Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Judaism Is Capitalist But....

One can try to debate whether or not Judaism advocates capitalism or communism.  You can argue that Jews were disproportionately responsible for starting off Communist Russia, but you can also counter with the fact that such capitalist greats as Ludwig von Mises, Milton Friedman, and Ann Rynd were all Jewish.  Jews have been passionately active on both sides of the discussion, and that is how it goes for much of Jewish political history.  For the religion itself, Jewish business ethics presupposes open markets in which commerce is relatively free.  Take a look at the talmudic tractate Bava Batra.  The tractate deals primarily with property rights.  You also have to figure that the commandments of "you shall not steal" or "you shall not covet your neighbor's house" would be superfluous if the notion of property rights did not exist in Judaism.

However, Judaism does not believe in the stereotypical negative [and the overall inaccurate] portrayal of capitalism being inherently avaricious.  As stated in this Chabad article, Yossi Goldman says "I would describe it [Judaism's economic system] as 'capitalism with a conscience.' In promoting free enterprise, the Torah is clearly capitalistic. But it is a conditional capitalism, and certainly a compassionate capitalism."

A conditional, compassionate capitalism.  I can certainly buy that.  Secular culture views money differently than in Judaism.  In secular culture, it is considered the ends, whereas in Judaism, money is considered the means, the means to do good deeds and live a meaningful life.  Here are a few examples in Jewish practice that curtail the accruement of money and property as an absolute in life:

Shabbat.  "You shall work on six days, and rest on the seventh (Exodus 34:21)."  People throughout history have thought the Jews were crazy to take a day off of work.  After all, you are losing a seventh of your potential to make revenue.  This is particularly true when you are living in a predominantly Christian society in which most do not work on Saturday (i.e., they shop instead) and "take their 'Sabbath'" on Sunday.  To celebrate the Sabbath is to rest one's bodies and souls, not to mention taking one's mind off of commerce and workaholism for a day.

Shmita.  The Torah was given to a predominantly agrarian society.  This agrarian society had a seven-year agriculture cycle.  On the seventh year, they would give the land a rest (Exodus 23:10-11, Leviticus 25:1-7, 20-22) in order to not cause land erosion.

Tzedakah.  Tzedakah is a practice of giving money to help alleviate poverty.  With it comes the implication of societal responsibility.  As R. Joseph Telushkin points out in his second volume of Jewish Ethics (p. 206), there technically is no explicit command to tithe ten percent.  According to the Shulchan Aruch, the technical minimum is a third of a shekel (i.e., about $8).  Nevertheless, tradition teaches that a certain part of our income was never ours to begin with. Maimonides teaches that anyone who gives less than ten percent of their income is considered stingy, and giving twenty percent is praiseworthy.   

Tikkun Olam and Volunteerism.  Although tikkun olam really took off when it was an esoteric, Lurianic concept in Kabbalah, it has come to mean "repairing the world" in terms of Messianic hastening, or in more secular parlance, to "make the world a better place."  Judaism teaches that we can give money, but comparably as important, we also give our time.  That is why such mitzvahs as visiting the sick, burying the dead, and hospitality are important to emphasize because you are giving to someone else.  As the adage goes, time is money.  It is not about a rigid selfishness where you ask what's in it for you.  It's about the imperative to help others in need.  Communal responsibility, and arguably global responsibility, are Jewish in nature.

Capitalism is a great modus operandi.  It creates the ability to create wealth and a better standard of living for all.  What Judaism teaches is that it is not enough to make a lot of money and buy a lot of material goods.  Judaism teaches about purpose that can be found in the art of giving.  Judaism teaches that money isn't everything, even though it can help out others.  Judaism teaches us to use money to find higher purpose by using time and money to pursue holiness in one's life.

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