Economic Justice for Insiders and Outsiders

Biblical laws of business ethics.

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Reprinted with permission of the Jewish Theological Seminary.

Chapter 25 of Vayikra, which makes up the bulk of parashat B'har, deals with essential laws of economic justice in an agrarian society. No member of the Jewish people may be relegated to lifelong slavery or landless serfdom. Ancestral plots are not to be sold out of the family forever, but rather returned in the Jubilee year. Even though slavery is permitted, a Jewish slave must go free in the seventh year. One may not cheat another in selling or buying, nor earn a profit at the expense of one in need by charging him interest. And yet, there are troubling limits to the scope of this ethical tradition.

These noble sentiments are both magnified and circumscribed by the language used to convey them. Terms like amitekha, your neighbor, ahikha, your brother, and related forms appear more than 14 times in this chapter. To some extent, they serve to remind the reader for the reason of these commandments--one must see others not through the impersonal lens of dollars or shekels but as members of a community, of a common family. They also serve a more troubling role, as they appear to limit the scope of the commandments to one's interactions with one's fellow Jews, to the exclusion of non-Jews.

This distinction reflects an essential tension found throughout the Biblical text and the Jewish ethical tradition that flows from it, between the universal and the particular. The Bible repeatedly demands legal fairness, charity, even love, for the stranger, the foreigner. And yet in many other cases, either the plain sense of the text, or voices of rabbinic interpretation, demarcate the boundaries of the Jewish legal system to exclude the rights or property of non-Jews. This trend within Jewish legal thought is not only troubling in the abstract, but also has at times been a negative factor in the relations between Jews and their neighbors.

To take one example with historical resonance--one Jew may not lend another money at interest (Leviticus 25:35-37) or pursue a loan after the sabbatical year, which cancels all debts. However, these restrictions do not apply to loans to non-Jews. Christians in many parts of medieval Europe applied the Biblical verses in a parallel way to lending in their own communities, creating a reliance on outsiders, like Jews, for loans. By furthermore excluding Jews from trades and land ownership, they created an environment in which money lending and finance became important, if not stereotypical, economic activities for some Jews in those areas.

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Rabbi Joshua Heller

Rabbi Joshua Heller is the rabbi at Congregation B'nai Torah in Atlanta, GA. Previous to that, he served as director of the Distance Learning Program at the Jewish Theological Seminary.