Is socialism a Jewish value?

Recently, I have had many people tell me exactly that. But are they right?

Many Jews argue that collectivist policies are properly aligned with Jewish values because of the mitzvah of tzedakah and Jewish traditions like Jubilee (among other things). This thinking requires a belief that tzedakah is essentially the same as social justice, and that social justice requires government intervention. But upon closer examination, its isn’t so clear this equation makes sense, and it isn’t so clear that collectivist policies are in fact, aligned with Judaism.

Judaism is a religion that emphasizes private property, equality (of opportunity), hard work (for the accumulation of wealth), and perhaps most importantly, freedom.

In Judaism Markets and Capitalism, Corrine and Robert Sauer write, “The conventional wisdom is that Judaism motivates Jews to be highly educated and succeed professionally but to also fervently support collectivist social policies and other forms of aggressive government intervention for shaping an ideal society.” But, they continue, “it is not at all true that Judaism is a set of principles that endorses income redistribution and other progressive social programs.”

David Gelertner, computer science professor at Yale University and author of Judaism: A Way of Being, seems to agree. “It seems to me that socialism is not a ‘Jewish value’; just the opposite…Equality is a goal of halakhah – equal dignity, equality under the law – one law for the rich and the poor – not equal outcomes, which Jews have always known are impossible.”

The mitzvah of tzedakah, according to Gelertner, is something that cannot be done by the state – it needs to be done individually: “The role of a Jewish state is to make it possible and natural for Jewish citizens to do mitsvoth. Of course it can’t do those mitzvoth on behalf of its citizens, because mitzvah tsrichah kavanah, a mitzvah must be done on purpose, intentionally.” Which sounds a lot like personal responsibility, not governmental responsibility.

Yosef Lifshitz explains in Foundations of a Jewish Economic Theory that socialistic policies in the name of tzedakah take the personal obligation of tzedakah from the individual to the state. He explains that tzedakah is a moral obligation with God and the emphasis is not on the recipient but on the giver.

That being said, if a man doesn’t give of his own accord, he can be forced to, but not for the benefit of the recipient, for the well being of the man refusing to give. Thus, true “social justice” can’t really be achieved through state implemented “tzedakah” (if you can even call it that).

But let’s turn to the welfare or charity recipient. Is it good for a Jew to be dependent on the state, or even the private charity of others? Many say no – Judaism views all men as equal in God’s image, and thus all have an obligation to work as much as the man next to us.

As Sauer and Sauer note, “Maimonides claims that ‘whomsoever has in his heart that he shall indulge in the study of Torah and do no work but rather be sustained from charity, defames the Lord’s name, cheapens the Torah, extinguishes the light of faith, causes himself ill and removes himself from the world to come’ (Mishneh Torah Laws of Oaths and Vow 8:13).” While hardly a denunciation of charity, this clearly argues against a collectivist mindset, and warns of unintended consequences of sustained charity.

Another example often cited by those who adhere to this belief that social justice requires state intervention is Jubilee, the practice of forgiving debts every 50 years, returning land to its original owner, and freeing of slaves. But the purpose of Jubilee was, “to ensure the geographical integrity of the tribal territories,” not to make all men equal in possessions, according to Rabbi Isaac Jeret of Ner Tamid Synagogue in Rolling Hills Estates, California. Rabbi Jeret, it is important to note, says that authentic Judaism is neither socialist, nor capitalist.

However, one could certainly make a strong case for the argument that Jewish values are more closely aligned with the free market because of the strong emphasis on private property – the 10 Commandments alone are a demonstration of a Jewish understanding of private property; equality – all are created in God’s image, and commanded to care for each other; and the importance of self-sustenance through individual effort – as Lifshitz quotes Rabbi Akiva in Pesahim 112b, “It is better to profane your Sabbath than to become dependent on others.”

So how can we ensure there is an appropriate level of charity, justice, or even “social justice”?

These three ideas – private property, equality, and self-sustenance – are all best achieved for the greatest number of people in societies with free markets.

Not to mention the fact that free markets have historically preserved persecuted minorities. As Milton Friedman once said, “It was that [free market capitalism] tradition that enabled the Jews to survive during centuries of persecution.” Friedman noted in the same conversation that the areas where there is the least government involvement are the areas where Jews have done the best. It is the free market that allows people to prosper based truly on their merits, not their ethnicity, skin color, gender, religion, or any other such factor.

The great equalizer in society is not government-implemented tzedakah, welfare, or whatever you call it – but the free market, which is the best path to true social justice.

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