During testimony before a Congressional hearing on the federal food-stamp program, a representative of a Jewish “social-justice” organization asserted, citing Leviticus, that “the Jewish tradition” mandates the distribution of charity without regard for whether the recipients are able to earn money themselves. While Mark Tooley has responded to this claim from a Christian perspective, Gil Student explains that the Jewish view is in fact far more nuanced than the witness at the hearing suggested:
The most famous source [on this topic] is the gloss found in Kli Yakar—the biblical commentary of Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim Luntschitz (ca. 1550-1619)—to the verse (Exodus 23:5), “If you see the donkey of one who hates you lying under its burden and you would refrain from setting it free, you shall surely set it free with him.” The Talmud, noting the phrase “with him,” explains that the obligation to help only applies if the ass’s owner also participates. So too, writes Luntschitz, you only have to help someone by giving him charity if he also will help himself by working. If he is physically unable to work, then he is exempt from doing so. However, the non-working poor cannot demand help without exerting any effort to help themselves. . . .
[By contrast], the late Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, quoting the medieval talmudic commentator Menaḥem Meiri—who is unsure about the rule in such a case—concludes that [in principle] we must give charity to everyone regardless of whether they contribute to their own survival. [Nonetheless, even in Lichtenstein’s opinion], context matters. For example, it is necessary to look at the reason why the person is not working. Is it because he “sneers as society and expects it to support him” or because he cannot find a job that matches his training and background? These details matter in determining whether to offer charity to someone who chooses not to support himself. Lichtenstein concludes that “the effort to encourage sensitivity on the one hand and [individual] responsibility on the other . . . reflects halakhah’s values.”
It is a shame that Jewish advocacy groups project a limited vision of the Jewish tradition.