Friday, May 9, 2008

Brutal Calculus

Tur, Yoreh Deah 455

A person should always distance himself from [taking] tzedakah. And he should put himself in pain in order not to rely on others - so commanded the hakhamim: [one should] profane Shabbat in order not to rely on others.

And even if he is an honored sage who became poor, he should take up a trade, even low class trades, in order that he should no rely upon others. Better that he should stretch the skins of dead animals in the market, and not say “I am wise, I am great, [I am above this labor].”

Anyone who does not need to take tzedakah, and deceives the people and takes, will not die until he [is forced to] rely upon others.

Anyone who needs to take, and cannot live without taking, for example, the elderly or the incapacitated, or a person of great misfortune, and inflates his ego not to take, this is murder, the person is held accountable for his own life and there is nothing in his suffering but transgression and sins.

And anyone who needs to take, and pains himself, and pressures himself, and lives a life of suffering in order that he should not burden the community will not die until he [is wealthy enough] to give sustenance to others from his own [property]. And upon him, and all like him, it is said, “happy is the man who trusts in God [and God will be his refuge.]”

טור יורה דעה סימן רנה

לעולם ירחיק ארם עצמו מהצדקה ויגלגל עצמו בצער שלא יצטרך לבריות וכן צוו חכמים עשה שבתך חול ואל תצטרך לבריות ואפילו היה חכם מכובד והעני יעסוק באומנות ואפילו באומנות מנוולת ואל יצטרך לבריות מוטב לפשוט עורות נבילות בשוק ולא יאמר חכם אני גדול אני כל מי שא"צ ליטול מהצדקה ומרמה העם ונוטל אינו מת עד שיצטרך לבריות וכל מי שצריך ליטול ואינו יכול לחיות אא"כ יטול כגון זקן או חולה או בעל יסורים ומגיס דעתו ואינו נוטל ה"ז שופך דמים ומחייב בנפשו ואין לו בצערו אלא עונות וחטאים וכל מי שצריך ליטול ומצער עצמו ודוחק השעה וחי חיי צער כדי שלא יטריח על הצבור אינו מת עד שיפרנס אחרים משלו ועליו ועל כל כיוצא בו נאמר ברוך הגבר אשר יבטח בה':

I think that I need to take a few minutes to explain what the Tur is - how he comes up with what he writes. First, know that he, like any code of halakha, is not generating his own content. Codes are summations, logically and artfully arranged codifications (hence the whole code thing) of the massive canon that preceding him. I refer to the Tur as a “him” because it’s accurate: this is the magnum opus of Rabbeinu Yaakov ba’al ha Turim, son of Rabbeinu Asher.

In any case, the artistry in the writing of a code is found in selection and arrangement. It’s a complex kind of a genius, and not one whose worth our culture is immediately given to seeing. Rabbeinu Yaakov used his encyclopedic knowledge and precise analytical skills to sift through a millennium and a half’s worth of literature, very little of which actually tells you what to do, as an aside, and compiled a guide for how one should act, down to the minutia, in almost every conceivable category of life.

The result is this book, the Tur, which occupies a good half shelf, folio height, in my library. It comes across pretty bluntly, in a “just do it this way” manner. The Tur does include some debate, which makes it more nuanced than its even starker younger brother, the Shulkhan Arukh. But its frankness conceals the incredible pastiche that the Tur actually is. The ink spilled at the sides of the page is an attempt to tease the complexity out into the open, either to argue with the conclusions or praise the genius, but generally to explain how Rabbeinu Yaakov arrived at his answers.

Anyways, this siman (section) is a collection four sources (פסחים קיב, קיג. משנה פאה ח''ט. סוף פאה ירושלמי), cobbled together by the Tur. I think the cutting and pasting is what accounts for the uneven feel. The points seem to contradict each other: one should never take tzedakah, but if one doesn't take, one is a murderer, etc. I can feel the rough surfaces in this text.

Nonetheless, there is a point. The Tur brings together a picture of a kind of person with perfect intention. This person knows, quite definitively, when she should be on the dole, and when she should eschew any portion whatsoever. Knows it so well, that I can't imagine having that kind of clarity. The beauty of the composition, though, is found in how he merges a few essential ideas, and creates a text about honesty.

This is how I sum up the siman (you might want to check out the translation again):

Be self-sufficient
Don’t be arrogant
Don’t deceive
Don’t reject what you actually need
Be self-sufficient

This, for me, shows the Tur’s brilliance. Self-sufficiency, after all, requires a precise knowledge of what a person needs to live. In other words, poverty forces upon a person a penetrating honesty about the materials and means of her life. We learn that Torah requires those at the brink of need to have such honesty.

Moreover, the paths of dishonesty, whether overt or unconscious, are here laid out, sandwiched between the demand for honesty. To reject this honesty is to be a thief, overly proud, or a fool. To accept it means making a decision between accepting need or remaining self-reliant, but also to have known exactly who one is.

We learn, both here and all over the laws of the tzedakah, that poverty brings with it a brutal calculus. Anyone who has ever worked with the poor, the hungry, or the otherwise needy knows this; who to feed, who to care for first, who is included, who is left outside - all these are questions that brook no delay in being answered, and sometimes haunt those doing the caring long after the moment is gone. Perhaps these calculations are the true degradation of poverty, both for poor and for society in which they live.

Torah, in the end, demands that the harsh calculus of need be performed not only on other people, but also within the self. For paradoxically, when a sovereign self assesses his own needs, makes a decision, he reaffirms his own humanity and his own worth. No one is truly destitute who is still deciding his own destiny.

The Tur gleans this knowledge from all over the Tradition, and assembled it here to bring into sharp focus the demand for honesty in poverty. That it is stated as law, rather than principle, gives the gift of knowing both what to do, and knowing the principle that stands behind the doing.

So read the Tur. It’s really very good.

In light of these thoughts, consider the famous last mishna in masekhet Makkot:

No comments: