I had thought of writing just about the snowdrops. In February the small lanes of South Wales and the South West are beautiful with snowdrops. They grow in clumps and clusters by the road side, even right under the hawthorn, and on the climbing riverbanks. They grow beside the hedgerows, on the other side of which two ewes call out to their tiny lambs, just born. They grow in the churchyards, alongside the paths and among the graves. They guide the way into the old village churches.
Some of these churches are over a thousand years old, simple spaces filled with hearts’ lives, with the humility and prayer of generations. Opposite the entrance of one particular church, Nicky found two wooden panels on which was recorded the outcome of an ancient court case. It had involved the village priest; as a result it had been determined that for every measure of harvest, for each milch-cow born and for every lamb, a tithe was duly to be given. Nothing suggested greed or embezzlement. Rather, from what the land brought forth the poor, too, had to be fed.
I was reminded of Maimonides’ explanation, in that most moving section of his great 12th century code, Hilchot Mattanot La’Evyonim, Laws concerning Gifts to the Poor, of the Torah’s rules on tithing. Ma’asrot, or tithes, provided for the landless servants of the community, the Priests and Levites. At certain points in the seven-year cycle they also benefited the local poor. More important for the itinerant destitute, who included orphans, the very old and the sick, were those parts of every harvest which the Torah declared theirs: the forgotten ears and sheaves, the second pickings from the ground crops and the orchards, and the corners of the fields.
But that was not sufficient. No Jewish community, ruled Maimonides, basing himself on the final chapter of the 2nd century Mishnaic tractate Pe’ah, was worthy of the title unless it had at least two regular collections: - the kuppah, or fund, from which the local poor were allocated money for their weekly needs, and the tamchu’i, or plate, on which surplus food was collected every day for the itinerant poor and the hungry. There is ample testament that these moneys, and various other funds, to support universal education, to marry off penniless young people, to provide for the sick and to care for the dead, have been the mark of Jewish community life throughout the ages. We are forbidden to eat in ease while our fellow human beings starve, suffer cold, and face homelessness and sickness.
‘Bishops cannot stay silent on political issues, because at the heart of religion is the question of how the community delivers justice’, wrote Ed West in today’s Times. He was referring to the claim, led by the Archbishop of Canterbury and twenty-seven other bishops, that cuts in welfare provision are driving more and more people to depend on food banks. Whether they are correct about the details of the causes is a matter of research and policy; but the bishops are certainly right to speak out. That is a question of values. Religion is not about God in heaven, but about God’s presence on earth, about the justice, compassion and kindness we strive to implement in our countries, cities and villages.
Only for Jews the unit of ultimate responsibility is not the state. Rather, it is the community, guided sometimes chided, by the vision of justice apprehended by the prophets, and the provisions of justice mandated by Jewish law.