Sunday, August 31, 2008

Government as Economic Protector (Derashah - Reeh 5768)

[Haveil Havalim is here, and an excellent edition it is...]

I prefaced this derashah by noting that it is not an endorsement of any political party's platform. Afterward someone mentioned to me that it certainly isn't - it goes much farther than any of them dare...

Rising unemployment. Skyrocketing prices for food and fuel. A federal authority struggling to keep businesses and individuals afloat. And a leader arose who declared that we could solve all of our problems if only we would accept mutual responsibility and harness the power of government to protect the common citizen.

It sounds like the 21st century and a certain speech from this past Thursday night, but it’s not - the scene is actually 2200 years ago, in Israel, as the era of the second Beit haMikdash was on the wane. Under the dual strains of Roman oppression and harsh economic forces, the Jewish safety net of tzedakah was falling apart. Enter the Sages, who underscored the importance of communal generosity by taking key economic steps to protect the common citizen.

Here’s one example: Every seven years, at the end of the shemitah year, all outstanding debts are forgiven. Sounds good - not only are all Torah loans interest-free, but if you default, you can just wait for shemitah and then the debt disappears!

The problem is that most lenders, even those who can provide interest-free help, need to be re-paid - and so they stop lending money as the shemitah year approaches.

In the days of the sage Hillel, some 2200 years ago, our ancestors struggled under the Roman yoke and sought to protect whatever they had, refusing to lend money as Shemitah neared. So Hillel created a new economic safety net, subverting the law of shemitah with a document called a Prozbul which allowed debts to survive shemitah.

Hillel did not break biblical law; shemitah, by that time, was not biblically binding and continued only as a rabbinic memorial of the older practice. So Hillel weighed the importance of that rabbinic decree vs. people’s refusal to lend money, and decided to preserve the Torah’s mitzvah of tzedakah at the expense of the rabbinic. Hillel formalized the Prozbul document, and stimulated a healthier society.

Prozbul is a well-known step, but there are many more Talmudic examples of hands-on rabbis engineering economics, society and Jewish law.

The sages legislated protections for lenders, ensuring that loans would be re-paid with solid currency and simplifying the collections process.

They enacted consumer protection rules, too. One mishnah tells of the time two thousand years ago when dove merchants hiked the price of the birds for Temple offerings. Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel responded to this price-gouging with a halachic ruling reducing the need for these offerings - and the price of birds tanked.

In fact, rabbis in 17th century Moravia and 18th century Algeria imitated this action; when fish merchants took advantage of our need for Shabbos meals and raised their prices, the rabbis banned purchasing fish for Shabbos, until the prices dropped.

The Talmudic sages regulated commerce to benefit the citizen, too, empowering town councils to do everything from setting prices and wages to forcing businesses to comply with communal standards. It sounds quasi-socialist, frankly.

The sages did this because they believed that tzedakah, and looking out for others, is not only a function of what we do as individuals - it a responsibility borne by corporate and communal government, and they were the government.

How did the Sages know that governments and communities are obligated to do this?

Rav Chaim Brisker saw it in a contrast between our parshah and a passage in Parshat Behar. In our parshah each individual Jew is instructed פתוח תפתח את ידך, Open up your hand to your brother. But in Behar we were instructed as a community, והחזקת בו, You shall uphold the hand of the needy.

Rav Chaim argued that not only is every individual required to think about the needs of others, but every corporate entity, every social group, every community, is obligated to think beyond the needs of its funding members, expanding to the needs of greater society.

In this Rav Chaim argued against the economics of Milton Friedman, who declared that a corporation, a community, owes a debt only to its funders, each in proportion to his investment. Rav Chaim said that corporations must have a selfless conscience as well, and must seek to meet the needs of society.

Potentially, this could lead to all sorts of interesting policy decisions.

Israeli economist Dr. Meir Tamari, a Torah-observant professor and author, is known for using
Jewish sources as a foundation for teaching Economics. He studied Rav Chaim Soloveitchik’s view on corporations and communities and concluded that, “In our day this would seem to apply to the pollution of the atmosphere or water through industrial wastes. ” For proof he pointed to the mishnah in Bava Batra which requires certain businesses, like threshing floors, tanneries and kilns, to locate beyond city limits - for the sake of the community.

It also means that a shul, a Jewish community, must look beyond its own membership and benefit others. Rav Tzvi Hirsch Weinreb, current executive vice president of the Orthodox Union, spoke this week in Denver, and in his remarks he delivered the following strong words:

Our neighbor is not merely the person who lives next door to us or across the street or even down the lane. Our neighbor may be very distant from us. Distant geographically. Our neighbor may be a victim of a tsunami halfway across the world. Our neighbors may be the suffering people of Darfur. Our neighbors may be those that are victims of the cruel war now going on in the country of Georgia, so far away geographically. As distant as they are, they are our neighbors. Our neighbors may be distant from us culturally. They may be different from us ideologically …

Sometimes our neighbor is poor, and then we must feed and clothe him. Sometimes our neighbor, she is ill, and then we must cure her and heal her. Sometimes our neighbor, he is bereaved, and he requires us to console and to comfort him. And sometimes our neighbor has been traumatized, and then we must render her whole… We must fashion a culture which is defined by loving kindness and by compassion.

These are not small words, this is a significant mission - mandated by the words of our parshah and those of Parshat Behar, and seen in the economic orchestrations of Hillel’s Prozbul and the other examples I presented earlier.

The Torah refused to accept any limits on what we might accomplish as individuals and as a society. פתוח תפתח את ידך, open up your hand, and there will be no more עניים, we are told.

Hillel refused to accept any limits on what we might accomplish, and he and his colleagues and his students acted to provide economic incentives and remove the obstacles to our communal generosity.

There are no limits on what our communities and corporations can accomplish - and, in the end, what those accomplishments will do for us. As the Rambam wrote, quoting the Haftorah from Shabbat Chazon, אין ישראל נגאלין אלא בצדקה, שנאמר ציון במשפט תפדה ושביה בצדקה, Our redemption will only come through the economic engine of tzedakah, as it is written, “Tzion will be redeemed with justice, and her returnees will come home through the merit of tzedakah.”

1. I know quite well that the justification of Prozbul is subject to debate; I have adopted Rashi's understanding. See Rashi and Tosafot Gittin 36a, and my note at the end of Gittin 36a here.

2. Loan re-payment with quality currency is found in Gittin 50a, and the leniency in interrogating loan witnesses is in Sanhedrin 3a and Bava Batra 176a. Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel's leniency regarding kinin korbanot is found in the Mishnah in Keritut 1:7. The Tzemach Tzedek (kadmon) 28, and R' Yehudah Ayyash (Beit Yehudah 32) were among those who applied this to modern price gouging by merchants for Shabbat food. Bava Batra 8b records the ability of communities to force businesses into line with communal practice - להסיע על קיצתן.

3. Rav Chaim's approach (as well as Tamari's application) is briefly cited in Moses Pava's excellent Business Ethics, pg. 70. Tamari's mishnah is Bava Batra 2:3

4. The full text of Rabbi Weinreb's remarks at the Democratic National Convention may be found here. I am not sure I agree with some of what he did here.

5. The citation from the Rambam is Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Matnot Aniyyim 10:1.

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