Universe of Obligation

In addition to our volunteering, we have educational sessions as a group every Sunday morning. These sessions give us time to contexualise the work we are doing, and examine it through a Jewish lens. This week, we discussed the concept of a “Universe of Obligation,” that is, who are the people to whom we are obligated? Every day we encounter numerous requests for help from people with different types and degrees of need, people with whom we have very different relationships. For example, we may receive an e-mail from a friend asking to sponsor her participation in a race to support cancer research, walk past a homeless person on the street asking for money and receive a mail solicitation from an international anti-poverty organization. The goal of the session was to help us explore the nature of our obligations to other people and our decision-making process for how and when to help. The unit was taken from American Jewish World Services’ Curriculum (www.ajws.org).

We’ve attached 2 of the texts we discussed, as well as some discussion questions. Please share your thoughts in the “comments” section of this blog.

BaBylonian Talmud
Bava meTzia 71a
R. Yosef taught: “If you lend money to any of
my people that are poor with you” (Exodus
22:24): [This teaches, that if the choice lies
between] a Jew and a non-Jew, the Jew has
preference; the poor or the rich the poor takes
precedence; your poor [i.e. your relatives] and
the [general] poor of your town, your poor
come first; the poor of your city and the poor
of another town the poor of your own town
have prior rights.
Talmud
Bava Metzia 71a

1 The text lays out four binaries, four pairs of people who might be seeking economic
aid. What are the four binaries and, in each case, which of the two people does
the text privilege?

2 The text seems to provide a very clear set of rules for determining who should
be helped first in any given circumstance. What significant omission makes it less
clear? [HINT: How would the text suggest you should decide between a Jewish
out-of-towner and a non-Jewish neighbor, all else being equal?]

3 How does this text define or shape the universe of obligation?

4 How can this text be reconciled with the text from Gittin 61a (see below), if at all?

BaBylonian Talmud
GiTTin 61a
Our Rabbis taught: We sustain the non-Jewish poor
with1 the Jewish poor, visit the non-Jewish sick with
the Jewish sick, and bury the non-Jewish dead with
the Jewish dead, for the sake of peace.
The word “with” in this text is ambiguous and open to interpretation.
It could mean that we sustain and care for non-Jews together with
Jews; in other words, at the same time and place, and in the same
manner. Or, it could mean that we provide the care and sustenance
separately but do so for both groups of people. The fact that Jewish
law mandates the burial of Jews and non-Jews in separate cemeteries
supports the reading that “with” means that we provide for both
groups but in different ways or in separate places and times.

1. How does this text define or shape the universe of obligation?

2 What might “for the sake of peace” mean?

3 How can this text be reconciled with the text from Bava Metzia 71a (previous),
if at all?

Looking forward to hearing your thoughts!!

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