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Can the Doctrine of Shared Responsibility Put Us Back Together Again?

By Ari Perl

Examining sociologist Charles Murray’s newest book, Coming Apart, against the backdrop of our American Orthodox Jewish community, produces deeply conflicting feelings.  On the one hand, there’s a dismal realization that certain aspects of Murray’s characterization of broader American society are reflected in our own demographics; on the other hand, a hope that time-honored values of that same community have the potential to save itself, and maybe even the broader American project.

Using masses of data, Murray attempts to demonstrate that the gap between America’s “new upper class” and “new lower class” has increased steadily since the 1960s and is still growing.  Power and influence tend to lie with upper-class individuals who are not just socially isolated but geographically self-contained, living almost exclusively in neighborhoods of people like themselves.  Because the "new upper class" is generally ignorant about lower-class lives, public policy often fails to reflect the concerns of—or concern for—this steadily growing lower class.

Statistics aside, one can plainly see that the American Jewish community has not been immune to these trends.  In recent years the true middle class among us has evaporated, leaving behind two distinct, increasingly isolated communities.

An informal study within my own community recently concluded that parents of three children need to earn an income in the 95th percentile of American families just to meet the basic financial obligations of a traditional Jewish lifestyle.  At the same time, there are entire Jewish communities living below the poverty line.  Instead of Belmont and Fishtown, the communities representing Murray’s “new upper” and “new lower” classes, we have Englewood and Kiryas Joel (identified by the New York Times as the poorest U.S. town with a population over 10,000).

The growing socio-economic gap and geographic isolation help explain some otherwise perplexing Jewish communal realities.  For instance, when time comes to give Matanot La’evyonim ("gifts to the poor") on Purim, members of the "new upper class" increasingly find themselves in a position unfamiliar to previous generations: Because they no longer live side-by-side with those in need, they turn to national or global agencies to dispense gifts on their behalf.

Murray chastises both classes for what he sees as an impending collapse of our unique “American project.”  The lower class, he asserts, has precipitously abandoned the four moral pillars of this project: marriage, industriousness, honesty, and religiosity.  The upper class, while not exhibiting as steep a decline, contributes to the deterioration of the lower class by being unwilling to preach the core American values that it practices.

Of Murray’s “founding virtues,” industriousness is most intriguing to explore through the lens of Jewish tradition.  Undoubtedly, our community has been affected by general societal trends.  What, we might wonder, would result if the ingenuity and doggedness of the chronic schnorrers (individuals asking for charitable handouts) who frequent our communities were transferred to the workplace?  Does the attitude of needy charity-collectors, who often behave as though they are entitled, by right, to the funds they seek from donors, more closely resemble American industriousness or the "European welfare state" mentality that Murray decries?  And while I hesitate to make unfair and sweeping generalizations, might the steep rise in the number of young men studying in kollel instead of pursuing higher education, enrolling in vocational training, or seeking workforce employment, be less about rightward ideological drift than a manifestation of Murray’s well-documented decline in male industriousness over the past few decades?

While its correlation to schnorrers and kollel fellows can be debated, industriousness as a fundamental Jewish value cannot.  Adam was tasked by God with “working” the Garden of Eden and its “upkeep” (Genesis 2:15).  When the Israelites felt trapped between Pharaoh’s advancing army and the sea, Moses says, “God will fight for you; you need only stand by silently” (Exodus 14:13-14).  Somewhat surprisingly, God rebukes Moses: “Why are you crying out to me?  Speak to the People of Israel and tell them to journey forth!” (Exodus 14:15).  The Midrash suggests that the Red Sea did not part until the tribal leader of Judah leapt into the water up to his neck.  Both the biblical narrative and rabbinic literature unequivocally reject the notion that God protects or provides for the Jewish people without their assuming responsibility for their own salvation.

This doctrine of shared responsibility has historically fueled Jewish industriousness, and offers hope for reversing the alarming trends Murray describes.  Because the doctrine predicates assistance to an individual on that person’s assuming personal responsibility for improving his or her lot, it motivates the individual to take steps toward achieving that goal.  By taking the initiative demanded by the doctrine, the individual reclaims the sense of personal dignity and worth that accompany productive activity.

While society is not divinely omnipotent, its role in caring for the needy is, in many ways, analogous to God’s role as biblical provider.  In both cases, the moral precursor to the delivery of aid is the question of how much personal responsibility should be demanded from the recipient.  Building on our Judeo-Christian moral foundation, both our public and private sectors ought to refocus public assistance programs on stimulating industriousness by demanding appropriate levels of shared responsibility.  While I recognize the challenges of such reorientation, examples of such new thinking might include:

  • Using private philanthropic and public funds to supplement minimum wages with bonuses to workers who demonstrate sustained industriousness.  Nothing is more demoralizing to industriousness than the hard-working laborer who, nevertheless, must still rely on public assistance simply because the minimum wage has not kept pace with increased living costs.
  • Granting public service organizations earmarked funds to hire unemployed individuals for fixed-term jobs that further the organization’s mission.  At the conclusion of the term, the income, experience, and sense of worth gained by the participants would prove invaluable in motivating them to seek longer-term employment and helping them land permanent jobs.

Even if we cannot fully overcome the logistical challenges of these proposals, our society would benefit from thinking seriously about stimulating industriousness instead of granting financial assistance modeled on the failing mechanisms of European welfare states.  Of the four “founding virtues,” it is difficult to imagine strategic, systematic means of changing attitudes toward marriage, increasing honesty, or strengthening religious belief.  With respect to industriousness, however, the Jewish doctrine of shared responsibility offers an opportunity to counter Murray’s despair with our own hope.  

Ari Perl is Rabbi of Congregation Shaare Tefilla in Dallas, Texas.