Friday, April 23, 2010

What's Mine Is Your's?

Greetings everyone.  After a brief hiatus, I'm happy to be back and posting.  While some of our college students were off on their Spring Break, I had the pleasure of leading a group of 15 members of Temple Solel on a once-in-a-lifetime mission to Cuba.  You can read all about our trip here.

SPOILER ALERT: I will be adapting these comments for my remarks at Shabbat morning services tomorrow.

My visit to Cuba was my first trip to a Socialist country.  (For what it's worth, Cubans insist that Cuba is not a Communist country.  For the differences between Communism and Socialism, click here.)  It was quite the learning experience for me to see, first hand, what it means to live in a country where private ownership of virtually anything is prohibited.  Instead, the government owns all of the "stuff", and through its vast and often corrupt bureaucracy, doles minimal portions out to everyone in the population.

In exchange for government subsidized health care and education, Cubans work hard for meager, government-regulated "salaries."

The system is broken on many levels.  Here are two quick examples:
  • Government salaries are not nearly enough to provide most families with the food they need in any given month.  The result is widespread poverty (though those who defend the Cuban system insist on pointing out that Cuban poverty is not nearly as bad as the worst poverty that exists in other parts of the Caribbean).
  • The lack of a "free enterprise impulse" means that even though Cuba has a pretty good (and free) educational system, Cubans lack the incentive to pursue a higher degree, because there are often no substantial benefits to be accrued from higher education.  Thus more and more (Jewish) Cuban young people are fleeing the Island in search of better opportunities abroad.
Perhaps this will sound controversial to some of you, but Socialism doesn't have to be all bad.  Sweden, for example, is often lauded as a Socialist success story.  Consider this entertaining two part story that Jon Stewart ran a few years ago on it:

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
The Stockholm Syndrome Pt. 1
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical HumorTea Party

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
The Stockholm Syndrome Pt. 2
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical HumorTea Party

There are also socialist tendencies within our own Jewish tradition.  In the last 100 years, we witnessed a strong Yiddish socialist agenda among some of the Eastern European immigrants that settled on the Lower East Side of New York.  At the same time, we watched as other European Jewish socialists made aliyah to the Land of Israel, and helped to establish the first kibbutzim (which some claim are the most successful socialist communities ever created).

But those are only the most recent expressions of Jewish socialism.  This way of looking at the world - of believing that wealth is not something that is just accrued by individuals - but is rather something that a society as a whole is responsible for sharing with one another (especially the ones who are most in need)....That idea has its roots in this week's Torah portion (Parshat Acharei Mot-Kedoshim).  This week's parsha is one of three places in the Torah that contains the following commandment:

"When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not completely reap the corners of your field, and the gleanings of your harvest you shall not gather. […] For the poor and the stranger you shall leave them, I am Adonai your God" (Leviticus 19:9-10).

The Torah is clearly trying to teach us that our property doesn't exclusively belong to us.  (Some of our sources indicate that everything that exists in the world belongs to God.  But even if you don't want to go that far, our parsha is most certainly indicating that we have an OBLIGATION to share what we have with others.)

For the pure capitalists amongst us, this is a major shift in thinking.  What we own, what we have worked hard to earn, doesn't exclusively belong to us at the end of the day.

What is especially interesting to me about the commentary that exists on this passage in our tradition is the way that our rabbis navigate the question of whether or not this commandment is purely ethical/moral, or whether it is religious/ritual in nature.  Oftentimes, our rabbis put commandments into one category or the other.

The fact that our rabbis dramatically see this mitzvah as embodying both the moral and the ritual aspects of our tradition sends us a message loud and clear: that the obligation of sharing what we have is one of the most important and vital things that a Jew can do.

As capitalists, I think we often tend to see the giving of tzedakah as something of a choice on our part....Yes, I have been blessed with significant resources.  BUT, I am choosing to part with a little of it.  Thanks to my benevolent generosity, I'll give a bit of what I have to others.

A careful reading of this week's parsha, though, insists that there is no choice involved with this commandment.  We are obligated to share what we have.  Period.  As Jews, we do not enjoy the luxury of deciding whether or not we want to share that which we have.

For all the criticism that our society is prone to throw at anything labeled "socialist," is the Jewish notion of giving tzedakah politically threatening?  I would love to hear what you think.

Thanks to my visit to Cuba a few days ago, I don't have a problem saying that Castro's vision of Socialism has failed miserably.

But this week's Torah portion ought to give us pause - to reconsider what we really think about the notion of sharing what we have with others.  Is it really all that bad?  If we can figure out a way to put the political semantics aside for a moment,  maybe we can newly appreciate the Jewishly potent idea that what belongs to me really does belong to you too.

Shabbat Shalom.


  1. R. Brown:
    Well done exposition and important question.
    The difference is between voluntary association with or compliance with scripture and involuntary compulsion by the state.
    The former yields benefits to all, without question.
    The latter impoverishes all, by taking away the incentives to excel and for some to be able to give, and reducing the incentives of those who might to rise. Further, without independent wealth the ability is reduced to challenge restrictions by the state that reduce freedoms, including religious.
    See Venezuela, where Jews are being persecuted by the state, the same state that has frittered its oil wealth on arms to intimidate neighbors, its "brown shirts" being trained by Iran.

  2. Bruce-

    Thanks so much for your comment - I appreciate it. I echo your concerns about life in Venezuela.

    As far as your description of ancient israelite religion as "voluntary association with or compliance" - I'm not sure about that. That certainly is an accurate description of how we think about our own affiliations with religion in contemporary America. We enjoy the blessing of freedom of religion - and each of us is empowered to make the religious choices that she or he sees fit. This is the essence of contemporary non-Orthodox Judaism as well: individuals choose to take on certain Jewish commandments if they want to (for example, I have voluntarily chosen to integrate certain traditional Jewish dietary practices into my own everyday life). No one has forced me to do it. And, if I decided to go out and get a bacon cheeseburger later today, there would be no major repercussions associated with my action (besides an increase in my cholesterol!).

    But in ancient biblical times, I'm not sure that our ancestors had those same kinds of choices. There was a certain amount of unspoken social cohercion that probably took place. If you didn't leave the corners of your field, there would be societal consequences - your standing in the community would be affected, etc.

    Is tzedakah, under those circumstances, truly voluntarily? Something to think about...

  3. Of course you are correct about biblical times having more state and social coercion for Jews than today, BUT:
    1. Your question was about today, not then; and
    2. Even then, witness all the guff from the mass to leaders and the divisions post-Maccabees, not to mention whatever emigration took place, there was a large degree of "voluntariness" re: obeying the Torah.