Economic Justice in a Jewish Perspective

Responsa of the Week: Economic Justice in a Jewish Perspective

A weekly series by Dr. Meir Tamari about responsa regarding business ethics issues.

In order to demonstrate the work of the halakhic system and its moral considerations regarding a variety of issues in business and economics, I will present a number of responsa drawn from the literature. These represent questions addressed either by laymen or by rabbis or communities to rabbinical authorities and their answers. They cover a period of close to 2000 years and reflect Jewish life in all the countries of the Diaspora. Even though the answers may vary and conflict with each other so that one cannot draw behavioral conclusions from them, they demonstrate Jewish thinking and values in this field.

As a result of the economic distortions and a certain loss of individual freedom, government intervention in the marketplace and public sector regulation throughout the world have given way to a more open economy and a freer market, together with the search for greater efficiency. However, the results give rise to moral and ethical questions regarding the degree of social justice and economic welfare in all societies. These questions cannot and should not be considered only from an economic viewpoint but also from the religious, cultural, social and historical perspectives of each society. This paper submits a possible Jewish perspective on the role of the government in the economy; based on source material that includes law, homiletical literature, and communal legislation that mirrors the experience of some 2000 years. They include both considerations of welfare and also of justice in the marketplace.


Jewish social justice and economic responsibility can only be understood in the light of the important role that society plays in Judaism. This makes them normative in contrast with the relativity of humanism and legislative and obligatory in contrast to the individualistic emphasis of Christianity and to a lesser degree Islam. In contrast to the idea of the individual salvation of these other monotheistic faiths and the mystical concept of a multinational Christendom or of a Moslem Umma, Judaism is a single nation religion. It is between that nation, the House of Israel, and God that the covenant at Sinai was made and not with its founder or with the individual followers of a religion. The legislated and spiritual Jewish economic morality obligates the national entity to intervene both in the economic activity between individuals and individuals, as well as between the individual and society.

This communal nature of Judaism is also different from the social contract between men and their government envisaged by Hobbes, which influenced much of Protestant thought. There, the idea is that men should give up their sovereign powers out of self-interest. It was only by the governor possessing more power than each individual that he would have the ability to protect him or her. Here the unity is phrased in egocentric and utilitarian terms. Since the only reason for the social contract was the benefit that the individual received, the major motivation remained the ego, seen in utilitarian terms (T. Hobbes, Leviathan).

The Jewish communal concept, however, is neither utilitarian nor ego centered. Judaism is not a religion but rather a nation (S. R. Hirsch, Exodus, 19:6). The Torah was given in order to create a Kingdom of Priests, a Holy Nation, through which worship and knowledge of the Lord could be translated into the reality of the everyday world. Sanctity is achieved not by contracting out some of one’s rights to others, but by doing or sharing with others, irrespective of the utility or reciprocity.

This is show by the saying of the Rabbis that “he who does not do his fellow a favor, is not of the sons of Abraham.” At the same time, bearing in mind that good intentions alone tend to remain just that, the same Rabbis taught that “we force one to act contrary to the selfishness of Sodom,” and “He who acts because he is commanded is more commendable than he who acts without being commanded” (Talmud, Kiddushin, 31a). This is because the latter person is obeying his own intelligence and biases rather than the Divine Will, which transcends his relative or self-determined morality. So that charity, both by individuals and by the State is coerced, by non-voluntary taxation in all its forms.

Judaism, considering the pervasiveness of the moral issued flowing from the economic tension between individual and group, places them in a fundamental role in the scheme of religious living, as may be seen from the rabbinic understanding of the biblical verse in Exodus: “and he will do that which is right in His eyes, and will hearken to His commandments and observe all His statues” (Exodus 15:26). The words “that which is right in His eyes” refers to the business dealings of people. This is to teach us that one who deals honestly in his business affairs and enjoys moral relationships with people is regarded as having observed the whole Torah (Torah Temimah, Exodus, 15:26).

This Torah aims at making the Jew kadosh, ie holy, as distinct from tahor, pure. Tahor refers to one who has had no contact with impure things or has undergone a ritual of purification. Holiness, however, is the transformation of ordinary and material human actions into the elevated and sanctified.

How is it possible for frail human flesh and blood to become holy, which is a Divine state? The biblical verse (Leviticus 19:1-2): “And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak unto all the congregation of the Children of Israel, and say unto them, Ye shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy,'” is couched in the plural. Here we learn that individuals cannot achieve holiness through their own efforts alone, as this becomes possible only through integration with the congregation of the Children of Israel. Through any removal or distance from the community they lose their holiness (Shem Mi Shmuel, Mishpatim). The spiritual influence creating holiness flows from the community to the individual and vice versa, so that economic immorality of either of them diminishes or destroys the holiness.

Many of the mitzvoth given to the Jews come to educate and to intensify the spiritual dimension of the economic actions of the individual and the community, primarily, by stressing the social responsibility that comes with wealth. Perhaps the best example is that of the Yovel, the Jubilee year. In this year all land had to be returned to its original owner, in effect substituting lease-holding for actual permanent sale. Many social thinkers and biblical scholars have seen Yovel as a Mosaic means of reducing social tensions between rich and poor, redistributing land every fifty years (Robert North, Sociology of the Biblical Jubilee, Rome, 1954.). There seems, however, to be in Jewish thought another educational aspect beyond this. The Sefer HaChinukh sees Yovel as an institution that comes to counteract economic injustice, through the molding of people’s character:

“The Deity, blessed be He, wished to teach His people that all wealth belongs to Him and that ultimately all would be transferred (from the present owners) to those to whom He had wished to give it in the first place. This mitzvah (Yovel) by requiring the national counting of the years (in the Yovel cycle, thus permeating the communal and individual conceptual framework), will prevent people from coveting their neighbor’s land and from stealing it” (Mitzvah 430).

Rabbi Avraham HaKohen Kook (the first chief rabbi of Israel) understood the Yovel as the release of communal spirituality, which is able to remedy the moral faults and shortcomings that have led to the inequalities and inequities in the marketplace:

“The individual recovers from the influence of the material the mundane at regular frequent intervals every Shabbat day. What the Shabbat achieves for the individual (breaking the influence of man’s involvement with his material possession), the Yovel achieves for the society as a whole. This temporary, periodical suspension of the normal economic routine raises the Nation spiritually and morally. A year of peace and quiet without oppressor or tyrant. There is no private property and no privilege and the peace of God reigns. Sanctity is now not profaned by the search for the private accumulation of all the year’s produce, while the covetousness of the wealth stirred by business, is now forgotten” (Shabbat Haaretz).

Both of these views of the Yovel year represent Judaism’s attitude that business immorality and social irresponsibility are first and foremost communal ideological problems, so that any legal framework concerned with restraining or preventing them, have to be accompanied by a spiritual dimension. Concentrating on the material damage done to others, important and necessary as this is, is not sufficient to prevent injustice. Unless people are aware of the spiritual damage involved and are sensitized to the unacceptability of economic immorality and injustice, legislation can achieve only minimal results. In the long term, such legislation will usually crumble before the widespread acceptance of unethical behavior, corruption, leading to what the Rabbis called naval bireshut HaTorah, dishonesty within the parameters of the Law.

The important role played by the economic rights and obligations of the community is not restricted to Jews. Just as there exists a covenant between Israel and God, so there exists an additional covenant between God and man. This differs in extent and in depth from that of the Israel-God covenant, with greater scope for human legislation and input. Nevertheless, being created in God’s image, all men constitute a brotherhood, with mutual spiritual obligations, promulgated by the Creator as ethical guidelines in all spheres of life. In the covenant made first between God and Adam, and later with Noah and his sons, the Seven Noachide laws were made obligatory on all Mankind. These Noachide laws are concerned with idolatry, cursing the Lord, murder, sexual immorality, robbery, the eating of living-animal flesh, and the establishment of a judicial system (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Melakhim, chapter 9, halakhah1).

The Chatam Sofer (Hungary, nineteenth century) remarks, “Both Nacmanides (Spain and Eretz Yisrael, thirteenth century) and Maimonides (Egypt, twelfth century) agree that the Noachide laws include all those applicable to the Jews regarding monetary matters” (Teshuvot Chatam Sofer, part 2, section 14): “All peoples are obligated under the injunction to appoint judges, to observe the laws of the Torah regarding onaah (price oppression), removing a neighbor’s landmark (infringing property rights), bailees, theft, oppression, protecting wages, causing damage to property, person, health or environment, buying and selling, and those regulating money lending and borrowing” (Ramban, Genesis, 34:13). This obligation would logically seem to apply to providing for the stranger, the needy, the weak, and the inefficient members of society, since this is one of the purposes of the divinely provided wealth. Indeed, many rabbinic authorities ruled that Noachides are also obligated to give charity as part of the requirement to establish an equitable judiciary. It was the failure of the people of Sodom to do just that led to their destruction (Genesis 19:24-26. 14), while the destruction of the men of Shechem was required, since they had witnessed the rape of Dinah (Genesis, chapter 34) and had done nothing to punish the perpetrator.

This column presents general principles for approaching business ethics topics. For specific guidelines, please refer to a halachic authority.

Dr. Meir Tamari is the former chief economist of the Office of the Governor at the Bank of Israel, and the founder of the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem.