Foundations of a Jewish Economic Theory

By Yosef Yitzhak Lifshitz

Wealth, charity, and man’s quest for the divine.

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he conventional wisdom about Israeli society, repeated almost daily by political leaders, commentators, and social activists, asserts that the greatest problem facing Israel is not terrorism, or the dissonance between religious and secular Jews, but the ever-widening gap between rich and poor—in short, the lack of what has long been called “social justice.” It is this view which has served, more than anything else, to lend support to an unusually high level of taxation in Israel in order to finance a highly developed welfare state, and to perpetuate in Israel many of the central principles of socialism.
In defending this belief, many Israelis enlist Jewish tradition in their cause. Judaism is concerned with caring for the needy, it is said. Therefore, it looks to remedy or eliminate the differences in income that are the true cause of poverty. Since the wealthy tend to be callous and greedy, and are moreover undeserving of their wealth because they are callous and greedy, they cannot and should not be entrusted with taking care of the poor as in the old days. Only a state that acts to improve the condition of the poor through taxation and even strives for economic equality among its citizens, it is argued, can be genuinely “Jewish.”
This tendency to identify Judaism with the aims of socialism is not new. In the nineteenth century, Jewish thinkers found in this activist and anticlerical movement the raw material for the forging of a new, modern Jewish identity. “Judaism—any trace of haughtiness or aristocracy is foreign to it,” wrote Moses Hess in 1862. “The Jewish spirit is a social-democratic spirit down to its very essence.”1 Judaism was depicted by many as a synonym for social justice and equality, and the Jews—no strangers to suffering—as the natural bearers of the torch of social reform. As the Labor Zionist leader Chaim Arlosoroff explained in 1916, “The folk socialism of the Jews, the noble spirit of the history of our people, the rule of the ideas of justice and human liberty in the spiritual development of Judaism, the spiritual quality which the Jews acquired over generations, their cultural consciousness and lofty aspiration for freedom—all these empower them to lead the fight for idealistic socialism.”2 It is no surprise, then, that the struggle for economic equality became a central pillar of the new Jewish state’s worldview, finding expression in severe limitations and regulations in the sphere of private ownership, on the one hand, and heavy taxation—the lifeblood of the new social order—on the other.
In what follows, I will argue that this popular identification between Judaism and socialism is a false one. As I hope to show, the two central ideas which sustain the socialist redistribution of wealth—the limitation of individual property rights and the dream of economic equality—are alien to both the laws and the spirit of Judaism as reflected in the Hebrew Bible and the rabbinic tradition. Policies that derive from these principles, moreover, work to undermine a different economic ideal which the Jewish tradition has sought to advance. Thus while Judaism undoubtedly emphasizes concern for the needy—“for the stranger, for the fatherless, and for the widow”—through the commandment to give charity and numerous other precepts, this is not to be confused with the fundamental limitation of property rights in the interests of the poor.3 Nowhere does Jewish tradition call for the restructuring of society or the imposition of economic equality, even as an ideal.
But if the historical roots of socialism are not to be found in Judaism, then where do they come from? This is not an easy question to answer, and it is never a simple task to measure the impact of ideas in history. Yet it is difficult to ignore the fact that the most notable antecedents for these socialist ideas appear not in the Jewish sources, but in the doctrines of the very Catholic Church against which socialism had originally sought to array itself. The Church Fathers had a clear view of man’s place in the world, according to which the individual’s accumulation of wealth was seen as a form of injustice, and his rights to property were clearly limited by the needs of the poor. In the classical Christian view, man should not keep more than he needs to live modestly, and property should be made available to the needy, even in contravention of the owner’s wishes.
Jewish tradition, in contrast, takes a positive view of both the institution of ownership and the accumulation of wealth. It respects economic success, seeing it as both a blessing and the basis of normative life on earth—so long, that is, as it is obtained honestly, and proper respect is shown for the social responsibility that accompanies it. In what follows, I will explore the basic tenets of a Jewish economics, and will make in this context the following three arguments: (i) As opposed to the classical Christian view, which extols self-denial and opposes the accumulation of private wealth, Judaism presents a contrary ideal, according to which man must exert control over the material in order to realize his divine potential as having been created “in God’s image”; (ii) this view is reflected in the Jewish approach to property, according to which the right of individual ownership and the accumulation of wealth is seen as a means of fulfilling man’s responsibility in the world; and (iii) the obligation to care for the poor stems from this same sense of responsibility, and is expressed through the act of tzedaka, or charity, in which the individual voluntarily gives away the fruits of his labor out of concern for his fellow man. The Jewish concept of charitable giving does not impinge on property rights, but rather expresses the individual’s moral duty as a responsible person—a strong and productive individual who provides for himself and his family through honest means, on the one hand, and gives of his time and money out of generosity and a sense of concern, on the other. Charity, in the Jewish view, thus suggests an ideal that differs sharply from that of classical Christianity, one which flows from a radically different view of man’s place in the world and what it means to have been created in God’s image.
In order to appreciate the gulf that separates the Jewish economic understanding from the common misperceptions of it, we must first take a look at the ideas which guided the Catholic traditions of property, wealth, and charity for many centuries before the Protestant Reformation and the rise of the modern era. It was this Catholic approach which, in all likelihood, had a decisive impact on the socialist movement in Europe and, in turn, on modern European Jewry. And its traces can still be felt in the calls for social justice that are frequently heard in the public debate in Israel and throughout the Jewish world, often in the name of Judaism itself.

Yosef Yitzhak Lifshitz’s last book was Secret of the Sabbath (2000). He is an Associate Fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, where he is working on a study of Jewish political thought in medieval Europe. This essay is dedicated to the memory of Zalman C. Bernstein, who dedicated his life to the prosperity and well-being of the Jewish people.

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