The Last of Deuteronomy
Then the Levite, who has no hereditary portion as you have, and the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow in your settlements shall come and eat their fill, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the enterprises you undertake. Deuteronomy 14:29
I like to think that I have lived a blessed life, and I certainly hope that those blessings continue for me and those around me. I do not believe that I have earned these blessings; I have the good fortune to have been born into circumstances that allow me to help provide for the Levite and the stranger, the fatherless and the widow. My values include efforts to extend my blessings to others.
It has taken me a long time to appreciate that such an approach is pretty much the definition of privilege. As I have come to understand it, privilege is not the same as arrogance. It is instead a presumed advantage, even when that advantage is not pursued out of malevolence.
Call me a snowflake or a wuss or whatever you like, but before you dismiss my confession, take another listen to the voice in which this Deuteronomic instruction is reported. Were I a Levite, stranger, orphan, or widow, it would be immediately clear to me that I was not being addressed in either the collective or singular “you.” The desired norm is to have a hereditary portion, a settled place to live and enterprises that are successful or, perhaps more Biblically, to be “blessed.”
The Levites, for all their honor and access to the divine, are permanently disenfranchised from owning land. The stranger – that is, not merely someone unknown, but someone not a part of our people or tribe – requires special instruction to live among us. The fatherless and the widow are some combination of young and female and without a grown-ass man to care for them. They are the objects of this instruction, not the subjects.
It is not my conclusion that the Bible does not claim that all people are created equal. From the very beginning, it is clear that humanity is descended from a set of common ancestors. Each of us is born into this world innocent and filled with potential. But from that moment on, we are victims of choices, some made by us, most made for us. A man who works the land, a woman who suffers in childbirth. A son who mocks his father’s nakedness, another who covers the embarrassment. A father’s favorite who sells his birthright, a mother’s favorite who steals a blessing. In each generation, the Bible chooses the subjects of the story and relegates the rest to supporting roles, to anonymous support, to being acted upon.
Does that perspective nullify the worth of Biblical instruction? Hardly. But it does raise, in my mind, at least two questions. The first is, what is the goal of inviting the under-privileged into my home? If it is merely to ameliorate their disadvantage, that is, to assuage their hunger, then my generosity is only a delaying tactic. Certainly, they will hunger again tomorrow, defined by their disenfranchisement. The second is, what is the nature of my compassion? However deeply and intensely it is felt, it is, at some level, condescending. “Oh, you poor thing” is as much a judgment as it is an expression of concern.
Taking any verse or group of verses out of context is disingenuous, whether discussing sacred texts, legal decisions, or public oratory. So, I will acknowledge that it is unfair to conclude that the entirety of the biblical ethos is addressed to the privileged of that time or any time. But it is impossible to ignore that there is a streak of noblesse oblige in so much of what is taught as God’s will.
The antidote, I believe, is empathy. Appreciating a commonality of circumstances with others changes an act of largesse offered at arm’s length into an embrace. In other places, we are reminded that we were strangers once. Most everyone will be orphaned, half the number of life partners will be widowed, more than a few will await no hereditary portion.
At least in my Jewish tradition, empathy is a lesson God learns from human beings. Having no peer, the Holy One is stuck with judgmental responses – compassion, anger, approbation, actual judgment. They are gifted to members of the human family to give us God-like powers.
But empathy requires something common, both in the sense of “shared” and in the sense of “ordinary.” The Levite is my brother, the widow is my sister, the orphan is my ward and the stranger is my long-lost family. Maybe I am not evolved enough to say “all that I have is yours,” but I hope I can be wise enough to invite you to live in my world because I live in yours.
In the end, that’s the blessing of being a human being. And the privilege.