By Ben Bennett and Kelley Kidd
Once, before Pesach, a man entered the home of Rabbi Yossi Ber and asked him a question: “Tell me Rabbi, can I fulfill the commandment of the four cups with Milk instead of Wine?” The rabbi asked him, “Are you—God forbid—ill?”
The man answered him, “No, thank God, I am quite healthy, but I cannot afford to buy wine this year.”
Rabbi Yossi turned to his wife and said, “Give this man twenty-five rubles.”
The man said, “Honored Rabbi, I came to you to ask a question, not to beg for Tzedaka. ”
The rabbi calmed him, saying, “This money is given to you as a loan, until God helps you.”
The man took the money, thanked the rabbi and praised him. After the man left, the rabbi’s wife asked him: “Why did you tell me to give him twenty-five rubles? After all, wine costs only two or three rubles.”
The rabbi answered, “I understood from the man’s question that he does not have enough to prepare for the Holiday. If he had had enough money for fish and meat, he would not have asked if it is permissible to use milk instead of wine. Milk cannot be drunk at the same meal with meat. This is why I gave him money to buy everything he needs for the holiday.”
On the surface, this seems like a story of generosity and kindness. The rabbi sees beyond the man’s request to what he truly needs. He allows the man to celebrate properly while also allowing him to maintain his dignity. By offering him a loan instead of charity, the rabbi treats the man as an equal who is temporarily down on his luck.
However, considering this story from another angle reveals another narrative, one where we see the complex relationships and dynamics involved in the creation of debt, which are connected to power in a way not totally separate from charity. The man approached the rabbi in search of a halachic (Jewish legal) opinion on his own approach to celebrating without sufficient funds. Instead of leaving with an answer to his query of whether milk could serve as a replacement for wine (the answer to which we never do learn), he leaves with a debt he did not ask for, and an injunction to celebrate a certain way. The rabbi has, despite his best intentions, told the man that the way he wanted to celebrate was so insufficient that he would be better off going into debt in order to celebrate properly.
Debt in modern life also tends to come attached to a cost greater than just principal and interest—it comes with both a prescription of what one should want and a deep personal judgment if one fails to attain it.
For example, Americans subject themselves to 20-30 years of debt for a home because they are told that home ownership ought to be their dream. People sacrifice their ability to be mobile, buy other things, and take lower paying jobs, so they can keep up with their mortgage payments. Those who succeed achieve the American dream, those who fail are seen as irresponsible, and those who choose not to play the game are seen, in some vague but undeniable way, as Unamerican.
Under fair conditions, this is debt at its best. Rather than limiting home ownership to those with inherited wealth or those who have already accumulated enough wealth to purchase something very expensive, people can spread the cost over time and use their expected income for a lifetime to pay for their homes. As Ta-Nehisi Coates describes in his article “The Case for Reparations”, the proliferation of long-term mortgages with low down payments massively expanded the pool of people who could own and buy homes in the middle of the 20th century. A middle class family could choose to spend the better part of their adult lives in debt, but they would build equity, have a decent place to call home, and exemplify American virtue.
But conditions were fare from fair. Coates tells the story of an America between 1930 and 1960 where “black people across the country were largely cut out of the legitimate home-mortgage market” and left, through contract sales, with nothing more than enormous debt. People who paid mortgages and maintained their homes like any proud home owner were evicted like renters without having built any equity. The dream and the promise of a home pervade American understandings of success and push Americans to take on the debt of mortgage to live the American dream. The dream demands the loan, but the loan does not actually promise to fulfill the dream. For African Americans in the mid-20th century, the idea that anyone could achieve this promise was deceitful, and for many others it created a pressure to live a type of life that doesn’t make sense, because that is what success should look like. Yet America time and again fails to deliver on this promise, without forgiving the debt that people accrued in its pursuit. Still, African-Americans live with the deprivation that resulted from debts accrued unjustly and underscored by discriminatory policy.
The effort of the most vulnerable members of our society to receive basic care often results in debt even if they never seek a loan to live beyond their means. Supplemental Security Income (SSI) is the program in place for destitute people with severe disabilities who have not worked long enough to qualify for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI). To qualify, one must be disabled and meet financial eligibility criteria such as having resources that total less than $2000 in value. Savings accounts, retirement funds, and almost all other resources need to be depleted or “spent down” for one to be eligible for SSI. All income must be reported so that Social Security can reduce benefits by one dollar for every two dollars earned. (As a work disincentive, this is basically the equivalent of a 50% tax—higher than the federal income tax on anyone in the country.) Disabled people on SSI who are confused about these rules are frequently hit with “overpayments,” debts owed to Social Security because Social Security paid them too much. In such cases, individuals receiving and often trying to support a family on a quantity less than three-quarters of the federal poverty line have to pay back the government for not having been destitute enough when they receive their benefits.
Some resources, however, are exempt from resource limit. These assets do not need to be sold off or spent down, and they do not cause overpayments. These resources include money designated for a burial fund, a car, special equipment needed to return to work, household items, and a few other assets. The biggest one? A person can own a home and still receive full SSI payments without a fear of an overpayment debt. While an SSI recipient living in an apartment cannot hold on to a $3000 savings account so she can pay an emergency bill and still receive the $721 necessary for paying for rent and groceries, another SSI recipient could own a home worth a hundred times as much and still receive his check every month. American home ownership is so sacred that it can’t even be treated as a resource to an SSI recipient. This is where the violent and law-backed undermining of African-American home ownership becomes relevant. Those who have been systematically excluded from that sacred rite lose one of the best protections against the life of destitution and survival that our society offers to the poor and disabled.
The crazy thing about America is that it requires everyone to pay their debts, but fails to pay its own. This is true on a global scale, as David Graeber details in the final chapter of Debt: The First 5000 Years, but it is just as true in a local context. I was with a client a few days ago who, upon being evicted from his home and made homeless, said that that the first thing he’d do once he made some money was repay the $3,000 he owed to landlord who had just used the court system and US Marshalls to throw him and all his earthly possessions on the curb. He was worried that the outstanding debt would prevent any future landlord from renting to him. While we advised him that he had more significant financial priorities, his inclination was justifiable. As a former felon, someone who had supposedly repaid his debt to society by serving prison time, he was cut out of the world of legitimate employment. He can be legally discriminated against by employment and housing authorities. Because of old child support debts, his driver’s license has been suspended multiple times. As a black former felon, he will likely never be given the chance to repay his loans. When we recognize that African American men are 6 times more likely to be incarcerated than white men, it becomes more evident that stories like those of my client demonstrate an intentional deprivation, a debt that America owes on a racial level.
The Torah offers an alternative to the a system allowing for the debt and inequality that have allowed for the desperate level of racial inequality that now exists in America. Coates even cites the injunction in Deuteronomy that every slave be freed after 7 years and “not sent away empty handed.” This piece came at a particularly pertinent time, given how recently we celebrated Shavuot. Much like Shabbat, the 7th day of the week, comes with commandments, so does our 7 week transition from Exodus end with Shavuot, the giving of Torah. For all our freedom and celebration, we also receive commandments. We enter into a covenant that gives meaning to our freedom. It is this covenant that commands us to treat strangers kindly, because we were strangers in a strange land. It also makes sense, by this pattern, that we are called upon to free all slaves and release all debts every seven years. The Torah reminds us that ultimately whatever wealth we have gathered belongs to something beyond ourselves, and that our celebration always comes with a commitment to a covenant ultimately founded on justice and common humanity.
The Torah’s choice to make hierarchy and ownership temporary is there for everyone’s protection. It is not only because no human being should be held in bondage forever, no people slaves for generations, no land worked until it’s cracked and dry and stripped of all nutrients that make the plants grow, but because of the reciprocal effect it has on those who own, beat, kill, and destroy. For when a day of reckoning and comes—and it always does—it benefits the sinner that the sins have not compounded themselves for too long. Just as petitioners on Yom Kippur need not atone for more than one year’s sins, we are not allowed to hold on to debt for more than seven years. Just as a 30 year mortgage is unimaginable to the Torah (much less a predatory and discriminatory loan backed by violence and American law), so too is two hundred fifty years of abject servitude and an indefinite era of subjection. As Paolo Freire writes, “Dehumanization, which marks not only those whose humanity has been stolen, but also (though in a different way) those who have stolen it, is a distortion of the vocation of becoming more fully human.” The Torah’s invocation against stealing humanity protects not only the weak and the vulnerable, but also those who might otherwise be dehumanized by their oppression of others. We’d do well to remember this.
Benjamin Bennett is from Wilmette, IL, attended the University of Pennsylvania and is a Legal Clinic Assistant at Bread for the City.
Kelley Kidd is from Knoxville, TN, attended Georgetown University and is a Case Manager at Miriam’s Kitchen.