Parashat Re'eh

Dealing With Poverty

It would be wise to consider sound anti-poverty programs that tackle the general problem of lack of ownership.

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Provided by American Jewish World Service, pursuing global justice through grassroots change

This week's parashah, Re'eh, begins: "See, I place before you today blessing and curse" (Deuteronomy 11:26). Today's international curse has but one name: poverty. Unfortunately, our parashah foreshadows this as inevitable, saying: "Poverty in your midst will be unceasing" (Deuteronomy 15:11). Is poverty humankind's eternal burden? Can the Torah give insight to reduce poverty's menace? Re'eh offers two answers with contemporary applications. The first raises practical and halakhic conflicts; the second offers hope through formalizing property rights.

american jewish world serviceOur parashah offers an initial simple solution: shemitah, the statutory remission of debt and credit every seven years. The Torah implies that this commandment will eliminate poverty: "There will be no poor among you" (Deuteronomy 15:4). Today, politicians and rock stars endorse shemitah in the form of debt relief to Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC). Through HIPC initiatives, recipient countries would be permitted to reduce or remit their foreign debt service.

Since creditor countries will surely account for debt remission as a form of aid, and since foreign aid budgets are already notoriously anemic, the question must be posed: is debt relief an efficient way to alleviate poverty? According to a World Bank study, roughly six factors influence a country's capacity to absorb aid in order to combat poverty: low inflation, a budget surplus, openness to trade, little corruption, strong rule of law, and effective bureaucracy. These criteria are jarring if held against some major recipients of proposed HIPC debt relief such as Nigeria and Iraq. Both of these countries currently rank among the top eight most corrupt countries worldwide.

Pragmatic concerns aside, ethical questions also arise from this practice: might debt relief programs eventually diminish the mores of personal and national accountability, leading to a binge of borrowing and poorly thought-out programs? Could the initiative eventually undermine the rule of law itself? Lawlessness as a corollary of debt relief would be abhorred by our parashah, for Re'eh specifically condemns "every man doing what is right in his own sight" (Deuteronomy 12:8). Furthermore, the requirements of shemitah ultimately conflict with the commandment in Parashat Re'eh to lend to the poor (Deuteronomy 15:8). 

By retroactively canceling debts, shemitah, like HIPC relief, may deter creditors from entering into lending relationships. In the end, if creditors stop lending to the poor, prospective borrowers and the poorest citizens will suffer most. This violation of halakhah would have proved so tragic that the rabbis invented legal fictions to circumvent shemitah.

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Alon Ferency

Alon Ferency is a rabbinical student at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University.