On the Economy and on Sustenance: Judaism, Society, and Economics [Hebrew]

Al haKalkalah ve-al haMihyah eds Itamar Brenner and Aharon Ariel Lavi 2008

I just got around to reading another volume in the “Jewish Thought and Cultural Criticism” series, they reflect the thinking going around Religious Zionist circles Below are short summaries of the articles  without the details to give you a sense of the volume. I will focus more on the ones that deal with Jewish thought.

Section One
The opening essay by Rav Shagar Z”l presents two understandings of the Sabbatical Year Shmita- a functional one and a spiritual return to harmony with nature and the Divine. He presents an ambivalence of inner and outer views of society. Hazal were ambivalent on carrying on Sabbath- it is one of the 39 prime categories but also a melakhah gerua but one can make eruv. He says that Hazal were more concerned with outer bounderies with the natural order than internal ones with the camp. He applies that back to the Sabbatical year. But along the ride, he discusses Midrash, Zohar, Heschel, and Mordechai Breuer, He concludes “Shimita is a catharsis, a disengagement and a purification from acquisition and civilization.

Dov Berkovits offers a nice analysis of the agricultural laws as showing wealth as the blessing of God and we partake of God’s blessing. He compares this to John Locke where wealth is human initiative. For Locke, God mandates government and human are left free, while for Hazal there is an interaction of the Divine and the human.

Roni Bar-Lev, who is working for a PHD under Avi Sagi discussed wealth in the writings of Rav Nahman of Breslov.He shows how for Rav Nahman, a kosher Jews should be far away from money or acquisition. Money is vile. In the story “master of prayer” the wealthy are so delusional that they organize themselves into angelic ranks based on their wealth. Yet, it is needed in the world. Greed is the only vice that cannot be transmuted to good, but desire itself can be transmuted.

Motti bar-Or of Kolot also offers the distinction in zedakah between the functional and the getting closer to the Divine.

Aharon Lavi, an editor of the volume doing a PHD in economic gives us a long article that is a gold mine of playing Jewish thought off of economic concerns. He major thesis is that Jewish thought offers a model of giving and receiving (mashbia, mekabel) , a connected societal model which he contrasts with Utilitarianism. He cites Chabad, early Hasidut, Zohar, Rav Nahman to create his model, more Chabad than others. For him, the Torah is pro Keynes and against Milton Freidman He also explores other images of tikkun, from above and from below. He concludes by rejecting Naomi Klein’s ideas of NO LOGO because she does not get the cultural elements.

Section two
Israel Auman, the noble prize winner offers a Hebrew translation of his English articles on Risk Aversion. Yaakov Rosenberg offers a Richard Posner analysis of hilkhot nezikin.Julian Sinclair offers a translation of his English article on climate change and Judaism. The political Kabbalist Yitzhak Ginzburgh creates a kabbblah of management. And Yossi Zuriah (I am not sure if this is how he spells his name) ponders applying ideas of Shimitah to the high tech industry- “shareware” “open source” and why this would still keep the company afloat.

Section three

Articles from a current Israeli halakhic debate on not relying on heter iska today. Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach was against using it today. Some say we should use Arab banks. So this volume has Rabbis Yaakov Ariel and Yoel Bin Nun on the topic on minimizing the use of heter iska as much as possible. This is a VBM shiur by Daniel Wolf that gives the background. Some of these arguments could use a review of Money Supply before writing
The same section has an out of place article by Yael Wilfed presenting part of her Duke PHd comparing Roman and rabbinic concepts in philanthropy. Conclusion – Romans were concerned with the collective state and gave out bread, the sages were concerned on a personal level.
There is an article by Yosef Yitzahak Lifshitz presenting his libertarian anti-socialist views, seems a translation from Azure. (It should have been in part II). And an article of Meir Tamari and an article by Edo Rechnitz, from the Beth Din for money, on targeting Zedakah

Little prepared me for the afterword by Rabbi Menachem Froman Of Tekoa
He start off by discussing how people found Religious Zionism from decades ago as all socialism and secular at its core but observant only on top of that. He turns to hasidut to discuss how we have to do things leshem yehud, to unify God, to sanctify the everyday. Then he moves to Rav Nahman to discuss how everyday life and money is the evil side and that God wants us to enter the evil side to redeem it. We then get a homily on the Zohar in which there is a disjunctive inserted between Lo (DO NOT) and KILL (Tirzah) meaning that sometimes you have to do what is normally forbidden. We then move to the importance of making an offering to the evil side as shown by the scapegoat offered to the evil side, but Froman’s question is why the second goat? Answer- we need to return to the non-spiritual, the mundane. We need to bring the spiritual work into the mundane into the evil side of dealing with money.
Then he discusses Camus’s myth of Sisyphus and the Plague and concludes that Torah teaches us not to ask about the outcome; we need to do things lishmah. He concludes with a discussion weaving together the Zohar, that the world is the evil side and Doug Adams – Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.
I read the Rav Froman piece last Shabbat and right after Shabbat I read a great article on Rav Froman in the religious section of MAARIV/NRG.

If you do comment, please comment on ideas, not people. And please  do not arrive to offer scatter shot citations of articles on economics and Judaism from the RJJ and TUM journal and the like.

3 responses to “On the Economy and on Sustenance: Judaism, Society, and Economics [Hebrew]

  1. Are there any articles on labor relations? What about income distribution and inequality? How about business ethics (particularly in relation to investors, borrowers and consumers)?

    Do you think that there is an excessive emphasis on the self in both mainstream economics and hozrei be-tshuva? How about the relative weight of mitzvot ha-guf vs. social mitzvot and which should take precedence these days?

    • It was mainly as I summarized it, most of the articles were written from the perspective of self and not labor and regulation.
      In Israel they are trying to move beyond a period of socialism and toward greater individualism. For example, there is a great article by Benny Brown given at Van Leer comparing Rav Moshe Feinstein and Rav Untermann on unions and labor rights. Brown shows that Rav Moshe basically formulated the question and answer from the perspective of American individual rights and democracy and that Rav Unterman formulated the problems using the ideas of Italian fascists and the need for the individual to subsume themselves into their work for the state. The current wave of halakhic libertarianism is not the same thing as concern with the self in either the Rav Moshe or Rav Nahman of Bratzlav sense. I do not know enough about the economic thought of baalei teshuvah I sense that there is a wide latitude of opinion. Those who write for Beit Morahsa are not dealing with baalei teshuvah.

  2. Given the high inequality in Israel and social fragmentation that is happening, and given the devastation of free market anti-regulatory practices worldwide, is this discovery of individualism really such a good idea? It does raise some interesting questions about how religious ideas and beliefs are in many ways products of their environment. Gramsci talked about this when he said that there was not one Catholicism, but that each class and sector of Italian society had a completely different religious system, even though it was all called Catholic. This is probably true of Judaism as well.

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