Jack Kemp died just a couple weeks ago, on May 2. I thought of the long-time conservative political leader as I studied Parashat Behar last week.
I've always considered Jack Kemp to be one of my influences, as someone who came of age in the 1980s, because of the particular kind of free-market conservatism he espoused. He was fanatical for low taxes and economic freedom, but he never used those principles to say that society should turn its back on the poor. Instead, he championed market-based strategies, whether school choice or support for home ownership, as the most effective tools for fight poverty. He served as Secretary of Housing in the administration of George Bush.
His interest in helping individual own homes -- that's what I thought about when he died, and what kept him in mind during the week of Parashat Behar. Leviticus chapter 25 says two things. There is the law of the sabbatical year, when essentially no one in Israel owns any property, but all eat equally off the land. Then there is the law of the jubilee, which returns everyone to the property and home that belonged to their families originally, when the Land of Israel was divided among tribes, clans, and families. Much of the chapter elaborates procedures for helping someone "redeem" or buy back a home that he had to sell because of financial difficulties.
There is an idea here, that combating poverty for the Torah is not just about feeding people, making sure that people do not suffer. A person is entitled to a place, and to a sense of place. Being planted somewhere matters. We deserve not just to survive, but to be able to go home. It's an interesting angle, especially for people as mobile as Jews. Once we were forced into exile, but today even by choice we move around at least as much as any other subgroup in American society.
The idea of redeeming a home shows up in later Jewish law. To support a person who has become poor, the laws of tzedakah state that we must provide the utensils typical for a home. The law reminds us that there is a certain dignity that comes with having a home -- a place to go to, a place to make Shabbat, to invite guests. I asked in shul last Shabbat how our social policies in America would have to shift in order to be more in line with the Torah. The most effort in our social welfare system goes to feeding people and helping them find jobs. Having a home -- Jack Kemp's preoccupation -- is something we do less well. Housing policy -- subsidies, public housing, etc -- is a very complicated topic. But so much flows from it in terms of real dignity, a sense of having one of the homes in a community.
Which gives me one more opportunity to plug a Jewish project called TZEDEC, organized by the Jewish FundS for Justice (that's not a typo). TZEDEC pools capital from individual Jews and institutions to invest in low-income community development, including affordable housing. It's a terrific example of how Judaism is neither liberal nor conservative in its social philosophy, or perhaps both at the same time. TZEDEC is one of the most innovative Jewish tzedakah initiatives in the country, a way of bringing the values of tzedakah and the Leviticus 25 to investment and the market.