A Tale of Three Economies

By Dr. Jeremy Benstein

“We don’t know who discovered water,” Marshall McLuhan famously stated, “but we can be pretty sure it wasn’t the fish.” And just like fish in water, it is easy to remain oblivious to the environment in which we are immersed, assuming unthinkingly that this is not only all that is, but all that is indeed possible, that alternatives are not even conceivable.

I’m sure that’s how most of us relate to our economy. Since the fall of the Iron Curtain (the phrase itself sounds woefully archaic) and the disintegration of communism as a competing ideology, it is practically an article of faith that there is only one possible economy, namely, ours: neo-liberal, free market consumerist/corporatist capitalism. Sure there are arguments between “right” and “left”. These want what they term less nanny-state regulation and less state support of the free-loading poor, while those want the opposite- in their words, more political oversight to ensure public health and well-being, and a stronger safety net for victims of the system.

Large as these seemingly seismic differences seem to loom in American politics, they are essentially quibbles, while the basic structural assumptions of the economy and its functioning continue surprisingly unchallenged in the broad social discourse.

But our societies and our economies are not facts of nature, they are human-made, and the extent to which we are willing and able to transform those structures to better serve our broader interests and well-being is mainly a question of being able to conceive of alternatives, a question of imagination.

With that in mind, I’d like to put into words some of these assumptions by outlining what I see as three essentially different economies, based on diverse premises, that, if nothing else, could perhaps ignite our imaginations to consider other possibilities for our society and directions for addressing the challenges we face.

1. Contemporary Western neo-liberal – The economy that shapes our lives goes back to John Locke and later, Adam Smith. One of the deepest assumptions in this tradition is that people have a fundamental and nearly inviolable right to private property. This principle is so integral that a great deal of political philosophy is occupied with justifying even the possibility of governments taking anything at all in the form of taxation, whether for basic services (beyond defense) or for purposes of welfare, such as poverty alleviation. Though these foundational figures were indeed religious, this approach is essentially “secular” since it bases the idea of wealth creation in the individual autonomy of persons, and the rights to their bodies and their labor. Mix that with unowned natural resources, and the result is private property that is wholly owned by its human creator.

Some interpretations of this- from Calvinism to “the American dream” – lead to a distinct understanding of wealth and poverty: that wealth is deserved, that it is a sign of divine favor, and that the poor mainly have their own selves to blame – for laziness or profligacy or even lack of moral worth.

One result of this is that relations with the poor are based at best on charity and philanthropy, that is, on a voluntary, essentially emotional attitude, since caritas and phil(-anthropos) both mean ‘love.’ Helping or supporting the poor is essentially an optional act of human kindness.

What else could it be, you ask? Read on.

2. (A) Traditional Jewish model – Jewish approaches to economics are less systematized than the above, but there is a strong contrast to the basic underlying assumption of the autonomy of the individual and inviolability of the ownership of private property. Material abundance in the world is a divine gift, and we merit our enjoyment of that gift only to the extent that we build a just society that insures equitable access to sustenance and livelihood for all. There is a different balance of individual and community, where the well-being of the individual is understood to be embedded in, and dependent on, the flourishing of the community.

Thus, while there is still a strong sense of property, it is not in any sense absolute. Both my body and my talents are not exclusively my own, nor are the natural resources that are given to us for use: they are unearned gifts that are part of a larger whole. Taxation and other modes of maintaining the dignity and well-being of the poor need no justification – for their share in the wealth produced is theirs by right. The Hebrew word for “charity” is tzedaka, which famously comes from the root tzedek, meaning “justice.” It’s not about voluntary loving-kindness, but about desserts. When we say that something like leaving set portions of your fields for the poor is a mitzvah, that doesn’t mean it’s (merely) “a good deed” (as many people understand mitzvah), but that it is a commandment, an obligatory action, incumbent upon you by virtue of you having land and access to its produce.

Most importantly, land itself cannot be privately owned, in the Western sense of real estate to be bought and sold with lasting effect. “The land cannot be sold in perpetuity, for it is Mine, and you are but sojourners and temporary residents with Me” (Lev. 25:23). This has a great equalizing effect, with the central implication that the poor are your brethren, members of your community. The idea of a moral hierarchy of the wealthy and the impoverished, or that poverty is in any way a reflection of negative personal worth, is abhorrent. It is not an exaggeration to say that the poor are constant reminder to every Jewish community, a reminder that inequity will always exist in our social and economic systems, and it is our divine duty to work at eradicating it.

That is accomplished through a plethora of community structures whose objective is to ensure the optimal distribution of wealth for the good of all. Everything from cash allotments, to soup kitchens, to gemachim, free loan societies for everything anyone might need, including furniture, wedding dresses for poor brides, children’s toys, and much, much more.

Compared to “business as usual” (Economy #1) this sounds quite idyllic and even radical, so it’s hard to imagine how those values could be taken even further. But that is where the Shmita ideal comes in, and completely shuffles the deck.

3. The Shmita model – Shmita, the sabbatical year, is the final year of a seven year cycle, during which not only is the land left uncultivated, but even more far-reaching is that all obstacles to access to those lands are removed. It is a violation of an explicit commandment to lock or fence your lands, for all are to eat equally and be granted equal shares (even the animals). All are invited to gather or glean from perennials and grains and vegetables that have seeded themselves. It is literally “to each according to their abilities” (now who said that?).

In the regular Jewish economy (#2), while the underlying theology states that “the earth is the Lord’s,” in practice, land is apportioned and there are rich and poor. During the Shmita economy, that radical claim of the illegitimacy of human ownership is really put into practice, resulting in a society-wide leveling.

The most fundamental definitive component of private property- one’s exclusive control over productive land – is abolished for the year. Now, in an agrarian society, prohibiting farming for an entire year, where farmers renounce all exclusive claim to what their land produces, sounds like a death sentence. Indeed, an individualist culture would probably have difficulty surviving a year like that.

But a society with a strong communal fabric and deep social solidarity will not only survive that year that is so radically other, it will flourish, and will take advantage of the need to band together to celebrate the achva (“fellowship”-from ach, “sibling”) that they have the privilege of experiencing once every seven years. Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin calls this “the gifted economy.”

In many ways, the regular six years of the cycle are a precursor to that main event, for they build the basic social and economic infrastructures that lead up to this utopian ideal, this apotheosis of a truly social-spiritual economy. Those kinds of communal infrastructures are the sort we in our economy #1 can only dream about.

But dream we must, to begin to imagine other possibilities, other realities, for as the poet W.B. Yeats once penned, “in dreams begins responsibility…”

Jeremy Benstein_150Dr. Jeremy Benstein is the co-founder of the Sova Project and the co-founder and Deputy Director of the Heschel Center in Tel Aviv, and director of the Center’s Environmental Fellows leadership program. He holds an A.B. degree from Harvard, a master’s degree in Judaic Studies from the Schechter Institute and a doctorate in environmental anthropology from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He works extensively in leadership development and capacity building with environmental activists and educators in Israel, and has lectured widely (US, Canada, England, Italy, Spain, Turkey) on Judaism, Israel, and the environment, including the environment as a focus of shared citizenship between Jews and Arabs in Israel. Jeremy’s interests focus on the interplay of religion, culture and values with questions of sustainability, topics he has explored in his book The Way Into Judaism and the Environment (Jewish Lights Publishing, 2006). He writes a weekly column for the Hebrew newspaper Haaretz.com on the Hebrew language, and is recently remarried and lives with his spouse Annabel and their five children in Zichron Yaakov‫.

The views expressed on this site do not necessarily reflect the views of The Sova Project or its founding partner organizations.  All comments on this site are the responsibility of their writers.