Avoiding Sodom: It's About Policy, Not Charity

09.10.12 7:33 PM ET

Allow me to talk about Sodom again.

A few weeks ago, I argued on this page that the Republican Party is committed to the "quality of Sodom" as that quality is described in Judaism: the conviction that "what's mine is mine and what's yours is yours." Sodom, I wrote, is Jewish shorthand for a polity where redistribution of wealth is seen as immoral, where the government's role is to protect private property but not but not to insure the well-being of the people.

Despite provoking some fire-and-brimstone responses, I didn't plan to look back at Sodom. But Mitt Romney has since chosen a veep candidate, Paul Ryan, who was an acolyte of Ayn Rand, apparently until he noticed her atheism. Together, they're running on a platform of cutting taxes for the rich and cutting holes in the safety net for the sick and old. More than ever, what the Republicans are offering runs counter to a Jewish understanding of just politics. Allow me to answer a couple of objections to that claim. I'll mention at the outset: whether some conservatives write checks to charity is besides the point.

Yes, as one critic wrote here, Jewish religious texts celebrate diversity of opinion and multiple interpretations. And amid those many voices, neither the Bible nor the Talmud endorses a specific monetary policy, tax schedule or health plan for the 21st century. Composed under drastically different social conditions, they hardly could.

But diversity doesn't mean relativism. The point of Jewish study as a religious rather than academic pursuit is to reach a stance toward living. When Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel came out for civil rights 50 years ago, he did not catalog all the possible opinions within Judaism on inequality. By his own testimony, he was guided by the passion of the biblical prophets, and by their teaching that "God himself is concerned with …the blights of society, with the affairs of the market place." The prophets oriented him as he looked at tradition. They taught that "the interests of the poor have precedence over the interests of the rich." If religion has nothing to say about politics, Heschel asserted, "God seems to be a non-religious person because… in the Bible, He always mixes in politics." Torah does not provide policy papers but it does encourage, if not require, judgment of policy's moral meaning.

The more trenchant and subtle criticism was that Republicans aren't bad people. A blogger at Commentary argued that conservatives give generously to charity. They just want government to get out of the way so that individuals can do well and choose to help others.

Voluntary giving and voluntary organizations are great. But what if, by chance, well-meaning individuals don't give enough to house the homeless or provide long-term care for the infirm elderly? What if philanthropists prefer giving to the philharmonic, to their alma mater, to their religious congregations, while taxes have been cut too deeply to pay for elementary schools? What if charity—giving out of love or noblesse oblige or religious commitment—doesn't go far enough?

To understand what's wrong with the voluntary model, I suggest reading the recent book Justice in the City by the scholar and activist Aryeh Cohen. Reading the Talmud and later rabbinic writing, Cohen shows that they obligate society to feed and clothe the hungry, and to provide homes for the homeless. The obligation must be carried out through political institutions, which both represent the people who live in a particular place and require, even coerce, them to pay what is needed. That is, a just society collects taxes to meet its duties to every person in its realm—which are also its duties to God.

Cohen writes about society on the city level— in part, it seems, because the city was the largest polity in the Talmudic world that created this kind of citizenship. (One was merely a subject of the capricious, shifting empires.) But a modern democracy represents and is obligated to people in a whole country.

Even in the most charitable version of the furious vision of today's conservatives, there are only individuals. Government is something external, an obstacle if not an enemy. In the rabbinic vision, individuals belong to a society. Government is the means for them to carry out their duty to each other and even to strangers passing through. A country where government doesn't do this, as Isaiah warned, is one whose leaders are the "captains of Sodom."

To put it differently, for Jewish religious purposes, it doesn't much matter if a country's coins say, "In God we trust." What matters is whether God can trust the country to use its coins for justice.