Foundations of a Jewish Economic Theory

By Yosef Yitzhak Lifshitz

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

It was in this spirit that Augustine, writing in the fifth century, responded to the Donatist heretics who complained when the emperor confiscated their property:
Since every earthly possession can be rightly retained only on the ground either of divine right, according to which all things belong to the Righteous [i.e., God], or of human right, which is in the jurisdiction of the kings of the earth, you are mistaken in calling those things yours which you do not possess....6
In other words, while the individual is permitted to possess property for his own, personal use, true ownership belongs only to God.
Since Christianity’s earliest days, then, individual ownership rights were severely circumscribed. By making ownership of property conditional upon its proper use—that is, for meeting one’s basic needs—the Church Fathers raised the possibility that improper use would cause the forfeiture of one’s claim to his own property. Property, inasmuch as it exists at all, exists not as dominion but as license of use; if property is misused, the ownership is invalidated, and the property can, in theory at least, be confiscated in order to put it to better use. It follows from this that the unlimited accumulation of property is considered wrongful: One who has more than he needs has too much. Individual wealth is an affront to the principle of the equality of mankind, and an affront to God himself, who in his mercy granted man permission to possess property solely on condition that it be used appropriately. As Augustine writes:
Do we not convict all those who enjoy things they have acquired legitimately and who do not know how to use them, of possessing the property of another? For that certainly is not the property of another which is possessed rightly, but that which is possessed rightly is possessed justly, and that is possessed justly which is possessed well. Therefore, all that which is badly possessed is the property of another, but he possesses badly who uses badly.7
Excess property, or property possessed by one who does not need it yet refuses to give it to the poor, is judged by Augustine to be improperly used. Augustine’s teacher Ambrose, one of the fourth century’s eminent Church Fathers, went so far as to say, “It is no less a crime to take from him that has, than to refuse to succor the needy....”8 By drawing a legal equivalence between refusing to give charity and stealing, Ambrose further circumscribed the boundaries of private ownership, not only condemning the accumulation of excessive wealth, but also granting legitimacy to the poor who would steal from those rich who refuse to give of their wealth freely. In effect, the Church made the forcible appropriation of an individual’s property on behalf of the poor a legitimate act.
Ambrose’s approach typified the Church’s regard for material wealth, an approach that was crystallized in the teaching of Isidore of Seville in the seventh century.9 His view gained acceptance among later Christian philosophers: In the thirteenth century, Thomas Aquinas concluded his deliberations on the subject of property by adopting the teachings of his mentors, according to which property must be defined in terms of an item’s use, and not in terms of the item itself.10 Accordingly, the only possible justification for ownership is man’s need for a particular item. It follows that an item’s improper use nullifies the privilege of ownership altogether. For this reason, excessive wealth is akin to stealing from the public. Accumulation of property is allowed only on condition that whatever is not needed be made available to the poor.11
The Christian view of private ownership became only more radical as a result of internal Church politics in the thirteenth century. In response to the Church’s emergence as an economic and political world power, Francis of Assisi decreed in 1209 that members of his order would take a vow of poverty—a practice which would become standard throughout the Catholic clergy. Later this vow would be expanded among many to include a ban on even touching money, except when helping the most needy. Whereas a wide debate ensued between the Franciscans and the Church over whether even the Church itself must disavow its vast wealth, there was nonetheless a consensus among Catholics against wealth among individuals.
Catholicism based this approach on a limited view of man’s role in the world. For if man is indelibly tainted by sin, he surely cannot expect to have a significant positive impact on the world around him; he must accept that with which God entrusted him, taking for himself only the minimum required to meet his needs. It was only during the Reformation in the sixteenth century that thinkers such as Martin Luther and John Calvin offered readings of the Hebrew scriptures in support of a wider view of private ownership. Nevertheless, even these reformers remained true to the classic Christian contention that despite a more fulsome idea of property rights, the true owner of all property remains God himself. They, too, saw man as inherently and irreparably sinful, and therefore his designs on changing the world must be limited.12
Unlike the classical Christian position, Jewish tradition is insistent that man can, and should, have a powerful impact upon the material world. This insistence plays itself out in a vastly different view of property rights. Like Christianity, Judaism begins with the idea that man was created “in God’s image.” In Judaism, however, these words are read in an altogether different light.
In the Jewish view, the body and soul of every person are rooted in the material world. The fact of his alone having been created in God’s image, however, elevates his material existence. His inherent godliness sets man apart from all other creatures on earth: He is not merely flesh and blood, but rather a “portion from God above,”13 an earthly being who contains an element of the divine essence. This unique combination of the human and divine does not mean that man should cut himself off from the material world or direct all his actions toward God; on the contrary, man’s place is here, in this world, as an integral part of material existence. Man is obligated to express his dominion over creation, to channel his efforts towards worldly action, and in the process to elevate the material world to a higher level.
Man’s dominion finds expression, first of all, through his enjoyment of the good of creation. Whereas the Christian view permits man to derive benefit only according to his need, the Jewish sources teach that man is entitled, even obligated, to take pleasure in the world. This is not an endorsement of hedonism; rather, the aim is to enable man to actualize the potential hidden in creation, and thereby to bring the work of creation to completion. By benefiting from the world, man infuses it with spiritual content, which serves as a link between the Creator and creation. “If one sees beautiful creatures and beautiful trees,” the Talmud teaches, “he says: ‘Blessed is he who has such in his world.’”14 This is not simply an expression of gratitude, but an act of elevation of the mundane. This is why the rabbis taught that “man will have to account for all that he sees with his eyes and does not partake of.”15 When we deny ourselves the experiences of this world, even the simplest of pleasures, we cut creation off from its higher source, and condemn it to a crude, brutish existence. Judaism insists that man not limit himself to his bare necessities, but instead delight in the goodness of the world as an expression of his dominion over it.
Beyond benefiting from the world, however, dominion means that man is also obligated to take responsibility for protecting and preserving it. The rabbis put it most succinctly in the following parable:
In the hour that God created man, he stood him before all the trees of the Garden of Eden and said, “See the works of my hands, how beautiful and wondrous they are. All that I created, I created for you. Yet take care not to spoil or destroy my world, for if you do, no one will repair it.”16
Man is called upon to take care of his world because it is given to him as a responsible being. When God created Adam and Eve, he commanded them to “have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air.”17 Indeed, the Jewish tradition makes clear that man’s authority over all other creatures is unequivocal. Yet, at the same time, he is enjoined to act responsibly in the material realm. When God placed man in the Garden of Eden, he commanded him “to work it and to keep it”—to derive benefit from it, but also to protect it for future generations.18

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