Public school budgets and Jewish law

Public school budgets and Jewish law

Property taxes are too high in Bergen County, and Passaic is not far behind. Because a portion of a county’s property tax revenue is used to pay for the public school system, keeping education costs to a minimum is supposed to help keep property taxes from rising. The best way to limit education costs is two-pronged: First, vote to reject any proposed school budget. Second, pack local school boards with people who care not a whit about education but care a great deal about property taxes.

This two-pronged approach is hard at work in New Jersey, where more than half the proposed budgets went down to defeat on April 20. Less successful were the efforts to pack the school boards.

I care a great deal about property taxes. I have to. I live in a town in which the property taxes are higher than in most other communities. I also care about my community, however. I have seen the consequences to a community that has a deteriorating school system – the communities themselves deteriorate. Diminished public services, worn-out infrastructure, collapsing property values, flight of the community’s young families, inability to attract new businesses or even light industry – all these and more follow on the heels of a school system gone to seed.

What makes this a subject for this column, however, is the misperception in the Jewish communities of northern New Jersey that the public school system is not our concern. In some communities, Jews have been in the forefront of efforts to defeat budgets and pack school boards with people whose children do not attend public school and who are paying outrageously high yeshiva or day-school tuitions along with high taxes.

Not only is such effort short-sighted, it runs contrary to Jewish law, which has always been concerned with the needs of the broader community and with its perceptions of us. One reason for this concern, of course, is the concept of chillul HaShem, desecration of God’s Holy Name. It is not a reason to be dismissed lightly.

Thus, in the Babylonian Talmud tractate Bava Kama 113b, there is a discussion about lost objects. Specifically, the Torah commands that all objects lost by “your brother” must be returned. (See Deuteronomy 22:1-3.) The assertion is made that “your brother” limits the Torah law only to objects lost by fellow Jews. An idolater, after all, is not “your brother.” The gemara then reminds us that, during the last era of the mishnahic sages, Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair already settled the matter. Even an idolater’s lost object must be returned, he said, if not doing so would create a chillul haShem. The Jerusalem Talmud pushes this back a couple of generations earlier and credits it to Rabban Gamaliel the Elder. (See JT Bava Kama 4.3.)

Another reason, also not to be taken lightly, appears in BT Gittin 61a. There, the sages offered “the ways of peace” (darchei shalom) as rationale. Noting that the mishnah on which this gemara is based states that “the poor among the idolaters are not prevented from gathering gleanings, forgotten sheaves, and the corner of the field, because of the ways of peace,” the sages ruled that “we support the poor among the idolaters along with the Israelite poor, and visit those who are ill among the idolaters along with those who are ill among the Israelites, and bury the poor among the idolaters along with Israel’s dead [but not in the same cemetery] because of the ways of peace.” (See BT Gittin 59a and b.)

Is there ever a time, however, when “your brother” can refer to a non-Jew? If the answer is yes, then our responsibilities to the broader community become almost as large and complex as our responsibilities toward fellow Jews.

The normative answer is yes, there is. Idolaters are never to be considered “your brother,” but “whenever they [the non-Jews] observe the seven laws [of the children of Noah], their legal status with respect to us is the same as our legal status with respect to them and we must not favor ourselves in matters of law. And given this is the case, it goes without saying that this [equality] holds true for the people constrained by the ways of religion and morals.” So said Menachem Meiri, the 13th century French scholar, in his commentary on BT Bava Kama 37b.

The so-called Seven Laws of the Children of Noah are detailed in BT Sanhedrin 56a. They include establishing a judicial system and prohibitions against blaspheming God, worshipping idols, engaging in sexual crimes, committing murder, stealing, or eating the limb off of a live animal.

To the Meiri, Christians and Muslims are “people constrained by the ways of religion and morals” and thus qualify as “your brother.”

Rabbi Yaakov Emden, an 18th-century German commentator, took a similar approach to the question. “The Israelite,” he said, “was not obliged to restore the lost object of the idolater because the idolater, too, did not return the Israelite’s lost article. But this only applies to those nations that knew no Creator or Torah…. However, it is long known that the present-day nations who believe in the principles of the Torah cannot be regarded as strangers by us….” Emden’s comment is cited in Joseph Munk’s “Non-Jews in the Light of Halachah,” published in Le’ela, a Jews College Publication, in March 1994.

Emden thus also qualifies Christians and Muslims as “your brother,” not because of any fear of chillul HaShem or darchei shalom, but because they accept God as Creator and His Torah as the basis for their own beliefs, even if they do not accept the Torah itself.

Any way you slice it, our task is to promote the best public school systems possible because Jewish law demands that we concern ourselves with the broader community. That means promoting school budgets, fighting to limit class sizes (see BT Bava Batra 21a), and putting people onto school boards who are committed to providing students with the best education possible, not the cheapest.

It also means reaching out to the public schools now that many budgets have been defeated. As individuals and as communities within larger communities, we must not permit severe financial setbacks to defeat the quality of our local public schools or the futures of the children who attend them.

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