Bill Cohen

Isaiah and the Homeless

Bill Cohen

The Jewish Prophet Isaiah lived and prophesied in Jerusalem, Kingdom of Judah, during the mid-Eighth century B.C.E.  One of his most important writings was designated in the Talmud to be recited on Yom Kippur morning because of its apt interpretation of the meaning of the Yom Kippur fast.  Over 2700 years ago, with the following phrases, Isaiah distinguished between an empty fast, accompanied by unchanged behavior, and a meaningful fast, tied to an important Jewish religious imperative:

Why, when we fasted, did You not see? When we starved our bodies, did You pay no heed? Because on your fast day you see to your business and oppress all your laborers! …

Is such the fast I desire, a day for men to starve their bodies? Is it bowing the head like a bulrush and lying in sackcloth and ashes?  Do you call that a fast, a day when the Lord is favorable?

 No, this is the fast I desire:It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked, to clothe him … .”

Isaiah 58:3-7. (Emphasis added.)

Isaiah would likely criticize the common greeting among fasting Jews that they have an “easy” fast, as if the purpose of the fast is just to get through it.  According to Isaiah, the fast should serve a higher spiritual function, namely, that at some point in the 24-hour period between a sumptuous pre-fast meal and an equally lavish break-the-fast dinner, those fasting will to some degree experience viscerally and mentally the pain of hunger, the ordeal of poverty, the embarrassment of nakedness, and the fear of homelessness.   It is Isaiah’s hope that that experience will encourage those who denied themselves food for a day to take some action individually or as a congregation to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, and to provide shelter to the poor and homeless.

That this ancient religious entreaty is a core principle of Judaism was recognized by the Sages of the Talmud when they chose to include this portion of Isaiah as the Haftarah to be recited on Yom Kippur morning, a day when those Rabbis knew that the most Jews would be in Synagogue to hear it.

Indeed, this religious imperative and similar Christian biblical scriptures have given spiritual support to numerous synagogues, churches and their respective members in Boulder and around the U.S. to engage in a variety of projects to aid the poor, the hungry and the homeless.

Occasionally, those projects conducted on the property of  a religious institution have been cited for violating municipal zoning regulations.   Beginning in the Summer of 2011, Boulder’s Congregation Har HaShem invited a selected and limited number of homeless people to sleep overnight on a designated area of the grounds behind one of its buildings.  Neighbors were informed of this program and no one complained.  However, during the Summer of 2012, the City of Boulder received an anonymous complaint about this program and issued a cease and desist order claiming that “camping” was illegal in the Residential Estate zone where Har HaShem  is located.

Several courts have addressed this issue, most notably a series of decisions between 2002-04 in the U.S. District Court in Manhattan and the U.S. Court of Appeals in New York City.  In that case, the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, located at Fifth Avenue and East 55th Streets in Manhattan, was granted a permanent injunction prohibiting the City of New York from preventing homeless people, with the Church’s permission, from sleeping on the landings at the tops of the outdoor staircases leading into the Church’s main sanctuary from both streets’ entrances.    The Court of Appeals found that the Church’s provision of outdoor sleeping space for the homeless effectuates a “sincerely held religious belief ” that is protected under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.  The District Court had also found that this program constituted an “accessory use” consistent with the Church’s religious mission and therefore permissible under the City’s zoning code.

With this precedent in mind, Har HaShem responded in writing  to the City’s cease and desist order with a request that the City review and approve its outdoor homeless sleeping area as an accessory use under the City’s zoning regulations.  Har HaShem’s response quoted Isaiah’s call for Jews “to bring the homeless into your house,” as a basic and fundamental religious belief and obligation of Judaism, the religion to which all its land and facilities are dedicated and used.

In its response, the City reversed its earlier position and agreed that the “services provided to the homeless by Har HaShem meet the city’s definition for accessory use.”  Har HaShem quickly restarted its Summer homeless outdoor overnight sleeping program, which will continue until nighttime temperatures force the program indoors.

Isaiah’s ancient expression of what constitutes a meaningful Yom Kippur fast has influenced a secular government to recognize the religious foundation of the action of a religious assembly, thereby permitting an exercise of Freedom of Religion to continue unimpeded by government interference.  One hopes that this important precedent will inspire other individuals and religious institutions to use their property and facilities to aid the growing number of poor, hungry and homeless people in our community.

As we prepare for Yom Kippur and experience the discomfort of the annual fast, may we each commit to follow Isaiah’s directive – to act in some way to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and provide shelter for the poor and homeless.

May you have a meaningful fast!  L’Shanah Tovah!

About Bill Cohen

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  1. Thanks, Bill, for your hard work and your inspiring words. G'mar chatimah tovah!

    • Thanks, Holli, for beautifying the high holidays and every Shabbat with your voice and your spirit. Have a meaningful fast. Happy New Year! Bill