in the late Nineteenth- and early Twentieth-Centuries, they established hundreds of free loan societies,(5) and many such organizations exist today.(6)

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Jews understand that only “God impoverishes and makes rich.”(7) Every morning, in our prayers, we declare that wealth and honor come only from Hashem.(8) So when economic instability hits, we do not protest in the streets. Rather, we make our voices heard to the Only One Who can and does “satisfy the desire of every living thing.”(9)

Footnotes:

(1) Vayikra [Leviticus] 25:35.

(2) Rambam, Mishne Torah, Hilchos Matanos Aniyim 10:7.

(3) Shabbos 63a.

(4) Sukkah 51b.

(5) See Shelly Tannenbaum, A Credit to Their Community: Jewish Loan Societies in the United States 1880-1945, p.29 (1993).

(6) See International Association of Hebrew Free Loans: List of Member Offices.

(7) Samuel I 2:7.

(8) “והעושר והכבוד מלפניך,” Chronicles I 29:12.

(9) Psalms 145:16.

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