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April 21, 2014 | 21st Nisan 5774

Justice, Justice II

January 25, 2004
Marc Rosenstein

For months, the front page story here has been the debate over government economic policy. Bibi Netanyahu, the finance minister, is committed to a policy of budget cuts, especially in entitlement programs. And indeed the budget just passed contains painful cuts in social welfare programs of all kinds, as well as in education. The theory is, of course, that when there are scarce resources, they should be directed toward creating economic growth, encouraging investment, raising productivity – and not in paying living allowances to those who can’t or won’t work. The opposition, of course argues that it is the responsibility of the state to guarantee at least minimum standards of human dignity to all citizens, and that there is something that rankles one’s intuitive sense of justice in a policy that increases the gap between rich and poor (Israel’s gap is one of the largest in the west), that gives breaks to investors but not to the homeless.

So, should it matter that Israel is a Jewish state? Should our Jewishness have anything to do with economic policy? It is interesting to consider a few verses in Deuteronomy 15:

  1. There shall be no needy among you – since the Lord your God will bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a hereditary portion – if only you heed the Lord your God and take care to keep all this instruction…

  2. If, however, there is a needy person among you, one of your kinsmen in any of your settlements in the land… do not harden your heart and shut your hand… Rather, you must open your hand and lend him sufficient…

  3. For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land…

There are, of course, a number of laws in the Bible that can be seen as suggesting a socialistic outlook. For example, the fact that the land does not belong to individuals, but belongs to God, so that every 50th year, the Jubilee, the land reverts to its original distribution – land is never sold, essentially only leased – for it belongs to God, not to us. No one can become a large landowner, and no one can become landless. On the other hand, the base line distribution is not inherently equal; the Torah does not provide a system for fair assignment of the original inheritances.

The passages above from Deuteronomy suggest that while there is an ideal of “there shall be no needy among you,” at the same time there is recognition of a reality in which “there will never cease to be needy ones.” There should be enough for everyone – yet, there will always be some who can’t make it on their own. And so, the responsibility falls on the individual to be compassionate and to support her needy neighbor with an interest-free loan.

Thus, there is state responsibility for overall fair distribution of resources – yet no vision of utopian socialism where all contribute according to their ability and receive according to their needs; rather, the Torah sees inequality – and poverty – as eternal, creating personal obligation on the part of those who have - to support those who don’t.

The question remains: can we translate the Torah’s blueprint for a Jewish state into a concrete economic policy for this particular Jewish state, today?

 

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