Today’s election is widely seen as a referendum on the Democrat controlled Congress and first two years of Obama’s presidency, and specifically, the Democrats’ handling of the economy and the legislative agenda they pursued.
The theoretical question for this blog today, and a theme I hope to return to in the future: What is the Torah’s ideal economy? What kind of taxation is fair from the Torah’s perspective and what is objectionable? While we’re not about to give our support to anyone campaigning on a Torah Economy platform, since there is a whole lot of modern complexity to deal with first, these issues are relevant to how we think about various political causes and legislative agendas.
I touched on the question of the Torah Economy several weeks ago. Regular reader and frequent commentator, Yair Elnadav, initially commented on the post, but agreed to develop these themes into a guest post.
Capitalism and property ownership are protected by Jewish law. In fact, a large part of Talmud deals with business law. The Mishna in Avot (5:10) states that one who says “what is mine is yours and what is yours is mine is an am ha’aretz, an ignorant person.” R Ovadia of Bartenura (B Italy, D circa 1500 Jerusalem) explains that this refers to people who believe that private property should be used to benefit all members of society equally. They do not know that “one who hates presents shall live” (Mishlei 15), and that independence is a virtue. They are called “ignorant” because they do not have the intelligence to differentiate between proper and improper policies.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch further explains that the Mishna is telling us that Socialism is foolish. He explains that one is not free if he cannot own property. And someone can only give if he owns something. If the law requires everything to be shared, then the recipient is taking what is by right his. Without private property, there is no giving or receiving.
Nevertheless, the Torah clearly regulates the economy to benefit society. For example, the laws of ona’ah prohibit excessive and exorbitant pricing (Bava Metzia 49b). The rabbis of the Talmud made many edicts to protect the market, such as banning cartels and monopolies (Bava Batra 90b) as well as other practices to further protect consumers (see Succah 34a).
The mitzvah of Yovel goes even further to create a social safety net. The Torah states that every fiftieth year, Yovel (Jubilee), all land that had been sold since the previous Yovel reverts to its original owner (Vayikra 25:23 – 24). Rambam in Moreh Nevuchim (section 3 ch 39) explains that the purpose of this law is to protect the poor and insure that they will always have livelihoods. By prohibiting the permanent alienation of land, the Torah protects debtors who are forced to sell. At the same time, the Torah makes it impossible for families to accumulate and retain wealth by buying and passing on real estate to their descendents into perpetuity These laws are particularly striking when we realize that the original Jewish society in Eretz Yisrael was overwhelmingly agricultural. Livelihood, wealth and permanence depended on land ownership. The Torah itself explains the reason for the law as “for the land is Mine [God’s].”
It seems that the underlying philosophy of the Torah Economy favors capitalism limited by significant protections for the poor.
This leads us into the Torah’s view of caring for the community’s needy.
The Torah describes the eglah arruffah ceremony performed over a person found dead outside of the city limits. The elders of the city recite a vidduy, confession, “And they shall answer and say ‘our hands didn’t spill this blood and our eyes did not see” (Devarim 21:7). Rashi, citing the Talmud (Sotah 45b) explains the city leaders are saying that they did not indirectly cause his death by noticing him within their city but allowing him to leave without food or accompaniment. It is obvious from the Talmud that it is incumbent on leaders of cities to make sure that the poor do not go hungry.
R. Yona of Girona (D 1263 Spain) states that although the people of Sodom committed many sins, such as theft, corruption and promiscuity, the verse only mentions one sin (Yehezkael 16:49) — “the hand of the poor and destitute – they did not strengthen.” (Sha’arei Teshuva 3:15)
The following few halachot relating to charity clarify the Torah’s view on public role in providing for the poor.
Rambam states the amount of charity one must give is as follows: If he can afford to support all the poor, he must do so. If he cannot, he must give up to 1/5 of his property to fulfill the mitzvah of charity. The average person gives 1/10 of his property. If a person gives less than that, he has an evil eye (i.e., he is miserly). (Mishne Torah Mattanot Aniyyim 7:5).
Charity money is used to provide not only food, but also any living essentials the poor may lack, such as clothing, household utensils etc. (Rambam ibid 7:10)
The greatest form of charity is assisting the poor to become self sufficient by giving them jobs or loans, etc (Rambam ibid 10:7).
Although charity is a personal requirement, in the ideal halachic society it is the community, not the individual, that controls the distribution of charity money. Rambam (ibid 9:1) tasks the city with making sure that the poor are provided for. If an individual does not contribute to the city’s charity fund, or gives less than he should, the courts can force him to give more, and can confiscate property in order to provide for the poor. Rambam (ibid 7:10).
Ultimately, ma’aser kesafim (tithing) is not private philanthropy, but a rather the mandatory fulfillment of a community obligation.
It seems to me that the Torah philosophy supports a strong welfare system. Poor are to be supported by the community, rather than allowing them to either remain destitute or find their own way out of poverty. Government is empowered to collect, enforce, and distribute to the needy. Since the greatest form of charity is assisting the poor to be self sufficient, a priority should be given to helping people get skills, jobs, business loans etc, to help the poor become independent.
In conclusion, while the Torah supports welfare, it is by no means “Socialist” or “Communist”. Rav Hirsch, mentioned above, says that there can only be welfare when there is Capitalism, since we can only choose to provide welfare if we are in a capitalist economy. This contradicts many political commentators that equate welfare with Socialism.
This essay is not meant to be taken lema’aseh, but rather to explore the issues of what a Torah Economy would look like, using Jewish sources. Hence the sourcing is not complete and is not used in a methodological way to determine halacha lema’aseh, actual law. For additional reading, see Facing Current Challenges, Rabbi Dr Yehuda Levi, chapters 6 and 7.