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Wealth And Poverty: A Jewish Analysis

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Wealth and Poverty

Jonathan Sacks

How can we guess what an ancient text - the Bible - would have said about modern social issues such as poverty?

The subject to which I shall give a response from the Jewish tradition is poverty, and the related issues of work, wealth creation, and income distribution. Taking the Jewish religious experience as a model: how does, or can, a religious tradition contribute to social, economic and political thought? And equally importantly, how can it contribute to the human realities which are the context of action in this area?

There is a problem here from the outset: Judaism, like Christianity, represents a tradition. It is validated by an ancient text, the Bible, and in turn seeks to understand, or to justify, its programme in the present by reference back to that text. But how can it be so? The Bible does indeed have a great deal to say about the poor, about work, and about social justice. But it spoke to another age, and the realities of a relatively primitive economy. It has nothing to say about high technology, residual unemployment, trade unions and trans-national corporations. How then are we to make the interpretive leap to what the Bible would have said had it been written today?

I am not sure how to answer that question, or even who is best qualified to do so: a literary critic, a historian, a theologian or a prophet. All I can do is to illustrate, by means of examples, what happened when the Jewish tradition was faced with just this problem.

Deriving practical policies from values - the cutting edge of rabbinic thought

A word then, about the sources I shall be using, and where their interest may lie. Judaism and Christianity have a common background in the Bible, or what Christianity would call the Old Testament. From there on their paths diverge. One route led on to the New Testament and the Church Fathers. The other proceeded though the debates of the rabbis, ultimately to be collected into a vast literature of law, ethics, homily and legend, of which the most influential works are the Mishna, codified in the early third century, and the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds, compiled several centuries later. The first point, therefore, is that what I shall be describing is an alternative interpretative history that can be mapped out for the Bible.

The second point: the Talmudic literature is not so much a book or a collection of books, as the edited record of centuries of sustained argument over every issue which touched the life of the Jew. Argument is necessary to establish a community of practice. For this reason - and it was a point which medieval Christian disputants found hard to understand - Judaism evolved very few authoritative stances on matters of dogma, attitude or value-structure. On value-judgements, therefore, the traditions will range from broad consensus to radical divergence. On specific rulings, however, where the issue was often a conflict of values, the tradition is more definitive. How did one translate values into practical policies - that is, into law - in a world of limited resources and conflicting claims: That is were rabbinic thought has its cutting edge.

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