Faith groups in a dilemma over poverty

Posted on April 6, 2008 in Social Security Debates – comment – Faith groups in a dilemma over poverty
April 06, 2008
Dow Marmur

Before Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto joined local churches in the Out of the Cold program, many of us faced a real dilemma.

On the one hand, we knew that by providing shelter and food for some hundred homeless women and men once a week, we were colluding with the Ontario government’s failure to care for those in need. On the other, how could a faith community be indifferent to the poor and the homeless?

Ontario is a very rich province. The fact that people have to sleep in the streets of its largest city is a scandal.

The argument by the Harris government, the echoes of which are still being heard, that the poor have only themselves to blame is callous. Churches and synagogues are determined to alleviate at least some of the misery.

A precedent of sorts came to mind. During World War II, a British white paper was in force that restricted Jewish immigration to Palestine, which was under British mandate at the time. Despite the plight of Jews who were seeking to escape Nazi annihilation, the Jewish leader and, later, Israel’s first prime minister David Ben-Gurion determined: “We’ll fight the white paper as if there were no Nazis, and we’ll join the British to fight Nazis as if there were no white paper.”

In our modest way, we followed the same principle of wholesome doublethink. We decided to help provide food and shelter for the needy, even if that let the government off the hook, and, at the same time, to vigorously challenge its policies that punished the disadvantaged. We understood our dual task as a kind of holy schizophrenia.

Both tangible help and political advocacy stem from the tradition that judges the health of a society by the way it deals with those in need. Not only is that the message of the Prophets of the Hebrew Bible but it’s also the argument of the most important political philosopher of our times. The late John Rawls (1921-2002) taught that economic inequalities in a society are only justified if they are to the advantage of the worst off.

That was the principle that made me work with the Interfaith Social Action Reform Coalition, an effective and respected group of Ontario representatives from different religions that for more than a decade has been in the forefront of advocating better conditions for the poor in our midst.

The coalition inspired me not only to try to feed the hungry through the congregation I served but also to do whatever I could to alert those in power to society’s responsibility to the poor, so they didn’t have to depend on our handouts and sleep in the social hall of my synagogue.

Most of my colleagues share this vision. The latest of many Jewish efforts for the benefit of the larger community has been co-ordinated by members of the Darchei Noam Congregation in Toronto. Eighteen synagogues across the denominational divide and from different parts of the province sent an open letter to Premier Dalton McGuinty urging him to reflect in the budget his election promise to fight poverty.

The group stated that it was guided by the Jewish principle of tikkun olam, the sacred duty to “mend” the world by making it a better place for all. Judging by the tabled budget, the government of Ontario may be taking note.

Though the accumulated problem cannot be solved in one go, this is a helpful beginning. It may bring us a little closer to a time when those engaged in social action won’t have to be schizophrenic about it.

Dow Marmur is rabbi emeritus at Toronto’s Holy Blossom Temple. His column will appear every other week.

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