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Foundations of a Jewish Economic Theory

July 8, 2016 | By: Yosef Yitzhak Lifshitz

What is the Jewish understanding of economic justice? Many Jews assume it is one in which property rights are limited for the purpose of redistributing wealth and lessening the economic gap between rich and poor. Indeed, Jewish thinkers have been some of the chief proponents of socialism since its inception, and socialist economic policy was a foundation stone of early Zionism and the young State of Israel.

But in a 2004 article in Azure, Yosef Yitzhak Lifshitz explains that socialist economic doctrine is not consistent with the history of Jewish thought. Rather than viewing the accumulation of wealth as sinful, the Torah and rabbinic tradition understand the development of one’s resources to be fulfilling one’s responsibility in the world. Tzedaka, charity for the poor, is fulfilled through the voluntary giving out of concern for the well-being of one’s fellow man—not through compulsory taxation by the state. Jewish economic thought offers its own articulation of property rights, wealth, and charity, and the opportunities and responsibilities that redound to free men and women created in God’s image.

Unlike the socialist outlook, Judaism holds a fundamentally positive view of individual wealth. Property is an expression of man’s sovereignty, his capacity to rule over the material world, so that he may benefit from it, care for it, and perfect it through creative acts. It is the most apparent means through which “God’s image” is expressed in human life. It is the necessary and inevitable outcome of man’s uniqueness among all God’s creatures.

In Judaism, sovereign control over one’s property is not conditional upon giving charity. The opposite is true: The ability to give charity is conditional upon private wealth. This is reflected in Jewish civil law, which, as we have seen, forcefully defends individual property rights. This does not mean, of course, that Judaism’s view of a good society is based solely on the institution of private property, or that it disregards the plight of the poor. On the contrary, Jewish law insists that man take responsibility for his fellow man, show compassion, and give charity. This is only possible, however, when man has full control over his property and is free to accumulate wealth through honest means. Man’s responsibility for his fellow man does not impinge upon his legal right of ownership, but is a powerful moral demand. Charity is a deed that flows from strength of character rather than the weakness of one’s claim to property. It is a mark of responsibility, and as such it can only have meaning when one has the legal freedom to do with one’s property as he wishes.

Read the whole essay in Azure.

More about: Jewish Political Thought  • Jews and Markets  • Theology