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G. David Schwartz is the former president of  Seedhouse, the online interfaith committee. Schwartz is the author of A Jewish Appraisal of Dialogue (1994) and Midrash and Working Out Of The Book  (2004), currently a volunteer at The Cincinnati J, Meals On Wheels. His newest book, Shards And Verse (2011) is now in stores or can be ordered online.


Our childhood story of Hansel and Gretel tells the tale of a poverty which is so overwhelming that one of the parents of the children deduce that if the children were to disappear there would be enough food for the remaining members of the family. The woman evidences a faulty logic. If the poverty was indeed so overwhelming, the absence of two children would not have made that much of a difference.

In fact, the woman was willing to give up more than just two children. She was willing to give up half of her family. But as the tale tells the story, the woman’s logic was faulty. If the poverty was indeed that overwhelming, even the loss of half the family would not have been a correct solution.

The poverty was overwhelming. In fact, the woman was willing to give up more than two children, more than HER two children, more than half her family. The woman was willing to give up her future, comfort in her own age, the joy of grandchildren, and the future of her family line. The woman was willing to give up the future. It was this fact – the fact that one is willing to sacrifice one’s future – which suggests the miserable depths of the poverty. The mere presence of the small two mouths of the children cannot have alleviated a poverty as deep as the one spoken about in this story.

The father in the story has a legendary, even fanciful, response to the poverty. The father’s response is to love the children. Love should occur in a family. Love IS family life – love and quite a bit of work. Love sustains a family. Love may even be a modern way of insuring that family life continues. Love can sustain the human race if it were ever tested. Love is, in some theologies, called divine and identified with the deity. But love does NOT abolish poverty.

All the love in the world will not abolish poverty. Sacrifice of our children, of half our family, of our future, will not abolish poverty. A too illusory reaction and a too stark capitulation to a false realism will not abolish poverty.

No mere mental reaction and no limited physical activity will abolish poverty.

No ideational response alone, no physical negation will abolish poverty. No thought, no act alone, will abolish poverty.

The commitment of mind, reason, thoughts, study, research, the commitment of the form of human life to the content of human existence, that is, deed, activity, experiment, science; this PRAXIS will abolish poverty. This PRAXIS – the coherent harmony of mind and body, the individual’s mind and the individual’s activity, the collective mind and the social body – THIS will abolish poverty. Harmony of idealism and stark empiricism was not found in the relationship between the father and mother of Hansel and Gretel. Had there been the woman’s realism and the man’s care and concern, there would have been an abolishment of poverty – even if only the poverty of their relationship and the poverty they were creating in their children.

A short-hand term for overcoming poverty in such a manner is to call it economic necessity. Our economic necessity is to create justice, not a tacit justice, but an efficacious justice. What is required is not a pledge to the rhetoric of justice, but a commitment to creating the conditions and practice of justice. Justice is real wealth.

The short-sighted realism of the woman and the defective idealism of the father perpetuated poverty. The poverty they created in the girl was the poverty of being a follower. She follows the father (with his flawed ideation); she follows the brother. She does not achieve self-confident action, that is, praxis, until she kills the evil threatening her.

The evil threatening her is poverty. It is a poverty so overwhelming that she eventually shares a collective fantasy with her brother, the fantasy of the edible cottage. The stunted and perverted children invent a myth of a house made of cake walls, a plum roof, sugared shutters, candied bricks, and the like. Poverty, real poverty, creates the collective illusion of plenty, and plenty of plenty at that. Edible cottages are the extreme fantasy of poverty.

The fact that we currently exist in real poverty is shown by the fact that we raise the price of oil and yet demand that welfare recipients can easily get a job. We debate the minimum wage, not as a question about whether starting salaries are too low – of course they are too low, this is not in question – but wonder what improvement of some of the lowest wage earners will do to our economy. We genuinely despise the perpetuation of drug abuse and addiction, yet we are addicted to failing to provide sufficient social funding to be successful at fighting drugs. This is another abuse of society. We decry the poverty of education our children are receiving, yet we resolutely refuse replenishment of the teaching profession by wages which would attract successful teachers. We generate our responses to society by modifying them on the scale of monies.

We insist we will not commit funds, and equally insist that the job can and will be done. This is a form of congressional poverty! This is an example of our belief in editable cottages. There is plenty out there! There are plenty of jobs out there, plenty of alternative energy sources out there, plenty of intelligent people who want to be teachers out there, plenty of plenty out there. The only worrisome thing is who among us are in here.

The poverty the parents in the story at hand created in the boy was the poverty of thinking that which worked well once will work well once more. His was the poverty of thinking that knowing history, which saves us from the condemnation of repetition, saves us as well from the opposite of repetition. Santayana said that not knowing history condemns us to repeat it. Yet knowing history is not necessarily a prevention of repetition, nor, and this is more important, does knowledge of history show us the path into a coherent future. Do we like the idea of paradise? There is no way we can repeat it. There were no freight trains in paradise. Nor were there televisions, magazines, leisure hours, computers, lasers, shopping malls, roller coasters, and all which these imply, demand, create and suggest. Wealth is in relationships, just relationships. We cannot go back to what would now be regarded as the poverty of paradise.

Hansel leaves stones on the ground with which he and his sister find their way home the first time the idealist, at the command of the stark realist, leads the children into the woods. The second time the idealist leads the children into the woods, Hansel cannot find enough stones to be left as markers. One of the lessons of poverty is that what you deplete cannot be replenished. You must find alternative sources.

Hansel’s alternative source is the pocket full of bread his parents give him before attempting to lose him in the woods.

Good God! If you have bread, why would you want to lose your children on the poverty of your circumstances, Change your circumstances. Change yourself. Had this been a different fantasy, the bread could have been planted and grown as a bread tree. Again, the bread could have been divided, on Zeno’s bread table, to insure that half was always left. If you cut the bread in half, you can cut the half in half. This cutting of half in half suggests that you always have a half you can cut in half. One never runs our of halves. Half-baked schemes, half-hearted resolutions, half-full cups, half-pregnancies… but the point of the tale at hand is that realism and idealism are in a marriage and must always be accounted. Realism and idealism must make their marriage into a just relationship. Were this to be done, the result would be a great wealth.

Grant that the woman is selfish. She is not so selfish as to deprive her children of bread. Yet she was as selfish as one who would deprive herself of her own future (only for the sake of that extra piece of bread she may have had the next few days). But I am done talking about this witch of a woman. She finds transformation in the story into the witch. She is the witch at the end of the story, for stark realism is a horrible sight. The witch in Hansel and Gretel is the return of a poor childhood. It is the woman come back to consume her children.

Hansel is so survivalist that he leaves bread crumbs the next day his parents try to lose him. He throws to the ground the very object of the woman’s selfishness and the mans docile submission. Hansel does not mistake bread for stone. The tale of Hansel and Gretel is not a religious tale. Nor does Hansel make a serious category mistake. He knows quite well he is leaving bread on the ground. This is an example of Nietzsche’s maxim that one will return to the ashes from which one fled his or her house, and eat a meal upon the return. Immediate survival is more important than sustenance. However, immediate survival, by some ironic quirk, is also long-term survival. We survive long-term by running from the house which is in flames. The guarantee that we exist until tomorrow, even if we starve, is a promise that we may have a meal at noon today. Love-term survival occurs between short-term attempts. Each meal, on the other hand, is at best short-term survival (some shorter than others). This is additional proof that the woman was trading in her future for her short-lived present.

Nietzsche’s maxim, in turn, found replication and extension in Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. One must survive life-threatening situations. Only then is it an act of survival to eat. Least you think I regard food as secondary, the requirements of a nutritional minimum is an issue which is a daily life-threatening situation. There is an apparent contradiction between the enjoyment of private statures and the privation of real people. There is a fundamental inconsistency in our “human mode” between expensive gowns, our stockpiling and stock profiteering while meager expenses gown our eyes and the profit of piles is the stock of refuse in our cities. People should be properly fed, properly clothed, properly housed, properly cared for in a manner befitting our religious commitment, our social contacts with one another, and our mutual hope for mediation and the domination of the moderation-in-all-things which has become a widowed maxim among common humanity. Aristocrats should become Aristotelian. Once we fulfill the pledge of tacit acceptance of the feelings of charity we derive from the blessings of life, these fundamental needs will lead us to recognition of the even higher needs: inadequate sexual relations as a life-threatening situation, failure to achieve autonomy as a life-threatening situation. And the higher reaches, they are beyond our visions because we are poor.

Hansel’s bread crumbs were eaten by the birds. The “higher-ups” stole and steal the crumbs from the pockets of the poor. And for their part, the hungry are willing to call these parakeets in the gilded cages eagles.

The poverty is so overwhelming that Hansel and Gretel share an illusion of the edible house. They share the illusion of plenty and plenty of plenty. The story goes on to tell us that Hansel and Gretel are trapped by this illusion, enslaved by this illusion, terrified by this illusion. The story continues by telling us that poverty will attempt to consume us. The story progresses by telling us that the only way to overcome poverty is to throw poverty into the fire. Yet just as the edible house is an illusion, and the witch an illusory projection of the stark realism of the witchiness of the woman, so the violence implied in throwing poverty into the fire is an illusion.

There is no witch who must be killed for the sake of survival. There is a meal to be eaten (a meal which, as said above, must contain nutritional values, and lead to higher values). There is no fire which consumes the consumers of poverty. There is a graciousness and a willingness which lurks with good-will behind the statues and gowns of the wealthy. The wealthy are those who can reach through their statues to find a hot meal for the sake of a warm moment. The really wealthy are those who can transform a fairy tale about crumbs of bread and edible cottages into cottages which dispense edible bread. Then will a fire be lit, a fire which will warm the hearts of the poor and set the wealthy ablaze with the knowledge of a deed well done.

In general, suffering requires a turning inward. The inside of the human being – the mythical inside, for it is really blood and bone and sinew – is that magical place where anything can happen. To turn inward, then, is to escape from suffering. Inward lies the edible cottage. Inward is the dominant paradigm for both selfishness and altruism.

To wretch ourselves, however, to turn the self inside-out, is to establish the stage for great reversals. The opposite of evasion is social action. The opposite of suffering is social action committed to alleviate suffering. The opposite of obliteration and destruction of the future is construction of the future by actions which are committed to alleviate suffering. The opposite of poverty is the wealth of relationships which construct the future by actions which are committed to alleviate suffering. The opposite of injustice is the justice of the wealth of relationships which construct the future by actions which are committed to alleviate suffering.

The opposite of an edible cottage is both a real non-edible cottage and a real edible non-cottage. The opposite of the myth is, in other words, not a single opposition (as a “dictatorship of dialectics”), but one real dwelling in which are to be found a variety of the class of editable non-cottages (i.e. everything which is both edible and not a dwelling. We have been, since the first paragraph, against homes consuming their children). The opposite of turning in and away is praxis. Praxis is, as suggested above, reasoned and intelligent foresight applied to critical action of a constructive nature. Efficacious praxis, then, is a prophetic experience of constructing wealth.

I do not recommend a political movement based on equitable distribution of social wealth (i.e., means of production, products of production processes). I do not recommend socialism. I have no idea what will result when we abandon our mutually shared illusions. I do recommend justice. Until the poor are fed, housed, clothed, a very unjust situation exists for the socially wealthy. They continually, rightly or wrongly, fear they must “protect” their wealth from the destitute. This is not fair to the wealthy. This attitude, enforced upon them by a society of dismissal, prevents them from obtaining the higher reaches of wealth: the future.

A proverb says: the rich need the poor more than the poor need the rich; if only they would realize it.

As the prophet says: justice; justice shall you pursue.

The plenty, and plenty of plenty, is only possible in our relationships with one another.

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