Sunday, September 21, 2008

Rabbinic Economics (Allentown Morning Call, September 13 08)

I ran the following column in the Allentown Morning Call. It's a truncated version of a drasha I delivered in August.

Judaism demands that the community look out for the individual

Unemployment spiraled. Prices for food and fuel skyrocketed. A federal authority struggled to keep businesses and individuals afloat. And leaders arose who declared that we could solve all of our problems if only we would accept mutual responsibility, who harnessed the power of government to protect the common citizen.

It may sound like 21st century America and a modern political platform, but it’s not - the scene was actually 2200 years ago, in Judea, as Jews struggled under Roman oppression and grave economic strain. Enter the Jewish Sages, who were political as well as scholastic leaders; they took key economic steps to protect the common citizen.

According to biblical law, loans are a mechanism of charity for the needy: Lenders may not collect interest (Exodus 22:24), and so the borrowers receive capital at no cost, and the lender absorbs all of the risk. The downside is that in times when cash is tight, this charitable form of lending dries up. Therefore, the Jewish sages legislated protections for lenders - ensuring that loans would be re-paid with solid currency and simplifying the collections process - so that the flow of charitable loans for the needy would continue.

Those sages enacted consumer protections, too. When dove merchants hiked the price of Temple offerings, Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel responded to this price-gouging with a legal ruling limiting the need for those offerings - and the price plummetted. (In fact, rabbis in 17th century Moravia and 18th century Algeria imitated this action; when fish merchants raised their prices to take advantage of the Jewish community’s preference for fish at the Sabbath meal, the rabbis banned purchasing fish until the prices dropped.)

The Jewish leadership did this because they believed, based on biblical language regarding the commandment of tzedakah (charity), that Judaism requires communities, and not only individuals, to look out for people in need.

It is well known that the Bible requires individuals to look out for those in need, with instructions like “Love your neighbor” and role models like Abraham and Sarah who took in guests. But here the Bible taught a new and more robust lesson: That communities must also harness their power to help those in need. In this regard the Bible argued against the economics of Milton Friedman, who declared that a corporation owes a debt only to its funders. Jewish tradition teaches that corporations must have a selfless conscience as well, and must seek to meet the needs of society’s members.

This leads to some interesting, progressive, policy decisions. In one example, Israeli economist Dr. Meir Tamari has concluded that, “In our day this would seem to apply to the pollution of the atmosphere or water through industrial wastes.” Indeed, there is precedent for precisely this conclusion in the millenia-old Talmudic requirement that certain businesses, like threshing floors, tanneries and kilns, locate beyond city limits.

Along the same lines, Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Weinreb, current executive vice president of the Orthodox Union, delivered the following strong reading of the biblical “Love thy neighbor” requirement in a talk at the Democratic National Convention:
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… 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 - and it traces back to that biblical commandment of tzedakah and the basic sense that community is responsible for more than its members.

Judaism is not inherently Republican or Democrat, but the message of biblical text and rabbinic application on this topic is clear: Living biblically means more than giving of our own wealth to aid others. It also means harnessing the power of communities to do the same.


  1. i'm thinking about this post in view of your agunah post.

    i think it's fair to say that the view of many of the commoners (i include myself) is that contemporary rabbis are not doing enough in certain areas (agunot, sexual predators, etc.). i know you say that we don't realize what really happens on a daily basis, but i still think the activism on behalf of klal by the rabbis in antiquity is in contrast to what we commoners see today

    "Those sages enacted consumer protections, too. When dove merchants hiked the price of Temple offerings . . ."

    how about a ban on buying ארבע מנים

    שבוע טוב

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  3. Lion-
    What would happen, do you think, if a group of rabbis issued such a ban today? Arba minim or gefilte fish, take your pick.

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