If a woman steals a loaf of bread to feed her starving family, has she really done anything wrong?
This moral question is familiar. We have heard it before. We hear the question and all of us intuitively answer “no.” Nobody would hold her guilty.
And I don’t dispute that gut reaction. When it comes to matters of morality, the answer our conscience automatically gives is usually the right one. But what does this answer tell us? What does it mean about ethics?
The question is, in fact, first asked and answered in the Book of Proverbs: “Nobody hates a thief who steals to satisfy hunger.” (6:30) It is the Bible itself, where we also read “thou shalt not steal” (Exodus 20:15) that tells us that, of course, we would not hold it against a starving person to steal.
Perhaps, we might conclude, there are limits to the Ten Commandments. Perhaps we should see the sixth dictum not to steal as a guideline rather than a rule. We might even conclude that there is no absolute morality, because there will always be exceptions and extenuating circumstances to mitigate against our moral judgements.
For me, that answer doesn’t feel right. It is not that no sin has been committed, but that a far greater one is hiding in the fact that the very question has been asked. What we should really ask is: how is it possible that this woman’s family is starving? Who has permitted poverty to even exist? That is the moral question facing us.
In these days of awe and religious introspection, most of us focus on our own conduct throughout the year. We wonder how much we have exhibited kindness and generosity since we last stood in synagogue and pledged to do better. But the sound of the shofar calls us to a far greater reckoning than just the state of our own souls. The High Holy Days call on us not only to take responsibility for our own actions, but for the state of our society.
The prophet Isaiah, whose haftarah we read on Yom Kippur, called us to exactly this accountability. He pours scorn on the Israelites’ prayers: “Behold, you fast for strife and contention, and to smite with the fist of wickedness.” (58:4) He tells them in no uncertain terms what is required of them: “Loose the fetters of wickedness. Break the yoke. Give bread to the hungry and homes to the poor.” (58:6-7)
The early Jewish reformers treated this text as the springboard for their theology. Scripture, they argued, was not primarily interested in the minutiae of ritual observances like kashrut and keeping shabbat. God’s direction to the Jews was to perfect the world through the pursuit of social justice.
That demand remains just as relevant today. Our prayers may be beautiful. Our services may be meaningful. We might read the Torah with feeling and precision. But all of that is utterly worthless if it doesn’t direct us towards an ethical life.
But Isaiah is also doing something far more radical. He is transforming morality from an individualistic concern with one person’s behaviour into a collective expectation of equity. Isaiah’s insistence on food for the hungry and houses for the homeless only makes sense if it is directed at society as a whole. Nobody in the peasant smallholder society of ancient Israel would have the power to do that on their own. Isaiah’s is a fundamentally political prophecy.
The moral task of the Jew, then, is not the relatively easy requirement that the comfortable should not steal, but an urgent calling to dismantle poverty entirely.
Never before in my lifetime has that felt so important in Britain. Today, there are well over 2,000 food banks in our country. Academics warn that they are becoming so institutionalised that we may well soon accept these symbols of poverty as normal. They were created to fill the gap left by savage cuts to the welfare to which people were once entitled. Some experts warn that they may soon replace benefits altogether.
When critics call our state today Dickensian, they are not exaggerating. The diseases of poverty-stricken Victorian England are back on the rise. Tuberculosis, scarlet fever and malnutrition are making a very unwelcome comeback. None of us can deny having noticed more rough sleeping, cramped housing or slum-like living conditions.
We cannot blame this increase in poverty on personal failings when there are such clear structural causes. Joblessness and housing shortages; austerity and recession; political policies. These are the causes of inequality in Britain, the world’s fifth richest nation. Individual action alone will never come close to remedying these ills.
Poverty in Britain today is both a political choice and a moral disgrace. As we pray in these days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we must pay attention not only to our own conduct but to our whole country’s. We must be prepared to live up to the true ethical calling advanced by our tradition. The responsibility rests on us to make sure that poverty is completely eliminated forever.
Nobody should ever have to steal to feed a starving family. Nobody should ever have a starving family.
I wrote this sermon for Liberal Judaism’s Days of Awe series