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A Jewish perspective on Economics

Debbie Young-Somers's picture

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A Jewish perspective

 

A difficult subject

Writing about Jews and money makes me a little nervous, because so many stereotypes persist even today about Jews being mean with money, controlling the banks, etc., etc. All of this is rubbish, but there are historical reasons that explain how they came about. In the Middle Ages Jews in Europe were very much an oppressed minority, and the Church and kings controlled society by and large. Christians are forbidden to practise usury; in other words lending money and charging interest. The problem is people needed loans to be able to start businesses and finance big occasions like weddings. So in many places, the only job Jews were permitted to do was money-lending – they couldn’t own land, join craftsmen’s guilds, and so on. The only way for them to make a living was to charge interest on loans, and the guy who wants his money back at interest is often resented by the one who borrowed money from him in the first place. This has led to the stereotypes we continue to find today, and has resulted in some very nasty anti-Semitism.

 

An ancient principle

Charitable giving is an important principle within Judaism. Although the word tzedakah that is often translated as charity, it actually means justice. Doing justly by those who are economically marginalised by society is an essential principle in Judaism. In the farming society of biblical times, farmers were commanded to leave the corners of their fields unharvested, so that the poor, or those with no one to depend on economically like the widow and the orphan, could come and harvest and not starve. It was also important for farmers not to overwork the land, so they rested it every seven years.

Today we are beginning to see that mass farming and overworking the land is damaging the planet and the quality of our food, demonstrating the wisdom of these ancient practices both economically and ecologically. This seven-year cycle was also a time to release slaves, and take steps towards the fiftieth year (after 7 times 7) which was a jubilee year when debts would be cancelled, etc. This was the inspiration for the Jubilee 2000 campaign to end Third World debt. It is claimed that the system never actually functioned in this way because there are problems with it. Who would give loans in the 49th year? But it is an important principle for us to consider, particularly when it comes to those trapped in cycles of debt. It is a problem many in the West have only been waking up to since the recent credit crunch, when loans are not so readily available.

Moses Maimonides, an eleventh-century thinker, outlines eight important levels of charity, the highest of which is enabling a person to provide for themselves, and to be charitable givers themselves. The traditional saying used by charities, like Oxfam, is give a person a fish and they’ll eat for a day, teach a person to fish and they’ll feed themselves and their family for years to come. This is an important economic principle in Judaism. Give charity, but try to do so in a way that won’t encourage economic dependence, but will promote independence and dignity.

 

Ethics

Business ethics have been an important part of Jewish thought for thousands of years. Tractates (books) of the Talmud are given over to establishing clear, ethical guidelines in business, for example, property law, liability, etc. Some of this can be dense and hard to apply to today, but a lot of it is useful, and groups that promote these ideas exist, such as the Jewish Association of Business Ethics (JABE – www.jabe.org).

Examples of Jewish business ethics are:

 

  1. Pay his wages when they are due.’ Deuteronomy 24:15

  2. Just as an employer is warned not to steal the payment due to the labourer, so to the labourer is warned not to steal from work due to the employer. He may not waste time a bit here and there but is rather required to be extremely careful…..Further he is required to do his work with all his strength.’ – Rambam (Moses Maimonides): Laws of Leasing and Hiring 13:7

 

(I suspect the workforce today would really struggle with this one! Think of it: staying off Facebook, ebay and personal emails while at work because it wastes an employer’s time. Imagine how much more productive people would be without these distractions, but then we also have to consider how much more efficient the internet has made our work!)

 

  1. Just as it is forbidden to wrong a colleague in trade and commerce, so too it is forbidden to wrong him through speech.’ Babylonian Talmud Baba Metzia 58b

(This passage implies that we must behave ethically in the way we do business not just by not cheating people, but also by not gossiping and spreading malicious rumours to ruin someone’s reputation, which might harm their ability to do business.)