Non-Jews often wonder about the value of close study of Jewish law. To the outsider it can seem hyper-specialized, often applying to a very narrow range of situations. What wisdom comes from this nitpicking about legal requirement, they wonder? Quite a bit, in fact. Seemingly remote rabbinic discussions can trigger fresh thoughts about contemporary problems.
On Shabbat and major holidays, actions defined as “work” are biblically prohibited. There are also restrictions on what can be done on the intermediate days of major holidays (hol ha-moed). On days three through six of Passover and days three through seven of Sukkot, for example, one must refrain from laundry or haircuts. Some of these rabbinic enactments are meant to ensure that the intermediate days are treated appropriately and that we do not enter the holiday ungroomed because we have put off these tasks to the leisurely “vacation days” of hol ha-moed. The prohibition is an incentive to get laundry and personal grooming done in advance. Exceptions to the laundry prohibition are specified situations where adequate preparations before the holiday are not doable; the most common exception used to be washing non-disposable diapers on hol ha-moed.
A man with only one tunic will have to clean it on hol ha-moed. How can he avoid stigma if onlookers, who, unaware of his plight, suspect he neglected to wash it before the holiday? One solution proposed in the Talmud is that the less-dignified clothing he must wear during the washing process is a clue that he has no other appropriate garment. But if the destitute man does not do his own laundry, ask later commentators, how will the clarifying evidence manifest itself? R. Ezekiel Landau of Prague, one of the most eminent authorities of the late eighteenth century, suggested that in places where townspeople know their neighbors, they will be aware of who is poor and has only one tunic. Thus, if laundry is being done on the intermediate days of the holiday, they will assume that the tunic being washed belongs to such a needy person.
Two centuries later, another luminary was mildly puzzled by R. Landau’s opinion, which depends on townspeople knowing that some members of their own community are poor. Presumably, it should be enough if they know about the existence of destitute people in general, not necessarily about their presence in the vicinity.
Rather than dismiss the question of whether it is necessary to know particular persons as arcane rabbinic cleverness, I am inclined to defend R. Landau’s formulation. True, in matters of public policy we may often take a statistical point of view, and it makes little difference whether the destitute people one knows about are in the neighborhood or somewhere else. We are, however, more likely to consider the possibility that the person washing his tunic is poor when he, or others like him, are visible and accessible. When they are not known to be in our vicinity their existence may not register in our consciousness. We know they exist statistically, but we do not “see” them, and at a human level this makes a difference.
I recall a newspaper column from way back, when the New York Post was still liberal. The author had taken the subway and was peeved by the presence of another passenger’s luggage. If these people are going to the airport and must schlep their suitcases, she complained, why can’t they spring for a cab rather than inconvenience people like her? It seemed not to have occurred to her that for many lower- or middle-class people, a taxicab is a real expense. In those days, it would have been a significant cost for me.
Hearing a champion of the downtrodden disclose her attitude influenced my youthful assessment of her ideology in directions she may not have intended. Lately, I have encountered public-minded citizens clamoring for rigorous public health standards who don’t seem to realize that a package of rubber gloves and a face mask cost about the same as a couple of days’ food. In both cases, what is lacking are not statistics about what percentage of New Yorkers live below the poverty line, but the vivid awareness that such people are among us.
At a purely intellectual or statistical level most of us have long understood, to some degree, the difficulties that African-American and other disadvantaged racial groups live with. We know that police often operate under great strain, facing the pressure of life-and-death decisions. We know that not all police officers are saints, at least not all the time, and that they are no more exempt from prejudice and stereotypes than university professors. We know that without accountability, “in-house” reviews tend to sweep abuses under the rug rather than uproot them. But if our society has allowed grievances to be passed on from generation to generation without redress, it is not necessarily a mark of ill will. Sometimes, it takes graphic episodes and personal stories to explode habitual obliviousness.
Of course, being swayed by dramatic cases can be dangerous. Only quantifiable, impersonally digested data, it is claimed, yield an accurate picture of what is really going on and what needs to be done free of emotional bias. Getting aroused by sensational cases rewards demagoguery. Nevertheless, knowing the names and faces of people who endure harms can unsettle entrenched apathy. Poverty, suffering, and injustice must often be seen before we are motivated to support positive change. As R. Landau recognized, we notice the people in our vicinity more than the people we know only in the abstract.
In recent months the public has been agitated about the deaths of a number of people. Their names are repeated at protests, and perhaps for good reason. But I worry about whether this pattern becomes unfair and cruel to those victims who fail to be dramatized and personalized by the media. I hear voices “speaking out,” exulting in the delightful energy of the streets and knowingly invoking the prospects of an American summer to rival the Arab Spring a decade ago. I hear ill-defined calls for defunding, or even abolishing the police. I cannot help recalling what the boisterous energy of the streets can do to those unable to defend themselves, especially when those who might be expected to defend them have been denounced and delegitimized.
The 1960s are a mere half-century ago. I recall the neighborhoods in New York where sizable Jewish populations were too frightened to remain. Those who could not flee, largely the old and those with limited means, barricaded themselves behind double, even triple locks. My mother moved in that decade, though not before several beatings. Other elderly members of my family moved, sometimes two or three times in a few years. Many Jews were consigned to old-age homes before their time for lack of a safe alternative.
Perhaps some think these people were worth sacrificing on the altar of righteousness and equality. After all, they say, you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs, and these old Jews were members of a numerically insignificant minority whose culture belonged to the past, not the progressive future. Perhaps the convulsions of the 1960s brought about great moral improvements that could not have been achieved otherwise. Yet Isaiah Berlin’s comment about the promise of communism seems apt: The eggs are irrevocably broken while the omelet recedes into the future.
In my Brooklyn neighborhood, increased precautions due to violence against Jews and our synagogues predate the present turbulence. Almost every day, my inbox brings reports of impending danger, exaggerated, I hope. Along with these anxious expressions of concern, I receive stern admonitions from progressive activists that when it comes to the causes presently demanding attention, attendance is being taken and that their fellow Jews will have only themselves to blame if they end up on the wrong side of history.
We are living in a time of extraordinary political and social tumult. I do not envy those who purport to understand the present situation and who take responsibility for representing the Jewish community in the media and among the powerful. They must choose their words carefully and avoid running afoul of the rapidly evolving standards of correctness. All I can do, as a private person, is to call attention to the ordinary people of New York whose fate again rests in the hands of forces beyond their control. I hope that this time, as activists raise their voices and demand justice, these men and women will not remain invisible.
Shalom Carmy teaches Jewish studies and philosophy at Yeshiva University and is editor emeritus of Tradition.