In most synagogues this past Rosh Hashana Eve, the pruzbul form was as ubiquitous as the sale of chametz form before Passover, appearing in virtually every printed bulletin and even online. Most people who filled them in probably treated them as some vague precaution, executing the document as a “just-in-case” without too much thought. Some may even have thought that a pruzbul was a quasi-religious obligation, similar to the annual round-robin hatarat nedarim courts that convened in synagogue pews at the same time. Chabad.org, for example, described a pruzbul as a “mitzva,” a strange choice of words for a legal document formally turning over one’s debts to a local court to avoid having them annulled by the end of a Shemita year. By casually ritualizing debt collection, our community essentially chose to miss a teachable moment to seriously consider an extremely relevant and timely issue.
The unstated, underlying message delivered by universal and rote-signed pruzbul forms is that the correct state of affairs is one where all debts have to be repaid. The sage Hillel created the pruzbul in the first century to ensure that the rich would not stop lending to the poor towards the end of a Shemita year, when outstanding debts were liable to become noncollectable. To the Mishna, this was one of the original examples of Tikkun Olam, and it rings true to us on two levels. First, we generally appreciate that the poor should always have access to capital and the potential for social mobility that comes with it. We also generally agree that borrowers should not have the “out” of Shemita to avoid paying the debts they rightfully owe to their creditors.
As anthropologist and activist David Graeber notes in “Debt: The First 5,000 Years,” we have been conditioned to understand that paying one’s debts — living up to one’s responsibilities — is what morality is all about. However, this is actually not the case. Lending money, he argues, always has to assume a certain amount of risk. In strict economic terms, if bankruptcy is not an option and any loan is fully recoverable, then lenders would have no incentive to avoid ever-riskier loans. Obviously, this is absurd.
In fact, the presumption that morality dictates all debts must be paid has led to much human suffering. It is why, following the 2008 subprime mortgage bubble burst, over-leveraged banks were bailed out by the Federal Reserve while underwater homeowners were foreclosed upon and pushed into the streets. It is why the citizens of Greece continue to be decimated by ever-onerous austerity measures as their government grapples with the hundreds of millions of Euros lent to it by reckless EU countries and banks. It is why Congress cannot raise its debt ceiling without being denounced for the burden being placed on future generations, even as critical safety-net programs for millions of actual people are threatened in the here and now.
Graeber makes the point that, although they are often couched in the same language, debts and obligations are not the same thing. In particular, debts are precisely quantified, which allows them to become impersonal, even transferable. On the other hand, obligations are much harder to extricate from their original contexts — interpersonal relationships, with human effects on both sides. In many ways, the interlocking networks of obligations we all “owe” to each other make up the maps of our families and communities. We don’t expect to “pay back” these obligations, even if we have the ability to do so; instead, we appreciate how these connections give our lives depth and meaning. Perhaps the general forgiveness of debts that are coming to us is meant to give us the space to remember the obligations we share with each other.
With all this in mind, I did not sign a pruzbul this year. Surely there are some people and institutions for whom a pruzbul is both necessary and prudent; Hillel created the device for them. But I would rather they be the exceptions, as they probably were in Hillel’s time. For the rest of us, the end of a Shemita year should have been an opportune time to remember that not all debts need to be repaid, and not all debts should be repaid — especially measured against the cost of doing so. That our community chose to carelessly send the opposite message should give us reason to pause.
UPDATE: 11:40am EST – edited for grammar and syntax.