Tradition Today: A utopian vision

The Torah's message is that a situation in which there is both great poverty and great wealth contradicts our contract with God.

Torah 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Torah 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The controversies about the observance of the shmita year - the seventh year - are behind us. Fortunately those who sought to invalidate the ruling of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook concerning working the land did not succeed in imposing their view on the entire country. But in the heat of the arguments about the proper interpretation of Jewish law, we were in danger of losing sight of the purpose and the meaning of shmita itself. The main thrust of shmita is that the land must lie fallow and not be worked during that year. The reason for this may be a practical one - that is, it gives the soil a much needed rest and an opportunity to replenish its minerals so that it will continue to be productive. Certainly in ancient days, when modern methods of agriculture were unknown, that would have been a wonderful way to enhance and preserve the productivity of the land. But shmita is more than that. It is also a theological statement - an indication that ultimately the land does not belong to us. It belongs to God who has given it to us as part of the covenant - and the true ownership must never be forgotten. Similarly in the jubilee year - the 50th year - the land, which could not be sold in perpetuity, had to be returned to the original owners and the reason was expressed clearly: But the land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident - gerim v'toshavim - with Me" (Leviticus 25:23). The people of Israel are resident aliens with God. The land does not belong to us. In a sense we remain landless in our own land because we are there as tenants and God is the true and sole owner. There are two legal ramifications of this concept. One is that God can command us not to work the land every seventh year (Leviticus 25:4-5) - that becomes "a sabbath of the Lord" because it is, after all, God's land, not ours. The other is that we cannot permanently sell the land because we do not own it. It was distributed to the Israelites equally by God through Moses when we were to enter it and it can never be simply sold (see Numbers 33:54). Of course the underlying social reason for that is clear: Land was the prime source of wealth, so that if one had to sell land because of poverty and debts, this would result in inequity in society, in a society in which some would have great property and be rich and others would live in perpetual poverty. If the land is returned to the original owners every 50 years, as prescribed by Leviticus 25:13-17, this will not happen. Unfortunately many of these provisions have proven over the years to be difficult if not impossible to observe according to the literal interpretation of the Torah. Thousands of years ago, for example, the great sage Hillel recognized that in the society of his day the forgiving of debts in the jubilee year (Deuteronomy 15:2) was having the opposite effect than intended. He found a legal way through the prosbul to nullify that provision of the law without violating the Torah. He did it because he wanted to preserve the Torah's basic purpose under new circumstances. That was Rabbi Kook's motivation as well. For thousands of years the subject of fallow land was not really critical because there was no intensive Jewish agriculture in the Land of Israel - but with the advent of modern Zionism and the establishment of moshavim and kibbutzim, it became acute. Leaving the land fallow, buying all agricultural produce from non-Jews etc., became a major problem. Kook, then chief rabbi of Israel, was aware of this and issued his ruling permitting the sale of the land to a non-Jew so that the land could then be worked and Jewish society would not collapse. Both Hillel and Kook recognized the fact that the Torah's wonderful intentions could not be completely realized in the present conditions. On the contrary, these provisions if followed would have the opposite effect of preventing commerce, of preventing loans and, in the case of shmita, of causing the economic collapse of the agricultural sector of Israel. There is something awe inspiring about the Torah's vision. It envisions a society of freedom and equality - without master or slave, without rich or poor, without landed and landless. Perhaps it is beyond human reach. But the ideal and its underlying concepts should still speak to us and make us examine our society carefully. The Torah's message is that a situation in which there is both great poverty and great wealth contradicts our contract with God, a situation in which we neglect the poor and feel that everything belongs to those who can acquire it - forgetting that all belongs to God - is a denial of the Torah's goal. In Israel today, when the gap between rich and poor is constantly growing and is one of the greatest in the Western world, this message could not be more relevant. It is not easy to realize the goal, but Jews loyal to the Torah cannot ignore it when making their choices concerning the social and economic policies that will determine the nature of Israeli society. The writer is an author and lecturer who serves as the head of the Rabbinical Court of the Masorti Movement.