Weekly Torah Portion: Behar-Bechukotai (Leviticus 25-27) Judaism’s Innovative Economic Policies and Practices

What does an individual or society do when two virtues, both of which are necessary for a just life or society, are at odds with one another? For example, truth and kindness are both wonderful virtues but when adjudicating a case of theft, a judge would be called negligent if s/he tossed out the evidence on the grounds that s/he feels sorry for the defendant. A doctor needs good bedside manner but would be careless if s/he chose to be “kind” by telling a patient something to make him or her feel good even though the true diagnosis isn’t nearly as optimistic as s/he presents it. Dealing with conflicting values is one of life’s great dilemmas.
The 20th century British philosopher Isaiah Berlin made this point when he said that not all values can co-exist, and in the values in the present day freedom and equality seem to be the ones at odds with one another (Two Concepts of Liberty, by Isaiah Berlin in Four Essays on Liberty, Oxford University Press, 1969.) A society can have freedom or equality but not both; more economic freedom means less equality and more equality means less freedom. That was the key conflict of the Cold War era, between capitalism and communism. Communism lost the battle. In the 1980s, under Ronald Reagan in America, Margaret Thatcher in Britain, markets were liberalized, and by the end of the decade the Soviet Union had collapsed. But unfettered economic freedom produced its own discontents, and lead to inequality.
What’s the Jewish perspective for bridging the chasm between economic freedom and equality? This week’s Torah portion discusses Judaism’s unique outlook and commitment to BOTH, while at the same time recognizing the inherent tension between them.
One of the fundamental insights in this week’s Torah portion deals with the reality that economic inequalities increase over time and the result may be a loss of freedom as well. People can become enslaved by a burden of debt. In biblical times this might involve selling yourself literally into slavery as the only way of guaranteeing food and shelter. Families might be forced into selling their land; their ancestral inheritance from the days of Moses. The result would be a society in which, in the course of time, a few would become substantial landowners while many became landless and impoverished.
The Torah has a solution for this potential inequality. Every seventh year debts were to be released and Israelite slaves set free. After seven sabbatical cycles, the Jubilee year was to be a time when, with few exceptions, ancestral land was returned to its original owners. The Liberty Bell in Philadelphia is engraved with now famous words, and they are from this week’s Torah portion:
Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof. (ibid. 25: 10).
So relevant does this vision remain that the international movement for debt relief for third world countries by the year 2000 was called Jubilee 2000, an explicit reference to the principles set out in our Parsha.
Three things are worth noting about the Torah’s social and economic program. First, it is more concerned with human freedom than with a narrow focus on economic equality. Losing your land or becoming trapped by debt are real constraints on freedom. Fundamental to a Jewish understanding of the moral dimension of economics is the idea of independence, “each person under his own vine and fig tree” as the prophet Micah puts it (4: 4). We pray in the Grace after Meals, “Do not make us dependent on the gifts or loans of other people… so that we may suffer neither shame nor humiliation.” There is something profoundly degrading in losing your independence and being forced to depend on the goodwill of others. Hence the Torah’s provisions are directed not at equality but at restoring people’s capacity to earn their own livelihood as free and independent agents.
Next, it takes this entire system out of the hands of human legislators and rests on two fundamental ideas about capital and labor; the land belongs to God, and so do its citizens:
Since the land is Mine, no land shall be sold permanently. You are foreigners and resident aliens as far as I am concerned” (25: 23).
Because they are My servants, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt, they shall not be sold as a slave is sold. (25: 42).
This means that personal and economic liberties are not open to political negotiation. They are inalienable, God-given rights. President John F. Kennedy’s stated this explicitly in his inaugural address when he mentioned the “revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought…the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of G-d.”
Third, it tells us that economics must remain a discipline that rests on moral foundations. What matters to the Torah is not simply technical data such as the rate of growth or absolute standards of wealth but the quality and texture of relationships. The concern is with people’s independence and sense of dignity, the ways in which the system allows people to recover from misfortune and the extent to which it allows the members of a society to live the notion that “When you eat from the labor of your hands you will be happy and it will be well with you” (Psalms 128: 2).
In no other intellectual area have Jews been so dominant; they have won 41 per cent of Nobel prizes in economics. Even though some of them might not have used the Torah as their source of inspiration, there is something impressive, even spiritual, in the fact that Jews have sought to create – down here on earth, not up in heaven – systems that seek to maximize human liberty and creativity. The foundations lie in our Parsha, whose ancient words are inspiring still.

(Source: The Econo9mics of Liberty , by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks from Covenant and Conversation 5775)