Monday, October 26, 2009

Libertarianism and Judaism: Do They Make a Good Couple?

I figured that on this blog, I have been over-emphasizing the Libertarian part, whereas I have ignored the Jewish half. This is going to be my first, of what I hope to be many, blogs on Jewish thought. For those of you who don't know, I'm an iconoclastic Jew who tries to reach a duality between preserving tradition and synthesizing modernity. Although my propensity is to look at tradition for the answers, there are certain times where other fields of thought (i.e., government, history, science, etc.) come into play to make a halachic ruling that puts reality, tradition, and other considerations into account. Without delving too deep into too much detail as to where I fall on the religious spectrum, I would like to begin my first religiously-based blog entry.

I was recently talking with a friend who told me that they were having doubts about being Jewish because it collided with libertarianism. It made me start thinking about those two "-isms" and ascertaining whether or not there can possibly be a duality between the two. To answer this question, I consulted "In Libertarianism: A Primer" by Cato Institute scholar David Boaz when he wrote: "Libertarianism is a political philosophy, not a complete moral code. It prescribes certain minimal rules for living together in a peaceful, productive society--property, contract, and freedom--and leaves further moral teaching to civil society."

Libertarianism is about maximizing one's freedoms, minimizing governmental intervention, and letting civic society determine the societal norms. That descriptive diminishes the seemingly inherent conflict between the two, not to mention the fact that famous libertarians such as Milton Friedman, Ludwig von Misees, and Ann Rynd were Jewish. Just a few examples of Judaism concepts being libertarian:

Non-aggression. Also known as the "Golden Rule," this concept is in just about every single major religion, including Judaism. To prove that point, I will quote what has been dubbed "the most famous passage from the Talmud" (Shabbat 31a):

Once there was a gentile who came before Shammai, and said to him: "Convert me on the condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot. Shammai pushed him aside with the measuring stick he was holding. The same fellow came before Hillel, and Hillel converted him, saying: That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow, this is the whole Torah, and the rest is commentary, go and learn it."

 Freedom of religion. Considering that Jews have historically been barred from practicing rituals, such as circumcision, kosher slaughter, and Torah study, it is a blessing to have First Amendment rights to practice Judaism without being oppressed by the government.

Free Will. At the beginning of Genesis (4:7), we are told that "sin crouches at the door, but you can overcome it." Judaism neither accepts the Christian notion that humans are inherently evil due to "original sin," nor the secular notion that humans are essentially good, but that society corrupts the inherent goodness. At the end of the Torah in Deuteronomy, HaShem says, "I have placed life and death before you, blessing and curse. Choose life so that you will live, you and your offspring (30:19)." G-d gave us impulse control, something that truly separates us from the animals. This is why Twinkie defenses or using the excuse of a lousy upbringing to justify murder in Judaism don't work. You do something good, you're rewarded; you do something wrong, you get punished. Although it seems like a no-brainer, this is why G-d created doubt, so we can truly act as free human beings. This is the beauty of Torah: by giving us a sense of right and wrong and actually being able to act upon it, G-d endows us with true freedom. In a matter of irony, G-d makes us free by establishing rules. The Torah brings the revelation of there being more than acting on mere instinct. This revelation elevates humans from being pre-determined hedonists. By realizing there's more than merely acting on impulse control, we have expanded our repertoire of choices, thereby providing us with the most amount of freedom.

Gun Rights. The Second Amendment and Judaism truly go hand-in-hand. If there is one Biblical value I can think of that essentially remains a constant, it's the right to self-defense. For more on the subject, read this article entitled "Torah and Self Defense."

Free markets. This one is a bit more challenging becasue there are three economic practices in Judaism that made pause because from a strict capitalist point of view, they make no sense: not working on Shabbos, the shmita (the Sabbatical year where you don't work the land), and tzedakah, a mandate in which you have to give up 10% of your paycheck to give to the needy.  The first two seem meshuganah because you're told not to work when you could be working and creating more revenue.  The third is socialistic--I mean, an obligation to give money to somebody else?!  The reason why a secular libertarian would shudder at these practices is because they defy the nature of amassing as much wealth as possible.  From a religiously Jewish perspective, however, wealth serves as a means, not the ends.  That is why it is better to think of Judaism as capitalism with compassion.

Judaism is a very strong proponent of property rights.  The Eight Commandment of the Decalogue, "Thou Shall Not Steal," (Exodus 20:12), has the presupposition of property rights.  If people can just take other people's property out of a sense of entitlement, wouldn't this commandment be pointless?  Wouldn't it make sense that property rights presuppose the laws of tithing and charity?  Some challenge it would be to give away property that wasn't yours. Plus, you also have the commandment of not removing property boundaries (Deut. 19:14), not falsely denying one's property rights (Lev. 19:11), return lost property (Deut. 22:1), and to return that which was stolen during a robbery (Lev. 5:23).  What is just as intriguing is that there is an entire tractate of the Talmud, the Baba Bathra, that is solely dedicated to property rights and how to best protect them.

As for poverty, a few things.  One, as I stated before, we use our G-d-given free will to decide whether to help out the poor.  Two, having wealth is a blessing, not a crime.  "Nothing is harder to bear than poverty, for one who is crushed by poverty is like one to whom all the troubles of the world cling and upon whom all the curses in Deuteronomy have descended.  If all the troubles were placed on one scale and poverty on the other, poverty would outweight them all (Talmud, Baba Bathra 116a)."  As Jews, we have an obligation to help out our fellow man.  But what's more comforting about that obligation is that according to Rambam and his famous eight levels of charity, the highest level of charity (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Charity, 10:7-14) is enabling the recipient of charity to become self-sufficient.  "Give a man a fish, feed him for a day; teach him how to fish, feed him for a lifetime."  I wonder if the Chinese took this one from the Jews.....

Conclusion.  Both libertarianism and Judaism give me freedom that I could not find elsewhere. Libertarianism provides the secular, governmental modus operandi to best enable me to freely practice my religion.  Judaism maximizes my free will, thereby maximizing the choices I have in life.  By providing me with a framework and the capability, I have fused two ideologies that give the potential and liberation to live my life not only as ethically sound, but also with maximum empowerment.

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