Jews and the World: Steering a Middle Course

[This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 14 – Sustainability and Jewish Peoplehood – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.]

By Clive A Lawton

One of the ways in which Judaic approaches to a range of social issues differs from common Western ones is that Jewish answers often like to sit in the midst of ambivalence. The desire for purity of thought and approach is endlessly balanced by ‘on the other hand…’

Nowhere is this clearer than on the two key fronts of shmita – agricultural and environmental legislation and responses to debt and material inequality.

Pausing briefly to note that these are only connected in the consequential halakhic frameworks – their link is not obvious in the Torah and, for example, the assumption that all shmita legislation applies only in the land of Israel is not directly supported in the matter of debts and loans – it is tempting especially for those on the Left to see in this material support for their environmental passions or anti-capitalist critiques.

But in fact, this legislation does not call upon us all to care more for the Earth continuously or redistribute wealth overall, but to take periodic corrective action – and then continue pretty much as before. Torah does not seem to mind at all about doing whatever is necessary to get the maximum amount of stuff out of the earth or allowing loans and debts to proceed, as people seem to feel the need.

In this article I shall look at how some seem to try to bend Torah to fit common ‘leftie (?)’ preferences. But similarly and equally, the Torah doesn’t allow heartlessness either. The simple prescriptions of the market are resisted too. Though ‘the poor might always be with us’ (to quote a different Testament!) the Torah is visibly not happy about it. In fact, Torah seems to refuse such easy prescriptions in either direction. It wants us to struggle endlessly with the contradictions and challenges of human drives, rather than try to suppress them into some idealized imagined paradise and Eden-like world.

Just as havdala insists on the need for both sides of a dichotomy in order for the world to work well, so too does shmita seem to support a back and forth between the six years of intense activity, allowing human drives to push forward vigorously, then to be balanced by one year – one year only, mind! – of taking stock and stopping.

So the Torah goes to the heart of farming and finance and says that it’s fine to work both as hard as you can, but they’re not yours to abuse endlessly and sometimes you’ve got to let those who have gone without back into the game.

To be explicit then… we all know that progress in health, comfort and freedoms is often prompted by horrible causes. War and competition frequently are the strongest spurs to developments, which ultimately benefit swathes of mankind. Should we then shut all that off in order to make the world a kinder gentler place? Even at the cost of curtailing or even preventing possible improvements in our lives from which we now thoughtlessly benefit, such as more certain longevity, a capacity to go where we like, eat what we like, communicate instantly with whom we like and so on? Some certainly would like that, and see such Torah legislation as giving them support. After all, they say, returning to a world with less rapacious consumption – the extreme reduction of air travel, access to a more basic diet and the rest – would enable the world to recover itself, and many invoke a sort of personification of the world (a little pagan, I always think!) in order to drive their point home.

From this perspective too, we are often told that the kind of industrial/commercial, materialistic lives we lead are bad for us and we’d all benefit from cutting back, even severely. Some holding such views might even be prepared to be pretty fascistic in their enforcement of such changes. After all, the desperation of their fears might seem to justify equally desperate measures.

And therein lies its problem. Attempts to hold people back from things they know they can do/have cannot be achieved without significant compulsion. All oppressive regimes have found so and I can see no reason why any attempts in this direction would be any the less ultimately aggressive ‘or the greater good’.

But the alternative is no more attractive. Several years ago, a British Labour Party government minister was quoted as saying ‘We are very relaxed about people being filthy rich’ in an attempt to reassure voters that the Labour Party was not against people striving to ‘better themselves’ and wouldn’t bash them with major tax hikes for the rich. And such reassurances helped to get the Labour Party re-elected in the UK after 18 years out in the cold.

But such unbridled indifference led to growing inequality and increased resentment. People did not seem to feel any happier about their rising wealth because they could always see others far wealthier than them. Oddly – but on reflection, obviously – most people are happier if they think they live in a fair(ish) world.

So here then is the dilemma. If we let the world run away with itself and humankind’s most base instincts then it will become cruel and dangerous for us all. But if we try and force people to be fair one to another then it will become either repressive or regressive.

As is often the case, the Talmud tells the tale… Shimon Bar Yokhai, the great mystic rabbi of Roman times, decided to conjure up the Yetzer haRa (the Evil Inclination) and kill it in order to abolish death and destruction. Using kabbalistic incantations he succeeded and there before him stood the mighty dragon-like Yezter haRa. But, it seems, he hadn’t thought much beyond this and didn’t really know what he wanted to do next, so he locked it in a cage till he could figure out his next steps. But then a strange thing happened. People stopped trading in the markets, the hens stopped laying and all manner of ordinary striving and activity ceased. Bar Yokhai realized that actually even the Yetzer haRa is necessary in the world – and so he painted its eyes with an ointment to blind it, in order to ameliorate its worst excesses, and then let it out of the cage. As it bounded out again, life restarted in all its messy excitability.

This is, I think, what the Torah is attempting, to paint the eyes of our worst behaviors without killing them off.

If sustainability means leaving things as they are or trying to hold them still – or even turn them back – then I doubt we can find Torah sanction for it. But if the opposite means that people should be left to achieve whatever they like without regard to the consequences or our responsibility to give others a fair go from time to time, then the Torah won’t support you either.

Sorry if that’s difficult or contradictory or inconsistent or paradoxical – but hey, that’s the wonderful world of Torah, which demands of Jews at least that we be more subtle and complicated than simple people would like us to be.

Clive Lawton is one of the founders of Limmud and still heavily involved in it. Clive is a prize-winning educator, writer and broadcaster, working worldwide in the fields of educational development, diversity, integration, community development and organization and team development.