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Wealth And Poverty: A Jewish Analysis

Page 10 of 10

And impartiality means no bias to the poor: the rabbinic tradition is for all and is not partisan

Space has allowed me only this most sketchy of surveys. Of poverty at least, Judaism has an embarrass de richesse. The single point I might have made at the beginning but have chosen to leave to the end is that the one thing Judaism rules out ab initio, by specific Biblical command, is a bias to the poor. Precisely because its whole moral code is orientated towards compassion, the Bible uniquely found it necessary to command, "You shall not favour a poor man in his cause" (Exodus 23:3; see Leviticus 19:15). Compassion, the substrate of judgement, must not distort judgement. The preservation of impartiality, the balance of claims, the reciprocity or rights and obligations, the interdependence of apparently opposed interests, are values essential to the Jewish procedure. These are the characteristics that are often summed up by saying that Judaism is a religion of law. I prefer to describe it as the rule that moral passion must yield to moral rationality if it is to achieve its ends.

Judaism has no specific answers to the economic and social problems of our time: would that it had. What I have tried to show is the way in which a religion can be the effective context of debate, by cultivating open argument and valuing it as such, by seeing the argument itself as the religious experience, rather that then passion or the persuasion. I have described a particular model of the interaction between secular expertise and religious judgement, and the way in which that judgement might have authority. We have seen the range of was in which a religion might attempt to alleviate poverty; not least of which was the enriching of its cultural possibilities. And I hope we have seen some of the dangers or extrapolating from Biblical sources to changed economic circumstance.

The rabbis saw themselves as heirs to the prophets; but in fact they succeeded where the prophets failed, in capturing the imagination of all classes of society. This turned them from an opposition party into a kind of informal government, with all that entailed in terms of responsibility, impartiality, and consideration of consequences. The prophetic tone of voice is essentially the voice from the sidelines. If rabbinic Judaism has anything to say across its borders, it lies in how the voice of religion might be central without being authoritarian, unifying without ceasing to be pluralist, and rational without lacking passion.

Notes and references

1. Nichomachean Ethics, I:5.

2. Babylonian Talmud, Nedarim 7b.

3. B T Baba Batra 116a.

4. Exodus Rabbah 31:14.

5. Mishna, Avot 3:21.

6. Jerusalem Talmud, Kiddushin 4:12.

7. J T Berakhot 9:2.

8. Maimonides, Hikhot Arakhin va-Harmin 8:13. Maimonidies continues: "For he thereby destoys his own property and becomes dependent on others; compassion is not to be shown toward him".

9. B T Ketubot 50a. See als Arakhin 28a; J T Peah 1:1.

10. B T Ta'anit 24a; Maimonides, Hilkhot Mattenot Ani'im 7:11.

11. Maimonides, Hilhot Mattenot Ani'im 10:7-14.

12. B T Eruvin 63b; Baba Metzia 46b.

13. Mishna, Shevi'it 10:3.

14. See B T Yoma 35b.

15. The phrase occurs in B T Shabbat 10a. Compare Avot de Rabbi Nathan XI: "The Holy One, blessed be He, did not cause his Presence to alight upon Israel until they had done work, as it is said, Let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them" (Exodus 25:8). The whole passage is an amplification of Shemayah's pointed saying: "Love work, hate lordship, and seek no intimacy with the ruling power" (M Avot 1:10), and contains many aphorisms on the religious value of work.

16. B T Nedarim 49b.

17. Mishna, Avot 2:2.

18. B T Kiddushin 29b.

19. J T Peah 15c.

20. B T Berkhot 35b.

21. Sifra to Leviticus 25:43; Maimonides, Hikhot Avadim 1:6.

22. Sifra, ibid; Maimonides, Hilkhot Avadim, 1:7.

23. B T Baba Kamma 116b.

24. Leviticus 25:55

25. See S Warhaftig, Jewish Labour Law (Hebrew), Tel Aviv 1969, vol 2, pp 974-984.

26. Tosefta, Baba Metzia 11:23; B T Baba Batra 8b.

27. See Warhaftig, loc cit for a review of sources.

28. B T Shabbat 25b.

29. B T Ketubot 67b.

30. Maimonides, Hilhot Mattenot Ani'im 7:3.

31. For a survey, see N Bar Ilan, The needy person's right to charity (Hebrew), in Techumin, 1981, vol 2, pp 459, 465.

32. Hilkhot Mattenot Ani'im 9:14.

33. Mishna, Peah 8:8; Maimonides, Hilkhot Mattenot Ani'im 9:13.

34. The structure is set out in Maimonides, Hilkhot Mattenot Ani'im, ch 9. For a review of social practice, see Isidore Epstein, Social Legislation in the Talmud, London (undated), and Leo Jung, Human Relations in Jewish Law,

35. New York, 1967, ch 2.

36. B T Sabbat 118b.

37. B T Moed Katan 27b; Maimonides, Hilkhot Avel 4:1.

38. Mishna, Ta'anit 4:8.

39. B T Pesahim 30a. For a similar strategy in Temple times, see Mishna, Kerritot 1:7. For more recent examples, see Leo Jung, op cit, pp 106­113.

40. Mishna, Avot 2:8.

41. B T Berakhot 3b; see comments of Tosafot ad loc.

42. B T Gittin 7b; Maimonides, Hilkhot Mattenot Ani'im 7:5.

43. Maimonides, Hilkhot Talmud Torah 3:1, based on M Avot 4:12; Sifrei, Korah 229, B T Yoma 72b.

44. B T Berakhot 28a; compare J T Berakhot 4:1.

45. A judge was required to have expertise not only in Jewish law, but in the other disciplines which might be involved in cases on which he had to pass judgement - medicine, astronomy and soon; Maimonides, Hilkhot Sanhedrin 2:1.

46. Thus, Hillel was a wood-chopper (B T Yoma 35b in the text available to Maimonides) Rabbi Huna a water-drawer (Ketubot 105a), Rabbi Joshua a charcoal-burner (Berakhot 28a), Rabbi JHose b Halafta a leather-worker (Shabbat 49b), and so on. For Maimonides, earning an independent living by means of a trade was essential to being a Torah authority. See his passionate onslaught against a professional rabbinate supported by communal funds: Commentary to the Mishna, Avot 4:7; Hilkhot Talmud Torah 3:10, 11. In a letter to his disciple, Joseph ibn Aknin, Maimonides advises him that "it is far better for you to earn a single drachma as a weaver, tailor or carpenter, than to accept payment for being a rabbi or religious teacher".

47. See Mishna, Yoma 8:5, 6; B T Yoma 83a. A review of the detailed provisions of the law is given in Sir I Jakobovits, Jewish Medical Ethics, Bloch, New York, 1975. ch 4.

48. B T Baba Batra 131a; Sanhedrin 6b.

The author

At the time of writing Rabbi Jonathan Sacks was principal of Jews' College, London; he is currently Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth.


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