Friday, May 15, 2009

Behar-Bechukosai: Oys Kapital

One of my goals in stating this blog was to find the areas of Torah that highlighted the fact that the conventional wisdom that Torah is necessarily socio-politically conservative may be more conventional than it is wise. [Thought one would have to be modeh that it is highly unlikely that one could find mekoros that would provide direct support for the progressive agenda.]

In a recent article in the New Republic, renowned social scientist Alan Wolfe felt compelled to draw a clear distinction between the system of thought one would call liberalism and the system one would call socialism. In contrast, the political journal Dissent defines its weltanschauung as “democratic socialism”. We can see that, in a manner analogous to machlokos about Jewish denominationism, that in this too, ein ladavar sof.

Nevertheless, well-meaning [well, mostly well-meaning] attempts continue to be made to find support for the ideas that Torah leans toward Capitalism or Socialism. This argument started long before the current economic matzav came upon us, before a mandate seemed to arise fro punishing rich people just for being rich. The parsha[s] possibly provide the most extensive economic blueprint one will find in the Chumash, and I will use it to loosely lay out where I think the Torah may be in a socio-economic sense.

A starting point: The Torah is anti-socialist, in the sense that, for the most part, private property is not only sanctioned, it borders on sacrosanct. This, in complete contradistinction to the [“chareidi”?] socialist canard attributed to Joseph Proudhon that “All property is theft”, which today’s progressive socialist might ascribe to in the more friendly manifesto of John Lennon, “Imagine no possessions”. Even if one would maintain that “behind every great fortune lies a great crime”, the halachos of chazaka—and the fact that kinyanim are chal in the case of genevah and gezeilah—indicate that at some point even misappropriation is salient, even if wrong.

[Two halachos may even further illustrate how protective of ownership Torah is: a) the issur of stealing from a ganav, even if it’s one’s own stolen property one is trying to recover, and b) the fact that so much was made of “chamas”, the notion of stealing less than a shava pruta and that it sealed the fate of the dor hamabul.]

However, once we’ve established support for private property and, by extension, private enterprise [can’t have one without the other], a close look at this parsha [and related halachic literature] indicates that the Torah takes a rather equally dim view of ceratin conservative canards regarding government as a problem and the “invisible hand” of the market.

Specifically, not only is the economic system as described in the parsha[s] is highly taxed and regulated, but there is something unique about the command not to “sell the land in perpetuity, because the land is Mine”: the command that all land reverts to its original tribal ownership.

Here we have a directive against two trends specific to what might be termed unfetterd capitalism: 1) that unimpeded acquisition and hoarding is a good thing; 2) that the unfettered pursuit of same is always synonymous with—and should dictate—a polity’s interest.

Granted, one can’t always generalize; certain halachic proscriptions regarding economics—particularly the issur on loaning at interest—are certainly not meant to be universal (the best explanation I’ve seen was that the issur was “familial”; would you make your grandmother pay interest? (Would you make your grandmother pay you back?))

However, should anyone tell you that Alan Greenspan and Milton Friedman are analogous to Da’as Torah…look out. Whatever they take from you won’t be tax deductible.

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