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A Jewish View of Occupy Wall Street

11/14/2011 11:53:23 AM


Rabbi George Gittleman

The recent eruption of the “Occupy” movements and their focus (if you could call it that) on economic justice has gotten me thinking about how tzedek, the Hebrew word for justice, applies to economics. Of course, Judaism is not monolithic on this or hardly any subject. Nevertheless, there are some basic and fairly accessible principles worth mentioning.

Rabbi Michael Robinson (z”l) used to say that the Torah has a Socialist approach to economic justice. He may have overstated things a bit, but one does find in the Torah a great concern for the most vulnerable in society whom the Bible often refers to as “the stranger” or “the orphan, the widow, and the fatherless.” These people, according to Biblical law, are entitled to an economic safety net. The Jewish laws of Pe’ah and Leket are two examples of the ancient Israelite social-welfare system.  Pe’ah  is the law that requires farmers to leave the corners of their fields so that the needy can harvest the crop for themselves ( Lev. 19:9-11). Leket refers to the similar commandment of leaving the gleanings from the harvest, that which is left or dropped on the ground during harvest, for the poor. This is what Ruth does (Ruth 2:16) and such practices along with Pe’ah are also legislated in Leviticus 23:22, among other places.

In addition to Pe’ah and Leket, there are also pockets of legislation pertaining to workers’ rights. For example, the Torah forbids taking a worker’s personal garment as pledge (Deuteronomy 24:10-13) and one is forbidden from withholding a worker’s wages (Levitcus 19:13). In addition there are the far-reaching laws of the Shmita , the Sabbatical year, as well as the Yovel, the Jubilee.

Versions of the Sabbatical Year can be found in Exodus (23:10-11), Leviticus (25:1-7) and Deuteronomy (15:1-6). While all three versions of the sabbatical call for a cessation of agricultural cultivation in the 7th year, the version in Deuteronomy has the biggest economic impact as it calls for the remission of all debts: “At the end of every seven years, you shall celebrate the remission year.” The idea of the remission year is that every creditor shall remit any debt owed by his neighbor and brother when God’s remission year comes around. “You may collect from the alien, but if you have any claim against your brother for a debt, you must relinquish it…” (Deuteronomy 15:1-6)

Even more radical than the Shmita is the Yovel, or the Jubilee year, commanded in Leviticus 25 & 27. Among other things, the Jubilee requires that all land revert back to its original owners every 50 years.

It’s hard to imagine how even a primitive economy could function with laws like the Shmita and the Yovel. In fact, there are those that argue that they represent economic ideals and not reality. Even so, they suggest a system that sought to regularly level the fiscal playing field; all debts were wiped out every seven years, and land reverted back to its original/ancestral owners every 50 years. In effect that meant limits on how much wealth one could acquire while at the same time making sure there was never a permanent economic underclass.

While it is difficult to gain a full picture of the biblical approach to economic justice, the laws of Pe’ah, Leket, Shmita and Yovel give us at least an outline of how tzedek, justice in economic terms, was understood by our ancient ancestors:  Society has an obligation to provide for the poor  (Pe’ah and Leket) and an equal distribution of wealth was considered a Divine mandate . One could accumulate land and wealth and adversely, one could loose one’s ancestral holdings and go into debt, but every seven and then every 50 years, the economic playing field was leveled again through the Shmita year and the Yovel.

Of course, the Bible isn’t Judaism. If it was, I would be a priest and we would be doing animal sacrifices at services every week! Judaism evolved from the Torah; the Torah is the headwaters of a river that has been flowing for some 3,000 years. The headwaters is not the river but in this case the two, at least in part, compliment each other in as much as Jewish tradition builds on the basic principles outlined in Torah, offering a view of economic justice that makes foundational the idea of social responsibility – a safety net — for the poor. However, as Judaism developed, it left behind the most radical elements of the Shmita  and Yovel (remission of debts and the reverting of ancestral holdings to their original owners), while maintaining the underlying principles that no one should be forever stuck in poverty and that society has an obligation to provide for the weakest members of society.

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