About Econ­o­my and Sustenance

  • Review
By – May 16, 2017

This anthol­o­gy presents twen­ty arti­cles regard­ing the ways in which tra­di­tion­al Jew­ish the­ol­o­gy can deep­en our under­stand­ing of eco­nom­ic real­i­ty. Most of the arti­cles were col­lect­ed between 2007 and 2008 in Israel and trans­lat­ed from the orig­i­nal Hebrew. The focus of the col­lec­tion is at once eth­i­cal­ly uni­ver­sal and specif­i­cal­ly rel­e­vant to Israeli soci­ety. The authors dis­cuss such essen­tial eco­nom­ic con­cepts as prop­er­ty, effi­cien­cy, and every­day com­merce. The nor­ma­tive” con­text for their dis­cus­sion responds to a cen­tral ques­tion: How are these con­cepts built out of the rela­tion­ship between humans and nature, between humans and oth­er humans, and between humans and God?”

The anthology’s well orga­nized struc­ture estab­lish­es a clear con­text for the var­i­ous sub­jects explored with­in. The first and sec­ond sec­tions con­cern the sab­bat­i­cal year and the inter­nal struc­ture of soci­ety in light of Jew­ish Mys­ti­cism.” The third and final sec­tions present detailed dis­cus­sions of Halachic approach­es to the busi­ness world and such top­ics as inter­est rates, wel­fare, char­i­ty, and inher­i­tance laws. In their selec­tions for the anthol­o­gy, the edi­tors have sought to present a spir­i­tu­al­ly enriched mid­dle ground between two oppos­ing philoso­phies. On the one hand, they argue, extreme cap­i­tal­ism” has gen­er­at­ed rapid devel­op­ment at the cost of alien­ation and envi­ron­men­tal dev­as­ta­tion. But the con­trast­ing sys­tem of social­ism-com­mu­nism” has often been enact­ed with total­i­tar­i­an meth­ods result­ing in the col­lapse of entire countries.

An eclec­tic array of sources and cita­tions ani­mate these essays. Sev­er­al authors make spe­cial men­tion of such clas­si­cal sec­u­lar the­o­rists as Pla­to and Aris­to­tle along with Locke, Adam Smith, Marx, J. S. Mill, Max Weber, J. M. Keynes, and Mil­ton Fried­man. How­ev­er, their deep­er trib­ute is to the Torah, Mish­nah, Tal­mud, Shulchan Aruch; and to Jew­ish com­men­ta­tors such as Rashi, Mai­monides, R. Nach­man of Breslov, Rab­bi Kook, Yeshayahu Lei­bowitz, and the Lubav­itch­er Rebbe. These for­mi­da­ble Jew­ish sources inspire the authors’ moral insights and their gen­er­al view that the ben­e­fit of the com­mu­ni­ty, not just the indi­vid­ual, is high­ly pri­or­i­tized by the Halacha.”

The arti­cles often dis­cuss spe­cif­ic prac­tices and sit­u­a­tions — such as the issue of for­eign work­ers in Israel — to illus­trate their broad spir­i­tu­al per­spec­tives. At times, how­ev­er, the authors’ shared goal to restore the Divine pur­pose which attach­es to all expe­ri­ence” can seem some­what fan­ci­ful. For exam­ple, Rab­bi Yitzchak Gins­burgh, in his essay on the Dynam­ic Cor­po­ra­tion,” sug­gests that an exem­plary com­pa­ny should aspire to become a camp of G‑d” and real­ize the spark of holi­ness” ani­mat­ing all prop­er com­mer­cial ven­tures. Despite their high inten­tions, the authors thus tend to avoid cer­tain empir­i­cal prob­lems and ques­tions. In its swing away from sec­u­lar com­mu­nal val­ues, has Israeli soci­ety in recent decades exac­er­bat­ed inequal­i­ty? Fur­ther­more, what has hap­pened to equi­table oppor­tu­ni­ty and a mean­ing­ful social safe­ty net dur­ing these many years of con­ser­v­a­tive-reli­gious coali­tions? There is also scant men­tion in the anthol­o­gy of the con­tem­po­rary schisms with­in Israel. Recent polls show that 86% of Israeli Hare­di Jews sup­port a Halachic state while 90% of sec­u­lar Israelis are firm­ly opposed. As Ahad Ha-Am (Ash­er Zvi Gins­berg) com­ment­ed more than a cen­tu­ry ago, Israelis in their own land may well wish to dis­re­gard the altar of metic­u­lous legal­ism.” In his view, it is pos­si­ble to be a Jew in the nation­al sense with­out accept­ing many things in which reli­gion requires belief.”

Peter E. Korn­blum holds a Ph.D. in Eng­lish from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia at Berkeley.He taught Eng­lish in the High School Divi­sion of the New York City Depart­ment ofE­d­u­ca­tion from 1981 through 2007.

Discussion Questions