Parshat BeHar BeHukotai: Judaism’s Societal Model

Nearly 40 percent of the laureates of the Noble Prize in economics have been Jewish. Those that hold Jewish genius as the explanation for this remarkable phenomenon are challenged by this Parsha, which should remind us that these Jews simply benefited from a head-start of thirty three centuries. In other words, our engagement with the quest to understand and optimize the workings of society, which is at the core of all great economists, is millennia old, and can be traced back to this Parsha.

The societal outlook of Judaism has always been a balancing act between legitimizing wealth creation both for individuals and communities, on the one hand, and obligating the sharing of wealth in support of both individual and collective needs, on the other hand. This outlook is anchored in the view that economic disparities can destabilize society, and that wealth redistribution is essential for social cohesion.

Clearly creating and having wealth and living a life of comfort is a legitimate Jewish quest and activity, ascetic tendencies notwithstanding. Throughout history, Jews were encouraged to seek income, open businesses and travel distances for trade. Handling and dealing with money were allowed, regulated and encouraged. The Bible details the affluence of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Joseph, and King Solomon among others. Rabban Gamliel II in the first century and Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi in the third century were wealthy, as were the exilarchs in Babylon. In modern days, some heads of orthodox courts are rich, as well. This acceptance of material wealth exists in Judaism notwithstanding and alongside outlooks that associate purity with financial modesty and encourage freedom from material wants beyond essential needs.

Meanwhile, Judaism establishes, as religious duties, obligations and standards for redistribution of wealth within the community. In total, the obligations toward the poor are very significant, especially considering the agricultural nature of ancient society: leaving for the poor the edge of one’s field (pe’ah), in addition to anything that was dropped (leket) (Leviticus 19:9 & 23:22) or left behind (shi’checha) (Deuteronomy 24:19). In addition, one must donate a tenth of the income to charity (me’a’ser ani) (Deuteronomy 14:28-29; 26:12-13) two out of every seven years. Furthermore, Jewish holy days emphasize the collective and individual responsibility toward the poor and needy in the community and beyond.

Most dramatically, in this chapter, the Torah establishes the radical obligation to cancel debts every fifty years at the Yovel and to return land to its original owners (Leviticus 25:10). This law, which was later put in abeyance by Hillel, is designed to effectively reboot the distribution of wealth, preventing the amassing of huge estates by a few individuals. Suffice to menntion that societies, which failed to regulate the sharing of prosperity, as well as to cap its concentration in the hands of a few, did so at their own peril. Multiple revolutions in history – such as in France and Russia – were caused by such social injustices, led to massive bloodshed and to the physical displacement and even elimination of entire economic elites. They were often followed by so-called ‘agrarian revolutions’, which usually meant the allocation of land from the wealthy few land-owners to the poor masses. Remarkably, in this Parsha, Judaism offers a preemptive remedy to this dynamics.

In modern day terms, the Jewish social and economic outlook would probably qualify as ‘compassionate capitalism’ usually endorsed by social-democratic parties. It embodies the understanding that financial success of individuals based on entrepreneurship and trade is a necessary yet insufficient condition for collective prosperity. Society must also account for the rights of employees, workers, customers and even the environment! It also reflects a deep societal insight that a vast gap of income between the poor masses and the rich few breeds disunity. It therefore encourages wealth creation, yet sets high expectations for and regulates its re-distribution.

With such a heritage and extensive societal knowledge, it should not come as a surprise that Jews became leaders not only in all academic disciplines related to the works of society, such as economics, but also of entire ideologies and movements ranging from communism and socialism to capitalism. The many-centuries-long exploration of ways to ensure collective and individual wealth creation in a manner that is ethical and socially responsible cultivated nuanced observation of the forces that drive markets and societies. Our sages needed to blend the emerging reality driven by technological and political change, with the interpretation of old texts in order to allow societal adaptation in accordance with the halacha. Think about the legal questions that emerged from the need to send financial notes, to travel on steam boats or to engage in on-line trading.

When new fields of academic research related to society, such as economics, psychology and sociology, emerged in the late nineteenth century, Jews already had a three-millennia head start. Therefore, Jewish contribution in these fields has been unmatched on a proportional basis. Hence, our outstanding representation among winners of the Nobel Prize in the field of economics.

Jews were endowed with the mission to be a blessing to the families of the earth. In other words, we were blessed with the burden of offering leadership to and in humanity. The sages, beginning with Moses, understood that such a mission could only be realized if Jews permanently quest to establish a model society as a collective effort of every individual, household and community. They also understood that a key testament to the qualities of a society is the way it regulates the creation, usage and distribution of wealth. And the root of that millennia-old quest emanates from the Parshiot of the book of Leviticus such as Parshat Be’Har.

About the Author
Gidi Grinstein is the founder and president of the Reut Institute, an Israel-based strategy and action group focused on effectuating change in areas critical to Israel’s future. He is the author of Flexigidity: The Secret of Jewish Adaptability.
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