As one of the world’s oldest monotheistic religions, Judaism has accumulated a wealth of knowledge about human affairs over several millennia. Whether it is in the Oral Torah, the Talmud, or the commentaries written by the great twelfth-century Jewish Rabbi, philosopher, jurist, and physician Moses ben Maimon (otherwise known as Maimonides), there are few areas of human endeavor that Jewish religious thinkers have not thoroughly explored as part of their effort to understand the truth about the divine and its implications for the things of this terrestrial world.
Although Judaism did not produce explicit economic texts as we are used to thinking about such things today, Jewish religious figures—especially those spelling out the meaning of the Law for issues touching on property, exchange, economic justice, and the duties associated with charity—did examine in some detail how the tenets of Jewish belief, especially as expressed in Jewish legal thought, applied to activities such as commerce. Closer examination of these questions soon reveals that the contemporary tendency to identify the economic implications of Judaism with modern social democratic principles and priorities is, at least historically and theologically speaking, somewhat difficult to reconcile with many sources of Jewish tradition.
This is one of the theses illuminated in this short book, Judaism, Law, and the Free Market: An Analysis, authored by Rabbi Joseph Isaac Lifshitz of the Shalem Center in Jerusalem. To his task, Lifshitz brings many years of close study of the Talmud, Jewish philosophy, Jewish law, and Jewish history. By looking at the treatment of themes such as property rights, charity, justice, welfare, and competition, he demonstrates that Jewish tradition contains a very sophisticated understanding of many of the elements that, taken together, constitute a market economy.
While Lifshitz is very careful not to make overblown or exaggerated claims about Judaism and the degree to which it affirms the market economy, he does show how Jewish religious, legal, and moral principles provide a framework for how to live a good life in the conditions of a market economy. He also illustrates how the same tradition—especially in its treatment of the institution of private property, the duty of charity, and the exhortation to generosity—serves to limit the role of the state in economic life, especially when it concerns assisting those in need. Judaism, Lifshitz stresses, underlines that there are concrete obligations in charity owed to those in need. To deny or ignore these is simply wrong. The same sources, according to Lifshitz, underscore the importance that individuals, families, and communities assume the bulk of the work in assisting the needy, though, he notes, not to the point of creating dependency or discouraging the traditional Jewish emphasis on the dignity of human work.
Jewish and non-Jewish readers of this text will, I am confident, be struck by the wisdom of Jewish religious minds as they have wrestled over the centuries with complex matters such as the place of justice in economic life, the nature and limits of property rights, the virtues associated with wealth-creation, the challenge of poverty-alleviation, and the nature of the development of economic theory. They will, however, also notice that neither Lifshitz nor the Jewish tradition think that market orders are a guarantee of unending prosperity. This is not because of any fundamental distrust of free markets within the right cultural and institutional settings. Instead, it reflects an awareness of the follies of human hubris and the consequences of forgetting that humans should “pray for mercy from Him to whom all riches belong.”
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R. Ishmael further stated: he who would be wise should engage in the study of civil laws for there is no branch in the Torah more comprehensive than they and they are like a welling fountain.
—BT, Baba Batra 175b
As a category of civil law, monetary laws are highly regarded in Jewish tradition. Indeed, over the many generations of Halakhah study, the development of civil law has quite possibly received more sustained intellectual attention than any other Halakhah study. This suggests an initial explanation of why—when it comes to economic theory—study has focused almost exclusively on the legal aspects of monetary exchange. While Aristotle, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Bernard Mandeville, and Adam Smith were formulating their thoughts on economic theory, Jewish scholars grappled with the legal framework of economic exchange.
Explicit discussions of economic theory are, however, virtually absent from the Rabbinic sources. It was only in the twentieth century that the beginnings of a distinctly Jewish economic way of thinking began to emerge. This was mostly developed with regard to questions of social justice. Just recently, in the past two decades, some more advanced work in Jewish economic theory has begun to appear, most notably the pioneering work of Meir Tamari, With All Your Possessions. Another significant example is Larry Kahaner’s Values, Prosperity, and the Talmud: Business Lessons from the Ancient Rabbis.
While this contemporary foray into the terra incognita of Jewish economic theory may appear to grant a great deal of liberty to its explorers, this is not actually the case for several reasons. Even though no comprehensive work on the subject had previously appeared, the land of Jewish economics was not truly incognita. On many occasions, legal disputes about rules tacitly reflect principles or conflicts of principles. While no explicit theory of economics surfaced over the long history of Halakhah development, some basic posture toward economic questions doubtlessly existed below the surface. A serious study of Jewish economic thought must therefore aim to uncover and conceptualize the tacit principles that underlie the system of monetary laws formulated in the Halakhah tradition.
A careful effort of reconstruction is necessary to avoid the error of anachronism. This is perhaps the most difficult obstacle to deducing a theory of economics from Jewish sources. This is further complicated by the fact that economic thought underwent a massive transformation during the Enlightenment, abandoning its descriptive posture for a prescriptive one. Thus, where Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas had focused on describing the workings of the economy, Bernard Mandeville and Adam Smith directed attention to prescribing how the economy ought to run.
This change in approach could arise only once the market had come to be perceived as an independent entity. Prior to the modern state’s historical emergence, the market was not conceived as an autonomous system susceptible to manipulation. Only when the modern state assumed its present form in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries did particular Enlightenment ideas about the nature of liberty and equality combine with other concepts to give rise to our present notions of the market economy. It was the idea of the state as a political project—as a creation of people rather than simply something that is given—that enabled man to contemplate parallel ways of developing the market. The market came to be understood as a human project that could and should be directed and shaped by man. The idea that an entity as spontaneous as a market could be developed, improved, or regulated by man did not previously exist. Hence, it is not surprising that neither the Talmudic Sages nor the Rabbinic authorities proposed these ideas before they rose to prominence in early modernity. To argue otherwise would be anachronistic.
To uncover the attitude of the Sages and Rabbis to economic theory, it is necessary to search out the legal principles upon which they based their decisions in monetary law. In the first chapter, I examine the laws relating to private property. Jewish tradition is insistent that man can, and should, have a powerful impact on the material world. This idea is based on the biblical notion that man was created “in God’s image.” Man’s role is to have dominion over the world—a dominion that expresses itself through his obligation to benefit from it, to take responsibility for it, and to perfect it through creative acts. As I argue, the ultimate expression of this creative dominion in Jewish thought and law is private property. Private property is thus accorded the sanctity that is so crucial to free-market theory.
In the second chapter, I discuss cases of competition in Jewish law and the broader Jewish tradition. In contrast with its strong defense of private property, I show that the tradition is not as devoted to the free market when it comes to market regulation. In this regard, it cannot be considered “economically liberal.” Jewish law permits market regulation, and history shows that regulations were indeed practiced, beginning in antiquity and through to the late Middle Ages. At the same time, deeper study shows that competition was indeed considered a vehicle to prosperity. The sages held that a community has a right to regulate the market, irrespective of whether such regulation would lead to prosperity or not. Nevertheless, it is impossible to avoid entirely the conclusion that the Jewish Sages of antiquity were not fully aware of the vices and unintended side effects of much market regulation.
The third chapter is devoted to idea of charity. At this point, I return to the subject of social justice. Although Jewish law has a long tradition of praising charity, mandating the establishment of charitable institutions, and even coercing charity, charity is considered an act of kindness rather than an act of justice. This means that charity does not redefine property rights. The rich man does not owe the needy, and the charity he gives is not a redistribution of his wealth according to justice. Charity is thus done beyond the strict requirements of the law. This means that charity cannot be considered an essential part of the operations of the market, because legally it cannot be understood as an act expressing the human creativity that underpins private property.
The fourth chapter is titled “Generosity.” As opposed to charity—an act of kindness performed outside of the market—generosity is understood to describe those acts of kindness that occur within the market. The chapter considers the human investment that successful businesspersons often make in those who have not yet proven themselves in the market. This chapter further examines the distinction between usury and investment and between abusing poverty and helping the needy raise themselves in an honorable way. Here we will see that, already by the high Middle Ages, the business device of apprenticeship played an important role in the development of the economy.
The fifth and final chapter deals with what I term the Hayekian moment. The Jewish tradition did not indeed pass through the phase of Mandeville and Smith. The notion of spontaneous or unintended order can, however, be found in Talmudic tradition, mainly in its definition of the polity. It is my hope that this Jewish concept of spontaneous order will be appreciated as a basis for a more developed idea of the free market and that it can serve as a religious source of inspiration and guidance for a truly free-market economy.