Moreover, philanthropy was an obligation too, since the word ‘zedakah’ meant both charity and righteousness. The Jewish welfare state in antiquity, the prototype of all others, was not voluntary; a man had to contribute to the common fund in proportion to his means, and this duty could be enforced by the courts. Maimonides even ruled that a Jew who evaded contributing according to wealth should be regarded as a rebel and punished accordingly. Other communal obligations included respect for privacy, the need to be neighbourly (i.e. to give neighbours first refusal of adjoining land put up for sale), and strict injunctions against noise, smells, vandalism and pollution.

Communal obligations need to be understood within the assumptions of Jewish theology. The sages taught that a Jew should not regard these social duties as burdens but as yet more ways in which men showed their love for God and righteousness.

Paul Johnson in A History of the Jews (1987)

Paul Johnson’s description of the Jewish Diaspora’s welfare system as the first welfare state may seem unwarranted. All societies are welfare societies – in the sense that all societies involve some kinds of interaction which benefit the welfare of some – if not all. In fact Herodotus describes a wide range of welfare system in his The Histories and The Bible also describes welfare systems that are at least 3,000 years old.

However, while I think that his claim may be hard to prove, it is certainly plausible, because it is based on two essential features of a welfare state – in its full and proper sense – both of which exceed earlier welfare systems.

First a proper welfare state must be built into the fabric of the community’s laws and must distinguish both rights and duties for all citizens. It must not be merely a system of state philanthropy or a system of mutual assistance. It must be underpinned by Law.

Second a proper welfare system must be inspired by Justice. By this I do not mean merely to repeat the first point. Justice excludes eugenic, elitist or discriminatory goals. Justice recognises the innate worth of each individual, in all their diversity. Justice demands deep respect for each individual. This is why the nineteenth century Poor Laws, and the eugenic welfare measures of Hitler do not qualify as welfare states, at least in the sense I am using the term here. In a sense they are anti-welfare states, because they deny the value of each human life. Instead they seek to promote the interests of an elite, a class, a race or some other group.

This explains why the Jewish Diaspora could well have created the first welfare state. For it was a society built, not on power, but only on the Torah – a combination of law and moral vision – united in one religion. Respect for the individual flowed naturally from the worship of God and the acknowledgement of God’s creation of Man ‘in his image’. And paradoxically, as the Diaspora lacked ‘a state’ it could only institute its measures through legally defined and prescribed communal practices – not through mere state coercion.

What can we learn from this?

If we see the ideal welfare state as a communal effort to ensure that each member of the community is bound together in their commitment to safeguard each other’s welfare and to respect each individuals’ worth and potential, then the Jewish example is inspiring. But its challenge is twofold:

If people do not believe that each human being is sacred then the kind of welfare we may seek to advance may not be respectful of human diversity, but may be eugenic, promoting some class, race or other utopian category of conformity. Can secular categories defend what is valuable in human diversity?

If we live with in a society dominated by a powerful state, one where the Law is seen to flow from the state – rather than fixing and limiting the state’s role – then we may find ourselves in a welfare system where those who run the state shape and determine what counts as welfare. Can we run a welfare state without a proper respect for Law?

Arguably this is what we do have: not a welfare state governed by a respect for human rights and Justice; not a welfare state organised to respect those rights and protect the interests of all. Instead we have a welfare state that is too often the tool of a state that doesn’t recognise rights and which pursues its own elitist, and often eugenic, dreamings.

This is not a counsel of despair. People of many religious views and none are capable of respecting human diversity. Societies are capable of respecting Law and protecting themselves from the abuses that flow form the concentration of political power. But we should not be naive. There is nothing ‘natural’ about the welfare state – and if we want the right kind of welfare state we will need to work hard at protecting both the values that underpin it and the institutions that make it possible.