One section of the Haggadah—a compilation of texts recited during the Passover Seder—invites the hungry and downtrodden to “come and eat.”
In anticipation of the Jewish holiday next month, a coalition of interest groups has rallied to the defense of government programs designed to alleviate chronic hunger. At an event in the Russell Senate Office Building late last month, four panelists explained the cross-denominational values of sustenance and food security to a small gathering of reporters and congressional staffers.
“The question you may be asking: ‘Jews and the farm bill—what’s the connection?’” said Barbara Weinstein, legislative director at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, and moderator of the discussion. “But in fact, the link [goes] back to Biblical times…. The prophet Ezekiel talks about the shame of famine. And anyone who knows their Broadway musicals remembers that it was Joseph who managed the famine in Egypt.”
Food—and the concomitant dietary laws—are integral to Jewish life, but the theme, “A Jewish Vision for a Just Farm Bill,” transplants religious values into the prosaic realm of government policy. The panelists were highly conscious of this fact, and kept the focus on Jewish values, even while demonstrating a fluency in the political realities of the farm bill being debated in Congress this year.
Introducing the other panelists, Weinstein alluded to this passage from the Torah’s Book of Leviticus, which crystallized the religious imperative in question: When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger.
One of the panelists, Timi Gerson, director of advocacy at the American Jewish World Service, invoked Tzedakah, a principle of charity enunciated by the 12th-century philosopher Moses Maimonides.
“The great Jewish sage … catalogued the levels of charitable giving in Jewish law,” Gerson said. “Maimonides had 12 levels, and the highest level … was the kind of aid that’s given so that the recipient is [empowered] to become self-sufficient and no longer needs aid.”
Pivoting to a topic of the upcoming negotiations, Gerson weighed the relative merits of shipping food aid overseas versus promoting “local and regional procurement of goods.”
The panelists were unanimous in their assertion that churches and synagogues—along with food banks, soup kitchens, and other actors on the “front lines” of the war on hunger—cannot address nutritional needs in the U.S. without government initiatives like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as the food-stamp program.
“The fact that … there’s hunger in every congressional district is simply unacceptable,” said Josh Protas, vice president and Washington director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. “As Jewish organizations, as representatives of the faith community, it’s morally reprehensible.”
Ticking off statistics in defense of the food-stamp program—which Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich has made into an election-year issue by repeatedly referring to President Obama as the “food-stamp president”—Protas bemoaned SNAP’s de facto role as “a federal ATM machine, with cuts from [the program] being used to pay for other human-needs programs that largely serve the same communities.”
Echoing this sentiment, Mia Hubbard, vice president of programs at MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, used her time at the podium to emphasize that “the nonprofit charitable network was not created to be the nonprofit social safety net.”
“We like to think of government food programs as the first line of defense, and charitable food programs as the last line of defense,” she said. “Charity cannot do it alone, and we’re certain we cannot food-bank our way to the end of hunger in this country.”
This article appears in the March 13, 2012, edition of National Journal Daily.