The Torah protests

According to Rabbi Joshua Berman, the principles of last year’s social protests and the international ‘Occupy’ movement can be found in the Bible.

Rabbi Joshua Berman 521 (photo credit: Arthur Wolak)
Rabbi Joshua Berman 521
(photo credit: Arthur Wolak)
With the influential political philosophy it espouses, the Torah was an incredibly revolutionary book for its time. So claims Rabbi Dr. Joshua Berman in his latest book, Created Equal: How the Bible Broke with Ancient Political Thought (Oxford University Press), which was a 2009 National Jewish Book Award finalist.
While he was speaking in Vancouver at the joint invitation of Canadian Friends of Bar-Ilan University and Chabad of Vancouver, I caught up with Rabbi Berman – a Bible scholar at Bar-Ilan University and associate fellow at the Shalem Center – to discuss some of the Torah’s ground-breaking ideas and how they relate to the recent “Occupy” movement, particularly in the Israeli context over this past summer’s social protests.
Berman, who made aliya in the ’80s after earning his BA in religion from Princeton followed by rabbinical ordination from the Israeli Chief Rabbinate and a PhD in Bible from Bar-Ilan University, sees in the Torah many ideas relevant to contemporary politics and economics.
The social protests in Israel, which took hold prior to Wall Street’s headline-grabbing “Occupy” movement that swept across the Western world, are particularly relevant to Berman, who feels that an “unwritten social contract” that had existed for 60 years between Israeli citizens and government was broken. This view, he contends, is grounded firmly in the Torah.
Berman’s book focuses on the Torah’s promotion of all types of political, economic and social innovations unique for ancient times, including the separation of powers in government, bankruptcy laws, redistributive taxation, civil protest against government abuse, equality before the law, a people-chosen judiciary and a society founded upon the notion of property ownership by private citizens.
Ownership of property and civil dissent against the government are two Torahbased ideas especially relevant to Israel’s protests in which the educated middle class objected to unaffordable housing prices resulting from demand exceeding supply, a phenomenon that has become especially acute over the past few years.
The “breach of the Israeli social contract,” Berman maintains, revolves around apartment ownership. Renting is not an issue because that option is always available. But owning a home is “a hugely important symbol in Israeli society,” he notes, because it offers security as well as the owner’s commitment to the country and represents a cultural sign that the owner is “invested in the culture,” which means invested in Israel itself.
“For the first time in [Israel’s] history, the backbone of the populace, these wellto- do, educated people,” says Berman, “were not able to buy apartments.”
When citizens who serve and support a country – whether through military service or taxation – cannot purchase a home, a feeling of alienation arises, especially on the part of this younger generation.
Hence, for Berman, the housing issue represented “a huge fracture for the Israeli psyche.”
“There was a huge revolution in the Torah’s view of land ownership,” asserts Berman. “Everywhere else in the ancient Near East, the vast tracts of land were owned by the king/temple.” Few commoners owned land. In other words, commoners, serfs and sharecroppers lacked real estate, so were never invested in the land in the same way as perhaps the elites would be, like generals who would have been given a piece of land in return for devoted service.
According to Berman, “The Torah comes along and says that the entirety of the land of Israel will be divvied up amongst its inhabitants,” divided between the tribes of Israel and their respective families. “Most people think of that in terms of inheritance,” stemming from the time of the Patriarchs down through their descendants, “but it is much deeper than that,” notes Berman.
“It was the No. 1 plank of the Torah’s economic plan... that everybody will be a landowner – if not individuals, each family owned a piece of land.”
When the Jubilee year occurred, relates Berman, “no matter what happened in the middle, no matter how bad times were, if I had to sell my land because times were bad, in the Jubilee year the land would come back [to me or my family], which meant that every family in Israel was permanently invested in owning the land.” The land of Israel, after all, was to be held by families as a form of grant from the sovereign, which, in line with Torah thought, is God – the ultimate sovereign reigning above judges, generals and kings.
GIVEN THE title of Berman’s book – Created Equal – I asked what type of equality he attributes to the Torah. Berman asserts it is “Occupy” equality because it is about “how a society deals with the fact that there are haves and have-nots [with] people in the middle and it looks as though, although we give lip-service to the fact that there is mobility and there is equal opportunity [with] laws to protect all that,” people lack such opportunities.
“There is a growing tendency for all the money to float to the top,” he says. “So when we see young people in Israel protesting and saying ‘This can’t go on,’ it’s not because it’s not economically viable – people rent – it’s because [people ask] ‘Do we belong?,’ ‘Are we part of the people who own this country?’” According to Berman, “The Torah wanted every family in Israel to feel that it owned part of the country.”
He contends that the Torah broke with the highly stratified and hierarchical societies that surrounded Israel, whether ancient Egypt, Greece or Mesopotamia.
In ancient times, it was the norm for such structured societies to have kings, lords, landed gentry, low-level commoners and slaves.
“Whatever you were born, that’s what you were,” explains Berman, “there was no opportunity to move...The Torah was the first blueprint in history to come along and challenge that idea and say we’re going to disempower, de-franchise all of the traditional sources of power or holders of power, and, for the first time in history, put an emphasis on the common people and their role and their importance.”
For Israel, therefore, the social-protest movement’s values are consistent with Torah. But Berman goes further.
“I think that the Occupy movements that have really caught like wildfire everywhere else can also be explained in terms of ideas” discussed in his book.
“In every society,” he asserts, “I would say it has been the most dynamic socio-political issue in the last 300 years – how do we set up society so that political civil liberties are maintained and the pie gets divided in a way that people are comfortable with?” There is no single solution to this problem.
Berman explains the underlying challenge. ”When capitalism is left unchecked, then you get the robber barons of the 19th century and all the money floats to the top. If you try to go to the opposite end of the spectrum, to socialism, [in the end] not just will opportunity be equalized, outcome is equalized, but that, it turns out, is for angels and not for real [people]. We all become lazy, and let the state pay for it, and that doesn’t work either... We are left with being in the middle of wanting capitalism that has some socialist component to it, but since that’s very hard to pin down in precise formulae, and to determine what the results will be, things fall out of kilter.
“What has happened now in all of the Western countries where there is an Occupy movement is that there are great liberties, so if you are industrious and you manage to make the right deals you can make a lot of money, but the feeling is that things are so complex that the people who are the shrewdest make an inordinate amount of money.”
But, he contends, “it’s gotten out of whack just in terms of who has and who hasn’t when times are down as they’ve been down and they’re going to continue to be down, so that becomes something that is far more difficult for people to live with.”
BERMAN STRONGLY argues that there is another aspect to this situation. While the Torah balances a type of capitalist system with socialist checks and balances, he feels that “what is really needed for such a system to work, which totally is lacking in the West, is a national narrative and a sense of national purpose.”
In the Western world there has not been emphasis recently on political systems fostering what Berman calls “a large narrative of meaning” as one finds in the Torah.
“If all of us are sort of growing together,” he suggests, “then we are nourished by a sense of the participation in that larger collective mission.”
In context of the Torah, Berman asserts, “that larger collective vision is serving God and living the life of his mitzvot [commandments] and perfecting ourselves spiritually.”
He maintains that within such a structure, “there will be some that are rich and some that are poor because some people are more industrious, some people are more gifted.”
Yet, Berman concedes, “The Torah never said that socialism was the ideal – far from it.” The Torah, he says, “does not shed any crocodile tears about some people getting rich.”
Given the potential for economic inequality, I inquired about the Torah’s view on the merits of redistribution of wealth through taxation. Berman’s response was emphatic.
“That’s one of the real innovations of the Torah,” he explains, “Other cultures had a notion that you should feed the poor and that the lame and the blind should be helped, but what the Torah does is institutionalize that [system].”
For example, he says, the Torah has “a tax every three years that instead of giving to the Levites, you have to take 10 percent of the third and sixth year of the cycle and that has to be given to the poor. So that idea of redistributive tax is born in the Torah,” Berman says. “There was no other culture that ever existed in history that said ‘this year’s taxes are not for the temple and not for the king. This year’s taxes are for the poor.’” In Berman’s analysis, the Torah breaks with ancient political thought by encouraging equality, primarily through reducing hierarchy and political and economic stratification. While the Torah permits kingship, it was not a birthright. Rather, a person who became king had to come from the Israelite people, who were not to derive excessive wealth via tithes – a type of biblical taxation.
Berman adds, “Even when there was a fully functioning priesthood there were a lot of checks and balances” that were not seen in other cultures.
While in other cultures “the priests were the big bankers” who determined what to do with the huge influx of tithes that enriched temples,” Berman observes, “what happens in the Torah is that priests are not allowed to be landowners and they depend on the comparatively meager tithes that the Israelites bring.”
Israel’s priests never had the same power compared to other cultures. In these ways and others, suggests Berman, the Torah is a unique document that broke with the prevailing political thought of ancient times.
Regarding what the Torah has to say about challenging contemporary times, “Policy only goes so far, and the Torah is attuned to policy,” Berman observes.
“Policy cannot simply be a remedy for ills that no one’s ready to discuss.” He strongly believes that “the ills need to be discussed” and, toward this aim, the Torah contains an extended treatment of the meaning of civic virtue through a sense of shared history and a sense of common purpose, especially “about what is right, what is wrong, [and] what it means to have a collective responsibility.”
“This is really what most of the Torah is about,” Berman explains, “in that you have certain prescriptions of policy.” He says, “Modern liberal democracies are entirely bereft of this, and it should not surprise us, therefore, that we arrive at these real moments of crisis. And it could get worse. If these debt crises overwhelm the countries of Europe and the US... none of this should surprise us. When everyone is [concerned with] ‘what can I take? What does the system give me as an individual?’ and there is no talk about collective purpose, it’s just a matter of time before there’s a real disaster, that’s what I think.”