The Torah’s take on social justice

Rabbi Shlomo Ishon says Halacha contains clear stances on social issues.

By JONAH MANDEL
August 26, 2011 05:48
3 minute read.
Rabbi Shlomo Ishon

Rabbi Shlomo Ishon58. (photo credit: courtesy)

 
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Everybody has an opinion on how the country’s economy should improve, just ask Prof. Manuel Trajtenberg, whose committee is busy hearing testimonies and suggestions from the public and experts, as well as reading over a thousand written opinions.

One such document received by his team on Thursday represents not just the small group of experts who wrote it, but attempts to provide the economists – commissioned by the prime minister to find measures to make life in Israel easier – with the stance of Jewish law and thought to the recent social awakening here.

According to the Keter Institute for Economy According to Torah, “economically speaking, Judaism is closer to capitalism than socialism, in that it doesn’t tend to get involved in the free market, while socially, the Torah is closer to socialism, in emphasizing the responsibility for society’s weaker members,” the document states in its introduction.

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It then lays out a number of principles, including the the government’s role in housing and education, increasing the supply of apartments by selling land to contractors who commit to building the most living units on it, and not taking taxes from minimum income families.

All of this is based on sources such as the Talmud, Maimonides and the Shulhan Aruch, which are referred to in the footnotes of the document.

But can one really encompass the wealth and variety of Jewish sources and thought from the different eras and traditions into one finite statement? To a great degree, yes, says Rabbi Shlomo Ishon, who heads Keter alongside Rabbi Yitzhak Bazak.

To say that this is the Torah’s sole opinion on the topic would be pretentious, he explained.

“But Halacha certainly contains clear stances on these issues, besides the general saying that Jewish law is in favor of social justice. There are higher resolution arguments here, such as the fact that Halacha is in favor of a free market.

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“You can find different approaches and arguments,” Ishon noted, “but as a point of view – I think this is clearly the Halacha’s.”

Ishon also pointed to the fact that issues addressed in the letter, such as supervision over staple products, and limiting the state’s gains from selling lands, are taken from undisputed sources such as Maimonides and the Shulhan Aruch.

The Keter Institute has been conducting research on Torah and economics for 17 years, on issues such as conducting contracts according to Jewish law, fraud, interest, and keeping Shabbat in a modern economy.

The institute – which includes rabbis, academics and businessmen who meet on a regular basis – also publishes books on such topics, and the eighth title – about to come out – deals with insurance in the light of Halacha.

Ishon said that Trajtenberg’s committee confirmed receiving the letter, and said they would publish it.

While the Torah has a say on this topic, as on others, the letter is not an attempt to have the Torah replace economy and its experts, said Ishon.

“Halacha is not seeking to come in the place of economists, but rather show the economy a direction,” he said, analogizing from the field of medicine.

“Halacha can, and should, determine the limits of life-endangering situations, prioritizing medical treatment and so forth. But the actual medical treatment will be applied by doctors.

“Here too, whether the market should be a free one, whether capitalism or socialism should be preferred, whether the market should be open to supervision – Halacha has what to say on all of these questions.

For example, we write in the document that the state should ensure minimal existence. But the exact definitions of what minimal existence constitutes will be determined by economists,” said Ishon.

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