Dear Rivy ,
All I hear these days is of our foreboding economic circumstances — and for good reason. People are losing their homes, retirement savings are plummeting, and some people’s sources of income are severely threatened if not evaporating by the minute. We are accustomed to turning to Jewish sources for inspiration and guidance. Is there a Jewish angle on our situation that might shed light?
Without a doubt, we are headed for troubled waters. Folks are in distress. From those who have already sustained substantial losses to those who are holding their breath, there are few among us who are not affected. So a turn to tradition may be in order here. How about “Torah-nomics” — the study of the present day economic downturn through a Jewish lens?
The foibles of land ownership are eternal. But there is a biblical blueprint. Though some would say that that was then, this is now, tales of sub-prime mortgages are at the center of much of our economic ills and getting to the heart of homeownership may shed some light.
As a clumsy financial amateur, my understanding is that the system was tweaked to allow for those who may not have been able, at first glance, to acquire a home and obtained mortgages they were ultimately unable to handle. Helping those with few resources realize the basic human desire for housing security may have been well motivated; however, as it is now clear, it was poorly executed.
This primal Maslow-identified need for shelter is acknowledged prominently and described meticulously in the Torah. As the Israelites prepare to enter the land of Israel they are instructed in regard to fair land distribution:
To the more numerous you shall give a larger inheritance, and to the fewer you shall give a smaller inheritance; to every one shall his inheritance be given according to those who were counted by him. However, the land shall be divided by lot; according to the names of the tribes of their fathers they shall inherit. According to the lot its possession shall be divided between many and few.
These portions are called nachalah, inheritance. The share of land that was assigned to each family was a permanent legacy. In the case that a family suffered hardship or loss and was forced to sell their nachalah, it was to be returned to them during the Jubilee year. In fact, land was never really to be “sold” in ancient Israel — it was leased for an amount prorated relative to the years of proximity to the Jubilee year, when it would revert to its original biblically ordained owner family. A family might suffer a financial reversal and feel the compulsion to sell land, but they knew that was not a situation they would bequeath irreversibly to their children or their children’s children.
The biblical blueprint preventing the rich from getting richer and the poor from getting poorer was a brilliant safeguard, a Divinely instituted check on economic inequity. Henry George, the 19th-century American political economist, spoke of the Mosaic plan with great reverence. In an address to the Young Men’s Hebrew Association in San Francisco in the late 1800s he proclaimed:
It is not the protection of property, but the protection of humanity, that is the aim of the Mosaic code…. At every point it interposes its barriers to the selfish greed that, if left unchecked, will surely differentiate men into landlord and serf, capitalist and working person, millionaire and tramp, ruler into ruled. With the blast of the trumpets the slave goes free, the debt that cannot be paid is cancelled and a re-division of the land secures again to the poorest their fair share in the bounty of the Common Creator.
Who would think that this Torah, this spiritual guide of the likes of Shema Yisrael and the Ten Commandments, would provide us with an ideal system that knows the hearts of humans and bestows upon each individual the guaranteed dignity of home ownership? We have a long way to go.
Our prophets understood the reality that an unchecked economic system, emanating from that very human time-honored attribute known as greed, can indeed result in a severely deleterious fiscal situation for society and even more so for the most vulnerable. They decry the wealthy exhorters and the affluent who take advantage of the poor. I can picture the prophet Amos standing on the corners often trafficked by the titans of excess and crying out to them, “But I will send a fire upon Judah, and it shall devour the palaces of Jerusalem. Thus says the Lord; ‘For three transgressions of Israel I will turn away his punishment, but for the fourth I will not turn away its punishment; because they sold the righteous for silver, and the poor for a pair of shoes.’”
Or Isaiah calling out to those in the courtyard of the Temple, “The Lord will enter into judgment with the elders of his people, and its princes; for you have eaten up the vineyard; the plunder of the poor is in your houses.”
That this situation is not new is a cold comfort. We must get beyond chest beating and pause to reflect on the meaning of hardship and the opportunity to draw on our deep faith. The challenge that the prophets pose to us is to think long and hard: Are we any better than the generations that preceded us? As this economic downturn begins to spiral, how will we meet the great needs that will emerge? Some of us will lose homes, status, a family vacation, life savings. Some of us will not be able to put dinner on the table. All of us will need the love, generosity of spirit and the support of community — that is perhaps the Jewish angle on the current crisis.
Rivy Poupko Kletenik is an internationally renowned educator and Head of School at the Seattle Hebrew Academy. If you have a question that’s been tickling your brain, send Rivy an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.