Community Blog What Do We Owe Each Other?

By Rabbi Shoshana Meira Friedman

Six weeks after my son, Abraham, was born, our financial advisor encouraged us to set up a 529 college savings account for him. We would make a recurring monthly deposit into the account and slowly save up for his college education. It made financial sense to do it, our advisor explained, because the money you put into a 529 isn’t taxed.

I hung up the phone with our financial advisor. I felt conflicted. A few years back I had read Chuck Collins’ book Born on Third Base: A One Percenter Makes the Case for Tackling Inequality, Bringing Wealth Home, and Committing to the Common Good. Collins claims that 529 savings plans are one way our tax code perpetuates inequality. When folks set money aside, he says, it takes away from the nation’s tax revenue for higher education – funds could otherwise be spent redistributing resources, investing in public colleges, or otherwise making a decent education available to more Americans.

Would my opening a 529 for Abraham make a difference? What could I do to make a positive impact on this injustice?  What could the Jewish people do?

I’m going to ask Collins later this month, when he comes to Hebrew College as part of our week-long Hebrew College Winter Seminar: “What Do We Owe Each Other: Jewish Conversations on Equality and the Challenges of a Just Society.

The week will include four public lectures:

The question What do we owe each other? is at the core of Jewish text, jurisprudence, and theology. We care for the immigrant, the orphan, and the widow, not because we feel like it, but because we must. Torah understands that the web of mutual obligation that binds healthy human societies must extend beyond one’s own children. But later rabbinic tzedakah guidelines are also very clear: giving to family is a higher priority than to nonfamily, the closer the gift is to you the better. The Talmud even records a takkana (legislation) that one should not give away more than 20 percent of one’s own wealth, lest one become dependent on others (Ketubot 50a). But what about the other 80 percent?

Anthropologist and Occupy organizer Daniel Graeber says that in any human society, individuals are knit together in webs of “mutual care and obligation,” such that there will always be something we owe, and someone ‘in debt’ to us. But the question What do we owe each other? is particularly urgent when it is asked in a country where basic necessities like healthcare, housing, and education are available to some but completely out of reach to many. We may know intellectually that creating a more just society is better for everyone – including ourselves and our children — but for many, giving away our wealth or forgoing tax benefits still brings up fears of scarcity.

The other night, my husband Yotam and I were walking past the Target in Roslindale and saw an elderly black man lying in a puddle, his head straining to keep above the water. I knelt to speak to him. Yotam cradled his head and held his hand. He whispered, and we could make out the word “Ambulance.” Two other strangers stopped to see if they could help. As the ambulance pulled up and the EMTs jumped off, they called to the man by name. “I see him around here a lot,” said another young man who was stepping off his shift at Dunkin Donuts. What more could Yotam and I do? What could we all do?

There is no social safety net in the United States. When an American is alone and lying in a puddle in December, they can call 911 and go to an emergency room for warmth and a meal. Then they will be back on the streets again, dependent on the kindness of strangers. How do we make this right? How do we lean into giving up what we think we need for security, in order to build a society that is actually robust and more secure? If we trusted that we would have our fundamental basic needs taken care of no matter what, would that change our willingness to contribute to meaningful wealth redistribution?

As I agonized about the 529 for Abraham, I thought of the millions of children in our country who go to bed hungry or are undernourished — children who don’t have anyone starting 529’s for them. But I also thought about my great-grandfather Meyer (Max) Weller, who hid in an oven at age 14 to escape conscription in the Czar’s army. He fled Russia and never saw his parents again. If they’d had the chance, wouldn’t they have started a 529 for him? My people haven’t always been the haves. Wouldn’t my ancestors have wanted my baby to have the best?

Eventually we decided to open the 529. My parents made a gift to start it off, and my husband and I make a modest monthly contribution — at least for now. I continue to feel deeply conflicted. So I’m looking forward to the Hebrew College Seminar at the end of the month – to working through my own dilemma about how to respond to inequality in our country, to hearing how others respond to my predicament, to working together to come up with some solutions. I hope you will join us to dive in.

Rabbi Shoshana FriedmanRabbi Shoshana Meria Friedman, Rab`14 is Director of Professional Development for Hebrew College’s rabbinical and cantorial programs.

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