What Does Judaism Say About the Economy and Social Justice?
Does the Hebrew Bible identify the most desirable economic system for humanity? Yes and no. The Bible does not offer us a comprehensive economic program, but it does provide us with guiding principles for a moral economy.
It has been said that the Hebrew Bible is not a book of rights but a book of duties. But it is disingenuous to claim that rights are not part of these obligations. If we have an obligation not to steal, it obviously implies others’ rights of ownership.
Nevertheless, the Bible sees the nature of ownership in a particular light, inextricably bound up with our responsibilities. We are called to be just and righteous (Genesis 18:19). Indeed, Judaism sees the maintenance of justice and equity as part of humanity’s universal obligations.
The Hebrew Bible’s vision of social justice flows from its teaching regarding the sanctity of all human life and its inalienable dignity. The Mishnah (or Oral Torah) declares that to destroy the life of one person is akin to destroying the entire world, just as saving the life of one person is as though one had saved the whole world. But because God is merciful, the Torah also explains that He is “biased” toward the vulnerable. Moreover, because we are called to affirm the dignity of all, we are required to pay special attention to those whose dignity is vulnerable.
The Torah is replete with commandments regarding our ethical responsibilities toward the vulnerable—the obligation to care for the stranger/sojourner is repeated 36 times, more than any other commandment. Judaism requires its adherents to contribute at least a tenth of disposable income to righteous charitable deeds, and the Hebrew Bible requires all farmers to refrain from reaping the corners of their fields, leaving their gleanings for the poor, orphans, widows, and strangers.
At the basis of these precepts is not only the idea of our social responsibility toward others and especially the vulnerable but a dramatic understanding of the nature of property ownership. This is particularly evident in relation to the Biblical Sabbatical year, which itself may serve as a model—or at least inspiration—for collective social responsibility.
At its foundation is the declaration in Leviticus 25:23 that “the earth is Mine (says the Lord), and you are sojourners and tenants with Me.” Human beings are no more than tenants on God’s land. In fact, all material gifts are granted to us as stewards, to be used for the common good.
Furthermore, this sense of our transience and vulnerability is meant to animate our moral conduct. Regarding the Sabbatical year, this meant several things.
First, the land was to lie fallow during the seventh year, recuperating its natural vitality and leaving its natural produce available for the poor and rich alike, without any exclusive ownership. The Sabbatical year also stipulated the cancellation of debts, a lifeline to disadvantaged farmers in danger of being caught in a poverty trap in an agrarian society. This obligation concerning the release of debts is not an excuse for irresponsibility, but rather the obligation of responsibility to advance an equitable society, ensuring a socio-economic equilibrium between the more and the less advantaged.
Finally, the Sabbatical year required the release of slaves (Exodus 21: 2–6), while the Bible also requires the erstwhile master/employer to provide a freed man—who now has to enter the open market—with the material means to establish himself (Deuteronomy 15:14). This not only affirms the value of the dignity of the human individual and the concomitant value of personal freedom but also acknowledges that the wellbeing of the collective depends on its ability to provide the individual with the means to maintain self and family.
The model of the Sabbatical year as a paradigm for the promotion of social justice demands that we contend with the dangers posed by human arrogance, greed, exploitation, irresponsibility, and violence toward others. The Torah seeks to combat these tendencies not only through a special focus on the weakest elements of society but above all through emphasizing that we are all vulnerable, all temporary sojourners in God’s world (Leviticus 25:23). Such awareness may lead us to live more responsibly toward our neighbors, communities, nations, humanity, and environment.
In modern times, the slogan ”Do well by doing good” has become commonplace as a way to encourage corporate philanthropy and responsibility. The religious ethic as reflected in Biblical and Talmudic teaching would rather argue that we “Do well in order to do good,” for the economic and social welfare of society at large is our common good and our moral responsibility.