I had planned to go to a nascent egalitarian minyan this morning, but woke up late and under the weather. Instead, I got up and read another chapter of Aryeh Cohen's Justice in the City. He opens chapter 5 with a reminder about the words of Isaiah which are read on Yom Kippur, chastising the people in the midst of their fast, for focusing only on themselves: "Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for a man to humble himself?...Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter....!"
Having planned to go to this new service in Trastevere, I felt a little badly that I went to the grocery store. But I arrived and there were a group of people mingling outside the neighborhood supermarket. It was the local food bank. They were asking people to go in, buy some food off of a list, and then return it to them, in the plastic bag they provided. I found this somehow even more meaningful than the food drives where we are asked to bring in canned food. Why? Because I went in and did my shopping, half for me, and half for the food bank and the people who need it. I got to the cash register, paid, and filled my backpack with my food, and the plastic bag with "their" food. It is a small contribution in a city and country that is reeling with unemployment and a broader austerity-induced economic crisis, but it felt closer to a "community of obligation" than most ways we give.
Reading Justice in the City, and coming across this food pantry effort, followed a seminar yesterday morning where Aldo Schiavone, who is giving a series of lectures on ancient Roman law at the Academy, walked us through Aristotle's Politics and specifically his discussion of slavery. There too the city is glorified -- it is even prior to and higher than the family. But it is a city of harmony born of inequality. It is a city where the "community of obligation" is based on masters and slaves, the free and unfree. The master and slave have the same interests, Aristotle argues, because they are two sides of the same coin: the master, by his nature, rules, and the slave, by his nature, serves.
Modern progressive chumashim emphasize that the Torah and Talmud provide rights for slaves, and offer ways for them to be freed, but the uncomfortable truth is that Judaism too allowed for slavery of non-Jews and Jews alike. Cohen offers a hopeful -- or demanding -- way out: he insists that there is a "developmental arc" (p. 93) in Jewish thought over the course of a millennium, toward communal obligations to treat all as equal members of the community, to whom we owe care and support.