Dear Ask-the-Rabbi Rabbi,

With the current presidential elections in the U.S., there’s been a lot of debate about Judaism, socialism and capitalism, since one of the candidates—the Jewish one—identifies himself as a “democratic socialist.” Some Jewish voters are claiming socialism is not Jewish, while plenty of others associate their socialism with their Judaism and vice versa.

What do you say? Is Judaism socialist or capitalist?

—Sandy Bernard

Hi Sandy,

The obvious answer is yes.

If you think rabbis can’t agree on anything, you ought to listen to economists arguing. Both capitalism and socialism come in more flavors than Starbucks can serve coffee and tea—with the distinction that nobody quibbles over which cup is coffee and which is tea. But economists—they’re the guys sitting there in Starbucks arguing whether the cup from which they’re sipping contains a socialist tea or a capitalist coffee.

So let’s deal with just two major areas which socialists and capitalists generally perceive quite differently. One is ownership of property (who owns what I got). The other is the right of the state to redistribute wealth (government as the grand steamroller). We’ll start by looking at two cases that deal respectively with these two issues.

The Vineyard Case

If you want a great demonstration of the right to individual property in Torah, read the biblical story of the vineyard of Naboth. On the other hand, if you want a clear picture of the origin of the socialist idea in Europe, read the story of the vineyard of Naboth.

King Ahab, the wickedest king of Israel ever, had seen the vineyard of a simple citizen named Naboth and desired it. When he offered to purchase it, Naboth replied, “G‑d forbid that I should surrender to you land which has always been in my family.”1

What does Ahab do? He returns to his palace, lies in his bed and cries. I mean, he’s wicked, but he’s still Jewish, and Naboth is right. When the children of Israel had entered the land with Joshua, they had divvied it up in equal portions, rendering all Israelites landed and equal citizens—as G‑d had prescribed through Moses. You couldn’t sell a parcel of land—you could only lease it until the Jubilee year, which came once in 50 years.

Meanwhile, Jezebel, Ahab’s non-Jewish wife, can’t figure out what’s going on here. Why doesn’t he just man up like any real king, kill the peon for his insolence and take his field?

Fettered as she is by these ludicrous Jews she has come to live amongst, yet driven by loyalty to her husband’s desires, Jezebel conceives a plan, hiring witnesses to testify falsely against Naboth as a blasphemer so that he can be executed and his land confiscated. After Ahab’s followed his wife’s instructions, Elijah the prophet famously rebuked him, “So says G‑d: You have killed, and you have also taken possession!?”2

So here you see that in biblical law your property is your property—because it can’t be taken from you. And yet it’s not your property—because you can’t give it away.

How could both be true? Quite simply, as the Torah itself explains, “because the land belongs to G‑d.” Meaning that Torah can grant you ownership of your property because it’s not yours. There is a third party involved, one who is not a member of society, who neither benefits or loses through any transaction, and is concerned only that justice reign—and that is G‑d, and He owns everything.3

Is the Hebrew Bible a Socialist Doctrine?

James Harrington
James Harrington

What does this have to do with socialism? Everything. What was once the textbook version of history tells us that the socialist idea arose in France and England in the 19th century. But in his recent groundbreaking work The Hebrew Republic, Eric Nelson, noted American historian and professor of government at Harvard, traces the idea back to an influential 17th-century work of an Englishman named James Harrington, The Commonwealth of Oceana. He was the one to first advocate the idea of fair redistribution of wealth—basically, that the government could and should take from the rich to give to the poor in order to maintain a balance of wealth in society.

So where did Harrington get it from? The institution of the Jubilee year. In Harrington’s understanding, the point behind this return of land was to maintain a balanced, if not perfectly equal, distribution of wealth. And since this law was “made by an infallible legislator, even G‑d Himself,” it must be applicable to all nations at all times.

Neither the Jubilee year nor any similar form of redistribution of property was instituted in Europe. But once the idea that the republic had the right and responsibility to redistribute wealth had leaped out of the box, thinkers from Montesquieu to Rousseau, Jefferson to Tocqueville, could play with it, Saint-Simon could give it the name “socialism,” and Karl Marx could take it to its most extreme extent—once entirely uprooted from its biblical origins.

European socialism did not originate in Roman or Greek jurisprudence, nor did it arise out of “pure reason” of 19th-century political thinkers. The roots of socialism are firmly grounded in a Torah institution. But ironically, it was the same Torah institution that guaranteed each individual inalienable rights to his property.

If you want an idea of how central a theme that concept of property is in Torah, you need only turn to the very first verse, “In the beginning, G‑d created the heavens and the earth.”

And if you want an idea of how central fair distribution of property is in Torah, you need only turn to the very same verse again.

Why does the Torah begin with the story of creation and of humankind, rather than simply presenting the dos and don’ts? Rashi, the most classic of Torah commentators, explains: To tell you that the earth belongs to G‑d. He gives it to whoever He finds fit to give it to, and takes it from them and gives it to others when He finds that fit.

You own your property—not by Divine right, but by Divine lease.

The Case of the Tall Date Palm

Now let’s talk about giving to those less fortunate. If you ask a capitalist, “Do I have to provide for those less fortunate?” he will likely exclaim, “Of course not! I mean, it’s a nice thing to do, but hey, it’s your hard-earned money, right?”

Yes. And no.

Because, although it’s the job of the Creator and Manager of the Universe to give to whoever so deserves, G‑d quite often leaves the act of justice in our hands, so that we will have a partnership in this act of property distribution. Which means that we own property in order that we can distribute it justly. And, in fact, in the Hebrew language, there is no distinction between charity and justice. In Greek and Latin, they are two distinct entities. In Hebrew, justice is tzedek and charity is tzedakah—two forms of the same verb.

Which means that charity is not a nice thing to do. Charity is an obligatory thing to do.

Here’s a vivid example: Let’s say you’re a farmer (for most of history, most of us were farmers). You have a nice plot of land growing crops. Do they belong to you?

Again: Yes and no.

No, because some of those crops belong to the priestly class (who don’t have any fields, just houses in cities), and some belongs to people who are too poor to feed themselves. Yet it’s left up to you to distribute those crops as they should be distributed. Whatever is left, you get to keep.

For example: Joe the farmer has an orchard of date palms. As prescribed by Torah, he has put aside dates of a tall palm for the poor.

Now ten poor people are standing around this tall and slender date palm, staring way up at the dates above.

“Let’s go for them!” one says.

“Race you to the top!” says another.

“Too dangerous,” says another.

“But they’re ours for the picking!” says yet another.

“Not quite,” an erudite poor person explains (indeed, many of the most important scholars and lawmakers of Israel were exceedingly poor). “It’s the owner’s obligation to give them to us. And we don’t have to risk our lives to climb up there and get them.”

So they call the owner, who dutifully must ascend the tree and distribute its dates to the poor.

And get this: Even if nine of the ten—or 99 out of 100—are ready to forgo their rights and climb the tree themselves, as long as there’s one who says, “Nope, too dangerous. You gotta go up there!” we listen to the one dissenter. Because that’s the law: It’s the owner’s obligation to ensure these dates get to their proper owners—namely, whichever poor people come for them.4

More Jewish Socialism

There are many more such examples. In Jewish law, if a person is starving, he is permitted to take the food of another person—since that person has an obligation to provide the starving person food. If you see the other guy’s property being destroyed, you are obligated to do what you can to prevent the destruction. Again: it’s not a nice thing to do. It’s an obligation.

In actual practice, such has been the practice of Jews from biblical times to the present day. In the fourth century, when the Roman emperor Julian ordered the setting up of hostels for transients in every city, he referred to the example of the Jews “in whose midst no stranger goes uncared for.” Historical records from every era, wherever there were Jews, provide long lists of societies—free loan funds, soup kitchens, wedding funds, widow funds, orphan care, new mother care, free education and much more. There wasn’t a Jew who wasn’t either giving or getting—and often both.

Maimonides, the great codifier, wrote in the 12th century that every Jewish community must have two funds for the poor: One, called the kupah, an obligatory fund supported by every member according to their means; the other, called tamchui, to collect food and other items from those who gave voluntarily. “We have never seen nor heard,” he writes, “of a Jewish community that does not have a kupah for charity.”5

But what’s important to note is even with the presence of the voluntary kupah, according to all codifiers of Jewish law the “state”—in the form of the community’s popularly appointed beit din—had the right and obligation to enforce involuntary giving and taxation in order to help the destitute in their community, and even in other communities as well. Coercion was rarely necessary—and we’ll discuss why later. But it was certainly was practiced.

As for the prevalent capitalist view, it’s ironic that the father of the libertarian idea, John Locke himself, wrote otherwise:

But we know that G‑d hath not left one man so to the mercy of another that he may starve him if he please. G‑d, the L‑rd and Father of all, has given no one of His children such a property, in His peculiar portion of the things of this world, but that he has given his needy brother a right to the surplusage of his goods, so that it cannot justly be denied him when his pressing wants call for it.6

In other words, Locke, to whom we most owe the idea that each man has a natural right to life, liberty and property, also gave your “needy brother” the right to your surplus of goods—not out of your mercy, but by justice. Whose justice? The justice of the same One who provided you with those goods to begin with.

John Locke
John Locke

Fascinating: Scholars search for a source in the Christian Bible for Locke’s contention. In a fascinating article entitled Locke and Political Hebraism, Fania Oz-Salzberger dismisses their search as futile. “Only the Hebrew Bible . . . ,” she writes, “could support this legalist, non-voluntary approach to the relationship between the wealthy and the starving, thanks to its unique model of an altruistic community rooted in law.”7

Serfdom & Freedom

There are many more such examples. Professor Yehudah Levi’s essay “Is the Torah Capitalistic or Socialistic8 and his sequel to that, “The Right to Private Property,”9 examines the question through the lens of halachah, focused primarily on tax laws. His conclusion? “Judaism is capitalism with a socialist spirit.”

Now, that may sound peculiar. Because in most people’s minds today, capitalism and socialism are two extremes of a long pole—and you can’t hold onto both ends at once. Most of us understand the issue to be all about “Who owns what I got?” Capitalism means I own what I got (taxes being a kind of membership dues in return for fair benefits). Socialism means society (i.e., government) owns all I got—just that they’re gracious enough to let me keep some of it.

In the Mishnah, there’s a description of just that. That concept of capitalism is called “What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours.” And that concept of socialism is called “What’s mine is yours and what’s yours is mine.”

So how do you create an elegant harmony from two such conflicting statements?

And the answer is that you can’t. As long as you are looking from the frame of reference of “what do I own?” capitalism or socialism remain two opposite worlds. Furthermore, neither of them provides a sustainable framework for society. In fact, in the Hebrew language, there is no verb “to own.” You can be the master (baal) of a property, or take possession of it, but none of these terms imply absolute ownership.

Whose frame of reference is “what do I own?” It’s that of a freed serf. That’s where these conceptions were born—from the liberation of the serfs and working class in 17th–19th century Europe. They may have thrown the shackles off their arms and legs, but they failed to remove them from their minds. They remained obsessed with rights, because they began as slaves. They remained obsessed with taxes, because that’s what governments seem to be all about—if property was to be distributed fairly, it had to be the government that would confiscate and distribute it.

In the mind of the freed serf, whatever solution could come about had to come from the top down—meaning, government—because that lordly power loomed so large in the background of all their thinking that they simply could not imagine reality without it.

In The Road to Serfdom, Friedrich Hayek saw the rise of socialism, Nazism and fascism in 20th-century Europe as just that: a regression. The serfs were demanding, “Please re-enslave us!” Socialism was, and remains, another form of shirking responsibility, by handing all responsibility back to a bloated government. Socialism, in most of its forms, attempts the absurd: to liberate people by divesting them of their responsibilities and the power to run their own lives.

The Responsible Society

Shift now to Sinai. The people are free. Their taskmasters have been dumped in the sea and washed ashore. Now they have to form a society. How is it formed? Through a covenant between the people—each and every individual—and the one G‑d to whom each is accountable for his or her actions.

That’s why there’s no talk of rights in the Torah. Everyone, by default, has all the rights of the first human being ever created. Rather, Torah speaks of responsibilities.

The taxes that the Torah speaks of are the responsibility of the individual—to provide for the poor, the Levite, the orphan and the widow. Sure, if you don’t give what you are supposed to give, the court can come and confiscate it from you—but that’s not the default. The default is you, as a private individual, giving the prescribed amount—and a little more–of your own volition.

As for government, the Torah gives it relatively little significance. Yes, the rabbis instituted takkanot ha-shuk—price ceilings, measures to keep staple foods at reasonable prices—and penalized those who failed to provide their fair share for the poor. The court sat in the marketplace judging case by case to keep law in order. But those were supplementary measures.

Clear evidence: Anyone who has studied the monetary laws of the Talmud is struck by the prominent place of the oath in this system. Without the institution of the oath, the entire judicial system of monetary law crumbles to pieces. Every piece of it is built on an assumption that the great majority of citizens—no matter how great a financial loss is as stake—would not be able to hold a Torah scroll and make a statement before a Jewish court that is blatantly false. This is an assumption that relies heavily on the moral education of the people. And that is just the point: A society can be fair, just and ethical only when the populous receive an ethical education.

That explains why the Torah is obsessed not with government, but with another institution—its primary institution, because it truly is the primary institution of any free society. And that is the moral and ethical education of its citizens, by its citizens. Because authentic education—turning out responsible and sensitive citizens who are inspired to social justice—is inherently a bottom-up, grassroots project, and the only path to a just and fair society is from the bottom up.

Jews do not call the founder of their society “Moses the Lawgiver” or “Moses the Governor,” but “Moses, our teacher.” What other nation was formed by a man who is called “our teacher”?

And who were the men who forged the law of Torah into a code to function throughout the ages, who legislated its application in everyday life? The rabbis of the Mishnah and the Talmud were not a ruling class, but by and large men who tilled their own fields, pruned their own vineyards or were occupied in some craft or trade. They were of the people themselves.

When we shift the historical paradigm from slaves throwing off their shackles to free people forming a society, we also shift the engine of this society from governance to education. But that also requires shifting our understanding of capitalism and socialism—to frame it not in terms of ownership, but rather in terms of our responsibilities to one another and the betterment of society.

In those terms, put it like this: Capitalism is the idea that people can work together to create and increase value. Socialism is the idea that the more we share that value, the more we create. No conflict. Just harmony.

Getting Practical

For a society to be just and its citizens to be free, education has to go beyond ABC and 123—beyond treating human beings as brains transported by bodies. Education under an oppressive regime inculcates pupils with duty to the motherland and crushes any sense of individuality. Education for freedom and justice must focus on turning out kids with sensitivity, responsibility and accountability—sensitivity to the needs of others, responsibility to their society and accountability for their actions.

It’s that last one—accountability—that’s the clincher. Without it, the other two crumble. Rabbi Menachem Meiri, a halachic authority of the 13th century, made this very clear when he described idolaters as “godless people” unrestrained from any evil. In his mind, idolatry was not a matter of how many gods you believed in, or what you believed about those gods. It was a matter of having no authority, no moral accounting. Christians who believe in the trinity, Rabbi Meiri writes, do not fall in this class. Whatever it is that they believe, their religion holds them accountable to a Higher Authority for their actions.

The Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, gave that sentiment a very practical application in our times, insisting on

the vital need that the children in the public schools should be allowed to begin their day at school with the recitation of a nondenominational prayer, acknowledging the existence of a Creator and Master of the Universe and our dependence upon Him. In my opinion, this acknowledgment is absolutely necessary in order to impress upon the minds of our growing-up generation that the world in which they live is not a jungle, where brute force, cunning and unbridled passion rule supreme, but that it has a Master Who is not an abstraction, but a personal G‑d; that this Supreme Being takes a “personal interest” in the affairs of each and every individual, and to Him everyone is accountable for one’s daily conduct.

Or, to quote one the most significant of the early architects of the modern free state and the fathers of enlightenment, John Locke:

If man were independent, he could have no law but his own will, no end but himself. He would be a god to himself, and the satisfaction of his own will [would be] the whole measure and end of all his actions.10

Sensitivity and responsibility are wonderful character traits. But you remain your own god. You—or your society—are left to determine just whom you should be sensitive to, and whom not; what are your responsibilities, and what are not. And the coin is always going to flip to the side that provides greatest convenience and satisfaction.

Just like “G‑dless socialism,” so too “G‑dless capitalism” runs amok, as each man is for himself and those with more power and smarts rip off the little guy by whatever means they can. Only through accountability to a higher power do human beings transcend their own prison of self—and become capable of forming a global society where the measure of all actions is our responsibility to one another.11

The earth and all that it contains—and whatever we produce from it—belongs neither to you or to me. It belongs to the One who created it. We are planted here “to work it and to protect it.” We are its stewards. All of us, as one. That is what we much teach our children, and they will have a bright future indeed.

Ultimately, the ideal of Torah, the messianic era, is a kind of socialist anarchy, where there is no need for governance because everyone is enlightened, even wolves keep their paws off the lambs, and the monarch’s role is to provide yet greater wisdom. May that time become real much sooner than we can imagine.