With the dust slowly settling on yesterday’s election results, it wouldn’t surprise you to know that I’m often asked if Judaism is implicitly socialist or capitalist (or latterly neo-liberal). Of course, it’s a nonsense question. If we’ve learnt nothing else about how religion can be abused over the centuries, it’s that religious texts can be made to support pretty much any position. But we must remember that our covenantal creed, our constitution, predates Margaret Thatcher and Karl Marx.
So what of this question? I want to, albeit briefly, outline a position of the Hebrew Bible, the Tanakh, and its interpretation in rabbinic literature. At its heart, our covenant is one of justice, compassion and pragmatism. I would say, in other words, the way the texts may be interpreted transcend political ideology. Hillel, the Jewish sage who spans the time of Jesus birth, famously states: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?” (Mishnah Avot 1:14)
Which is to say you can be particularly concerned with yourself, your own family and success. But if that is your only concern then you are nothing – animals are motivated by survival, human beings are able to transcend our evolutionary drives. And we must engage in the world now, and not delay.
And lest we be comforted by this ideal framework, the prophets remind us obsessively that the invisible, powerless and voiceless are the first to be trampled by our tendency towards selfishness – when we only pay attention to the first part of Hillel’s aphorism.
I’ll return to Hillel in a moment but for now I want to remind you of what it is like to be a child who is desperately grappling with complex questions of morality and fairness. Children, as they develop their moral framework (as described by the psychologist Kohlberg), want the world to idealistically fit what the Torah concludes last week’s Torah portion with:
“You shall have one law, whether citizen or stranger, for I am the Eternal One your God.” (Leviticus 24:22)
Fairness, justice for all. So important is this principle that it goes to the heart of why the rabbis centuries later argue that the talion (an eye for an eye – Leviticus 24:17-24) makes no sense except to be about financial compensation not equivalent physical harm being meted out. The Talmud (Bava Kamma 83a) comments that to have one law for everyone makes no sense if the Torah is referring to physical retaliation. After all, if a person who is blind puts out the eyes of his fellow, the punishment to put out their eye is an impossibility or nonsense. That is why the rabbis argue emphatically that this must be a law of financial compensation to ensure that the law can be applied equally no matter who you are.
One law means that the system of justice should be universally applicable. It’s the heart of the Torah, the very middle of our scroll defines the need for justice being the same, whether rich or poor, powerful or powerless. One law – that means no-one should be partial or ignorant to the facts. It’s intrinsic to Judaism that we should seek justice everywhere for ourselves and for society.
But then we get to the compassionate, outward looking idealism of our Torah portion this week. Five or six times the portion warns us (Parashat Behar), in the context of the Sabbatical and Jubilee years, to take care of the of the poor and protect them. That we should not oppress our fellow citizens. Which, by the way, includes usury. With regards to the Sabbatical year, described again in Deuteronomy, all loans are cancelled every seven years and the Torah explicitly states:
“Beware that there be not a base thought in your heart, saying ‘The sabbatical year is close’ and your eye becomes evil towards your poor brother and you do not lend him anything…for the poor shall never cease in the land, therefore I command you saying: You shall open your hand wide to your brother, to your poor and to your needy in the land.” (see Deuteronomy 15:11-17)
In other words, the Torah recognises that the sabbatical year might make you reluctant to lend because the debt would be cancelled before it’s paid off.
But because morality is complex and fairness and justice need to be considered in the real world as well on paper, we need creative pragmatism. It turns out the Torah was right to make this exhortation – there never will be no needy amongst us. The sabbatical year did indeed make people reluctant to loan money – who wouldn’t be reluctant under these circumstances? And so we turn to Hillel, the creative pragmatist.
Hillel enacts what is known as the Prosbul (Mishnah Sheviit 10:3) – a leniency in the laws of the sabbatical year. In a ground breaking and revolutionary moment he creates a new law to deal with the reluctance of individuals to make loans. In a close reading of the Torah, Hillel establishes that loans from individuals were to be cancelled, but if they were transferred to an institution they could be carried over through the sabbatical year. This modification enabled people in straits to receive support and those in a position to lend to continue to feel able to make the loans. It was radical and revolutionary.
Justice, compassionate protection of the vulnerable, creative pragmatism. Idealistic principles, or purist political ideology, are well and good, but Judaism commands us to be far sighted enough to realise that we need creative solutions to ensure that we do not disadvantage the very people who need our protection and maintain the need for there to be one law for all. This is our manifesto – the Torah and its interpretation demands us to not be afraid of self interest, never at the expense of those who need protection – If am not for myself, who is for me? If only for myself, what am I? If not now when?