Shammai Engelmayer’s column “The Torah is no ‘Tea Party'” (Sept. 2) cites the appropriate biblical verses to convince the reader that the Torah encourages us to help the needy and be kind to the stranger. However, he avoids the central question as it relates to the political landscape. Does the Torah view it as the function of individuals (or organized groups of individuals) to help the needy or as the function of government? Nobody could deny the former, but Engelmayer seems to be suggesting the latter. He has certainly not made the case, by citing these verses, that it is the responsibility of government to eliminate poverty, if such is his view.
Shammai Engelmayer responds:
Regarding David Albalah’s letter, Judaism has no concept of “charity,” as such. Tzedakah is not a gift; it is an obligation. Tithing is also mandatory and is very much a tax, in the sense that it is imposed from a higher authority.
Regarding Bernard Roth’s letter, I do not know how “this does not mean we must vote for one political party over another” implies the opposite. The Torah, I believe, is very much a “political document” in the sense that it sets out a system of government and writes its basic laws.
Finally, to Menahem Meier’s contention that “nobody could deny” that the Torah is talking to the individual, I deny it. As I have written so many times, the Torah has a corporate meaning in mind in its use of “you.”
When it says there shall be no needy among you because you must see to their needs, the “you” is the community as a whole, including (especially?) its government. This does not absolve the individual from performing the mitzvot (the Torah makes that clear, as well), but whether all individuals separately fulfill their obligations, the community as a whole remains responsible.