By R’ Nison Gordon, z’l
America, the world’s magnate, the wealthiest country in the world, has declared war on poverty.
If the talk is about fighting poverty, it means that there is what to fight. It means admitting in public that there is poverty in the country. The president himself turned his war on poverty into one of the main issues in the next political campaign, and he is not embarrassed, despite his own wealth, which is spread across the fields and forests of Texas, to travel through the states that are afflicted by poverty and to be photographed with a poor farmer who, if not for the government’s help, would not have food for a single meal.
Regarding Jews, when the subject is poverty, it immediately brings to mind “Ein ani ella b’da’as”—no one is considered poor except if he doesn’t have brains. Regarding the affliction of spiritual poverty, our chachamim warned that it’s a sign of arrogance. (Mai aniyus, aniyus d’Torah—calling someone poor means he is poor of Torah.)
If the American people in general are not embarrassed to talk about poverty in material possessions, despite the fact that millions of Americans live in the lap of luxury, then surely American Jews shouldn’t be ashamed to talk openly about our widespread spiritual poverty despite the fact that we have 50,000 children in yeshivos across the country.
We became satisfied with a little bit regarding our spiritual wealth, and we don’t consider that we are thus the most poverty-stricken.
If you want to know, even the simple financial poverty with which our yeshivos and other religious institutions are struggling is also a result of the spiritual poverty embedded in us. We began to doubt and give up the hope of ever pulling the American Jew out of the spiritual swamp in which he finds himself, to lift him out of the depths of spiritual poverty in which he is drowning, and the end is that the religious Jew, the Torah Jew, also begins to bend down toward these depths and spiritual poverty and it often becomes some emblem of pride for exaggerated honor and unearned prestige.
Between you and me, who are the great personalities who are honored at our dinners and banquets? Do we realize that we are raising the spiritual poverty in the ranks of American Judaism, the poverty that is a sign of boastfulness?
When I saw the picture of President Johnson sitting side by side with a poor farmer from the Kentucky mountains, a dream formed in my mind. I saw a gadol b’Yisrael sitting in an isolated town somewhere in the middle of the great America, feeding drops of hope into the thin, withered twigs of the Jewish People’s tree.
Because we need a war on spiritual poverty more than Johnson needs a war on poverty in Kentucky and Virginia.
For a moment I imagined all of our Orthodox leaders—and especially those who are pained by our spiritual poverty—how they all gathered and declared an all-out war on spiritual poverty across America, without compromise.
We won’t solve the problem completely with the 50,000 children who are now in the yeshivos. The 50,000 must multiply, and they can be multiplied, and their fathers and mothers, grandfathers and grandmothers must be inspired with the true Jewish wealth.
And by the way, the winds that are blowing now in America around the race question, and the mood of a great part of the population across the country, makes the conditions ripe for drawing thousands and thousands more Jewish children into the ranks of yeshiva education. “V’ha’meivin yavin”—he who understands will understand.
The time is now ripe for a spiritual fight against spiritual poverty on the entire front. We just need the generals who will mobilize and arm the soldiers.
There are those who depend entirely on the Jewish homeland. Supposedly, the Land of Israel will wake up those who are sleeping and make sure that those who are not sleeping remain awake. A visit from a representative of Israel, from the prime minister who gets invited to the White House; a dinner for United Jewish Appeal or Bonds; a summer tour to Israel where the beach competes with the Riviera … these and similar things are enough to ease the conscience of American Jews.
But, truly, these are no more than drops given to someone who fainted—even if [it revives] the patient [and he] opens his eyes a bit, he closes them again right away and falls back into the same trance.
What American Jews need, like they need air to breathe, is not the sugarcoating of national pride, but true “bread and butter” Judaism: a Judaism of feelings and brain and action, a Judaism of learning, understanding, and doing. Such Judaism will eliminate from our ranks the spiritual poverty and will reveal in front of our eyes the treasures that lie unnoticed and are waiting for a savior.
Let there be in the Jewish camp a call to war against poverty of knowledge, against poverty of Torah. Let us not be embarrassed to add that Jews in America are spiritually naked and barefoot, and that only a small, a very small, percent among us know the taste of wealth as an “am segulah, mamleches kohanim v’goy kadosh” (a select nation, a kingdom of priests and a holy people).
If we merited that all roshei yeshiva and all rabbinical and other organizations gathered under one roof to seek ideas how to fight the sacrilege in Israel, maybe the time is ripe for such a united fight against spiritual poverty in America itself.
Poverty, say sociologists, is the source of all kinds of societal abominations. Our spiritual poverty is not just a source of various abominations; it is also a threat to our very existence.
This article first appeared in the Sivan 5724 (1964) edition of “Dos Yiddishe Vort.” It was translated from the original Yiddish by P. Samuels.