What We Do For Love | Congregation Beth Am

What We Do For Love

By Rabbi Janet Marder on
May 24, 2019


“In the lovely month of May when all the buds were bursting, then in my heart did love arise….” Thus begins a lyric poem by Heinrich Heine, beautifully set to music by Robert Schumann. The month of May does seem meant for lovers – with newly-green landscapes refreshed by rain, trees in blossom and carpets of flowers.

In fact, the month of May is full of holidays that are all about love. You can show your love for your mother, not just on Mother’s Day, but on “National Clean Up Your Room Day,” observed annually on May 10th. It’s a good time to show love for your spouse, as May has been designated “Date Your Mate month.”  May 2 is “Brothers and Sisters Day,” to celebrate our siblings. The whole family is showered with love on May 18, National Visit Your Relatives Day. You can hug a leafy friend on May 16, Love a Tree day. You can even love yourself on May 11th, which has been designated “National Eat What You Want Day.”

At the end of the merry month of May comes a more somber day of love: Memorial Day, born after the terrible carnage of the Civil War, when some 620,000 soldiers died from combat, accident, starvation, and disease. By the late 1860s Americans in small towns everywhere began holding springtime tributes to their fallen soldiers, visiting their graves and decorating them with flowers and flags. The holiday, originally known as Decoration Day, eventually expanded to include remembrance of those who had died in all of America’s wars.

Today less than half of one percent of Americans serve in the armed forces. For most of us, Memorial Day is the gateway to summer –a day for picnics, barbecues, and shopping at the mall. But for some of our fellow Americans, Memorial Day is a day about love. They grieve for beloved sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, sisters and brothers, who are gone from them forever. And they pay tribute to a different kind of love – love of country – that led their loved ones to serve and to give up their lives.

So let us think about love of country tonight. And it’s an especially auspicious time for us to do that, as Jews, because May is also Jewish American Heritage month – so designated in 2006 by President George W. Bush – a time to celebrate the contributions that Jews have made to this country since we first arrived in North America: 1654, when 23 Jews sailed to New Amsterdam from Brazil, in flight from the Portuguese Inquisition.

Jewish American Heritage month is celebrated in museums across the country with special exhibits highlighting the achievements of famous American Jews in many fields, from sports, arts and entertainment to medicine, law, business, science, government and academia. It’s certainly a distinguished record for a minority comprising less than 2% of the population. As one scholar puts it, “By almost any index, Jews are demographically overrepresented among the wealthiest, the most politically powerful, and the most intellectually accomplished of Americans.” [Rich, Powerful, and Smart: Jewish Overrepresentation Should Be Explained Instead of Avoided or Mystified,” by David A. Hollinger https://www.jstor.org/journal/jewiquarrevi The Jewish Quarterly Review, Vol. 94, No. 4, (Autumn, 2004), pp. 595-602]

We can all take pride in the disproportionate number of American Jewish Nobel Prize winners, composers, comedians and Supreme Court justices. But tonight I’d like to ask a different question: how might American Jews contribute to this country as Jews? How can Jewish teachings enrich our shared life here in the USA? Here’s another way to put the question: what are the Jewish civic virtues – the distinctively Jewish duties of citizenship?

We know, for instance, about the civic virtues of ancient Greece and Rome that played a key role in forming the political culture of our country. Citizens of Athens and Rome were required to pay taxes, attend and vote in the public assemblies and risk their lives to defend their city in time of war. In America, our mandatory civic duties include serving on juries and obeying the laws; our voluntary civic responsibilities include voting, staying informed about the issues affecting our country, respecting the rights and beliefs of others, and taking part in community activities.

What can Judaism add to this mix? An interesting place to start is a passage from the Talmud that offers a working definition of community. Here’s the passage [Sanhedrin 17b]: “A talmid hacham (a scholar) may not live in a city that lacks these 10 things: a beit din (a law court) empowered to punish the guilty; a tzedaka fund that is collected by two people and distributed by three; a synagogue; a mikvah; bathroom facilities; a doctor; a scribe; a blood-letter (a popular healer); a kosher butcher; and a teacher of children.”

The basic idea here is that a decent community must provide for the full gamut of its members’ needs, both physical and spiritual. For example: as we see here, our Sages believed that community members must support the education of children. The Talmud [Bava Batra 21a] records that in the years before Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans, in 70 C.E., the Sages established the world’s first public school system.

Prior to this, says the Talmud, Jewish parents educated their children informally. Then, it says, “Yehoshua ben Gamla [c.65 CE] came and instituted that teachers of young children should be established in each and every province and in each and every town, and they would bring the children in to learn at the age of six or seven.” In the autonomous Jewish communities of medieval times, community members were taxed to provide for a range of what we would today call public services, including education. The Shulchan Aruch, a 16th century law code, includes the following ruling in the section that lists communal services funded through taxes:  “In a place in which the residents of a city establish among them a teacher, and the parents of all the children cannot afford tuition, and the community has to pay, the tax is levied based on financial means” [Rema, Choshen Mishpat, Hilchot Shoftim163:3].

This system, in which school funding was perceived as the responsibility of the entire community, with wealthier members paying tuition for children of the poor, suggests a distinctive view of civic obligation: As a citizen, I am obliged to care about and provide for the next generation. All children – not just my own – are my concern, and are entitled to the same opportunities for learning, growth and advancement.

We see a similar philosophy behind the Jewish view of health care: that is, providing care is not simply an obligation of doctors to patients, but of society as a whole. The medieval sage Maimonides, himself a physician, put heath care first on his list of the ten most important communal services that a city must provide for its residents [Mishneh Torah, Hilchot De’ot IV: 23]. Throughout our history, nearly all self-governing Jewish communities established systems to ensure that all citizens had access to health care. Doctors were required to reduce their rates for poor patients, and when that was not sufficient, communal subsidies were established. The Jewish view of citizenship, that is, entails the duty of protecting the health of all members of the community.

We can see this philosophy put into action in Israel, where health care and health insurance are universal; all Israeli residents are entitled to basic health care as a fundamental right. David Chinitz, Professor of Health Policy and Management at Hebrew University, writes: “Israel’s health system constitutes the most extensive and successful implementation of regulated (or, as it is known in the United States, ‘managed’) competition in the world. One hundred percent of the population is entitled to comprehensive coverage provided by four competing health plans.” Is the system working? While some gaps among ethnic groups and socioeconomic classes remain, largely due to differing levels of education, Dr. Chinitz writes that, “Israel’s health indicators—such as life expectancy and infant mortality—are among the best in the world.” [“How Israel Got Universal health Care 20 Years Ago, and Why It’s Working,” in Tablet, Sept.27 2017].

A third distinctive Jewish view of citizenship relates to tzedaka. As we saw, the Talmud rules that, along with education and health care, a decent community must provide “a tzedaka fund that is collected by two people and distributed by three.” Providing for the indigent is a fundamental duty of citizenship, as is establishing a fair and honest process for doing so (that’s the purpose of the multiple collectors and distributors).

It’s important to note that there is a balance here. Judaism esteems individual effort, personal responsibility, and the dignity of work. Jews are enjoined to accept any sort of work, no matter how humble, to avoid being dependent on others. But there is an expectation of a strong safety net: society must be organized in a way that protects those who fall into poverty and meets their basic human needs. 

Medieval Jewish communities created a network of institutions that provided for the poor, always in conjunction with individual acts of assistance. Members made monetary donations through the communal kuppah, the tzedaka box; the tamchui, a soup kitchen or food pantry; they provided in-kind donations such as wedding dresses and dowries for poor brides; free burial, temporary lodging for the poor and special foods for the Jewish holidays.

All of these civic duties are extensions of what we might call the basic Jewish obligation of citizenship: an all-encompassing principle found in the Torah [Lev.19:18]: “V’ahavta l’reiacha kamocha – love your neighbor as yourself.” The obligation to love our neighbor is defined by our Sages to refer not to emotions but to behavior. Thus, Nachmanides in the 13th century understood it to mean, “We should want for our neighbor the same benefits that we want for ourselves.” Or, as the great 20th century Torah teacher Nechama Leibowitz wrote: “We must confer upon our neighbor whatever we would confer upon ourselves.” Why? Because our neighbors are “like ourselves” -- fellow creatures made in the Divine image. Thus, the Torah verse is better translated: “Treat your neighbor lovingly, for he or she is a human being like yourself” [See https://www.jfedgmw.org/jewish-life/kedoshim-and-love-thy-neighbor-as-thyself]. To be a citizen, Judaism would say, is ensure that my fellow citizens receive the same benefits I want for myself: good schools, reliable health care, safe neighborhoods, a decent job, enough to eat.

Beyond our individual obligation to treat our neighbors lovingly is our shared obligation, also set forth in the Torah [Lev.19], to create communities that embody holiness. From our very beginnings as a people, we were taught to build societies that put into practice our highest ideals – just courts, a legal system that is fair to all; protection and care for the vulnerable; education and social welfare systems that enable the disadvantaged to rise to better lives; dignity and respect for all. Individuals within a holy community can certainly become wealthy, but not by exploiting their fellow citizens, and Jewish law requires that they generously share their resources with those who have less.

Consider the political climate that threatens to overwhelm our country today: a cynical indifference to the public good, which says that only suckers and chumps pay their fare share of taxes; a ever-rising tide of animosity towards those of different race, ethnicity or political ideology; a pervasive indifference, or at worst, contempt, for the poor, in which character flaws of the disadvantaged are blamed for their plight, rather than acknowledging larger structural forces such as the disappearance of well-paying middle class jobs; gender inequality; the desperate shortage of affordable housing; inadequate allocation of health care; and a federal minimum wage stuck at a level that denies full-time workers the ability to afford a decent one-bedroom apartment, let alone food [See https://nlihc.org/resource/nlihc-releases-out-reach-2018].

On this Memorial Day Shabbat, in a country increasingly fractured and privatized, we should remember the vision of citizenship that arises from our Jewish heritage: a civic ethic of shared responsibility, solidarity and mutual care. To fight for that vision is an act of love for our country. For America cannot attain true strength and prosperity if we shortchange the young, blight our human potential through racism and violence; deprive our brothers and sisters of basic human needs, and leave millions trapped in poverty. 

This spring, in the Modern Jewish Literature class that I teach, we read a short story by the Jewish writer Karen Bender, in which the main character voices her own Jewish vision for her country. “I wanted a nation in which our leaders never lied and were elected to office because of their love for and adherence to the truth. I wanted a nation where, if people got sick, they would be cared for, swiftly, tenderly, and the only concern would be that they would get well.

“I wanted a nation that did not conjure suspicion about entire groups of people, and did not assault or kill them, a nation where everyone could look each other, kindly, in the eye and say hello. I wanted a nation that did not just roll around…in piles of money, and where people who held fistfuls of it were actually able to say, ‘Here! You have some, too.’ I wanted a nation that did not order those who wanted to be here to just get out, go away, and brutally cart them off, but instead welcomed them, and learned and kindly said all their names.

“I wanted a nation where women could stroll leisurely through dark parking lots, city streets, everywhere, and never look behind them because they would never have any fear…..I wanted a nation where people ….wanted the best not just for themselves but also for each other. I wanted a nation where people loved one another, even strangers, because they had that much feeling inside of them, because they were that alive” [from “Cell Phones,” in The New Order (2018)].

A dream, riddled with improbabilities? Certainly. But we Jews are nothing if not dreamers, and more often than not, we have labored heroically to make our dreams come true. So let us speak up, loudly and clearly, on behalf of our vision for our country. And let all of us – Democrats and Republicans –0. labor tirelessly to help our country attain these ideals, for that is what we owe the millions who gave their lives that these United States might flourish. And here and now, in the lovely month of May, let us re-dedicate ourselves to love.




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