Torah ideals act as safeguards against institutionalized poverty.
February 10, 2012
New York City’s Occupy Wall Street protest in Zucotti Park captured the imagination of many social activists in North America. It also captured the imagination of many Jews, in New York and around the world.
Last October, writer and activist Rabbi Arthur Waskow wrote a blog post encouraging Jews to support the protest by holding Yom Kippur services at the site. This action, he wrote, would bring to life the Yom Kippur Haftorah reading from the Prophet Isaiah. Isaiah declares that religious fasting is an empty practice unless it also includes tzedekah, practical care for the poor. On Kol Nidre evening, hundreds of Jews (some reports say thousands) responded to the invitation and joined services at Zucotti Park.
After Yom Kippur, Jewish activists began to speak about a call to “Occupy Judaism.” They suggested that we truly occupy our tradition only when we activate our concern for social justice. Though most of the Occupy sites have been dismantled due to safety concerns, secular and Jewish discussions sparked by the protests continue.
In light of these events, I was asked if I would moderate a Philosophers’ Café on the topic of Occupy Judaism. We agreed to frame the discussion around the Torah’s ideals, and not around the particulars of any Occupy protest site. As moderator, I had two jobs: 1) present a 20-minute introduction providing raw material for discussion, and 2) facilitate an open-ended discussion where diverse points of view could be shared. To begin, I presented the ideas below.
The Torah offers us a record of the economic ideals of ancient Israel. In several different contexts, the Torah expresses its view that a lightly regulated economy with a built-in social safety net is best. An unregulated economy leads to social decay. The Torah implies that this perspective is simply built into the nature of the world.
The teaching is first presented as a subtle moral of the creation story. The moral is highlighted when the Torah’s two creation accounts are placed side by side.
In Genesis Chapter One, God creates in an orderly way. God observes each item, and declares it to be “good.” As creation unfolds, fish are blessed and so are human beings. These humans are created in the divine image, with male and female united. Everything in this divine ecosystem is in just the right place.
In Genesis Chapter Two, creation begins with water, a man and a garden. The garden is surrounded by a system of rivers. And the gold by the River Pishon is “good.” In fact, gold is the only item declared “good” in this creation story. Here – where gold is of the highest value – the first woman takes a risk, breaks a rule, and eats from the Tree of Knowledge. In this kind of world, knowledge does not lead to blessing. God describes the results in a series of curses: hierarchy in relationships, enmity between species and a scarcity of resources.
The Book of Exodus tells us that three months after the Israelites are freed from Egyptian slavery, they meet God at the foot of Mount Sinai. There, God reveals a spiritual charter for their new nation. This charter, known as the Ten Commandments, calls the Israelites to avoid everything that created the terrible conditions of their slavery. A key provision is Shabbat, a weekly day of rest. Every worker – family member, foreigner, male, female, animal or human – has access to this basic right. Every employer must follow this basic labor protection law. The need for Shabbat, the Torah says, is simply built into the natural order of things – God created the world to have a cycle of work and rest.
The Book of Leviticus shares the idealism of the ancient Israelite priests, who believed that proper social and religious rituals had the power to keep society in balance. Towards the end of Leviticus, we learn that, in order to be secure in the land, and to receive blessings of abundance, the Israelites must engage in two important “economic reset” practices. Every seventh year, they must observe a Shabbat for the land. Every 49th year, they must observe a Yovel (Jubilee) year in which all slaves are freed, and all property sold returns to its original tribal owner.
During the sabbatical year for the land, farmers do not actively cultivate their fields. Whatever grows wild is public property. Anyone who wanders by may eat. For one year, large landowners don’t make money by selling produce, and poor people do not go hungry. For one year, the growing divide between rich and poor pauses and closes just a bit. The economic playing field is slightly reset.
Similarly, when debts pile up year after year, it can become difficult to catch up. Unfortunately, it was not unusual for ancient Israelites to become indentured servants, who contracted to offer a number of years of labor in exchange for debt forgiveness. The Torah mandates that an indentured servant can be required to work a maximum of six years. Even a servant who chooses to continue after that term must be released after 49 years. The law aims to prevent the creation of a permanent debtor class.
Here, the Torah suggests that the need for these laws is built into the nature of human society. If the Israelites follow these laws, abundance, peace, national strength and spiritual connection will be theirs. If they do not, their society will decay from within and they will be vulnerable to attack from foreign armies. Anxiety, broken pride, famine, desolation and death will result.
The Book of Deuteronomy offers more practical civic ideals. Here, it is recognized that the causes of poverty – such as the displacement of a family or the death of a wage earner – will not disappear. People in these situations will need interest-free loans so they can get back on their feet. Thus, the Torah teaches that anyone of means must be available to help their kin through hard times.
The lender must also be prepared to forgive unpaid debts every seventh year. Without this safeguard, a single setback can start a chain of poverty that lasts for generations. Someone might borrow money, make modest progress, be unable to pay the money back, need a second loan, be less able to pay it back and, eventually, be forced into indentured servitude. But with this safeguard, an institutionalized cycle of poverty will never be created.
These are some of the economic ideals offered by the Torah: a mixed economy, with opportunities for large business growth, employment at various levels and laws that protect the most economically vulnerable. Talmudic sources teach that not all the ideals worked out in practice. Lenders, for example, did not like to lend money when a sabbatical debt-forgiveness year was approaching, and a compromise solution that encouraged lending had to be found.
After this introduction, the 30 Philosophers’ Café participants shared their thoughts. Some added to or clarified the ideas I presented. Some pointed out the gap between idealism and pragmatism. We discussed contemporary issues of education and economic growth in British Columbia. We noted the practical dilemmas that arise when we try to implement ideals. The capitalists and the socialists in our group agreed on many questions. How do we balance people’s desires to better themselves through entrepreneurship with a concern for those unable to do so? What are the best ways to make it possible for everyone to contribute at her or his ability level?
Though we respectfully disagreed on many particulars, we all agreed that the Torah’s principles make an excellent reference point for contemporary discussion – and that a Philosophers’ Café is an excellent venue for this type of exchange.
Laura Duhan Kaplan is rabbi at Or Shalom Synagogue and a member of the academic va’ad for ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal Ordination Programs.