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Shavuot Reading: Hunger, Gleaning & Marx (Zeppo)

The festival of Shavuot has begun, which means it’s time to read the biblical Book of Ruth. It tells the story a non-Jewish woman who marries a Jewish man (no mention of rabbinic conversion, by the way), becomes a widow and ends up on welfare — or, as it was known in those days, gleaning the corners of a rich man’s field.

According to the Torah, as alert readers recall, it’s forbidden to harvest the corners of one’s field, which is to say, to extract every bit of profit from your enterprise, because a portion of it belongs to the poor. Put differently, redistributing your income to the poor is not recommended but commanded—not charity, but law. It’s not that taxes take a larger or smaller portion of your money—the money isn’t yours. The sustenance of the earth belongs to God, or whatever name you give to the universal oneness of the cosmos. No, you didn’t build that.

Well, in observance of the holiday, I’m linking two columns I’ve written in the past few years about Shavuot and gleaning. In this one, from Shavuot 2010, I observed that Shavuot is probably the least familiar of the major Jewish holidays to the average American Jew. In fact, you could say that it’s best known for the fact of being little-known. As such, I suggested, it might usefully be thought of as the Zeppo Marx of Jewish holidays.

In this one, from Sukkot (October) 2011, I described a wonderful concept proposed by a reader, Harriet Feinberg of Massachusetts. It builds on the principle of gleaning to develop a way for individuals and communities to combat poverty and unemployment. I don’t know of anyone who’s tried it yet, but I’d love to see someone try it.

If it’s not yet sundown, or if you’re using the computer on yomtov, you might want to check out these recent pieces you might have missed from the general press:

First, an opinion piece from last Sunday’s New York Times by a sociologist and an epidemiologist, titled “How Austerity Kills.” It’s a deeply disturbing analysis showing exactly, literally what the title promises: the deadly cost in lives of the drastic government budget cuts imposed by austerity (which is our way of closing the deficit by lowering our barely adequate spending rather than raising our inadequate revenue).

Second, a shocking thought (though, like universal health care and others, it dates back to the Nixon administration): It might be time to enact a universal guaranteed income. If we’ve reached the point where we can feed, clothe and house the earth’s population using just a fraction of the world’s workforce—that is, if there’s enough food and basic commodities to meet everyone’s needs, but there’s not enough work to go around so that everyone can get a share — then we need a new way of thinking about the relationship between work and sustenance. There’s a lot to be said on the topic, but for now, here’s a thought-provoking piece from the Washington Post’s indispensable Wonkblog, “Thinking Utopian: How about a universal guaranteed income?.”

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