What Judaism Has to Say about Capitalism

Dec. 11 2019

Of late, critiques of capitalism have proliferated on both left and right, so that it is commonplace to write and speak of its failure as a foregone conclusion. Jeremy Rosen, skeptical of such assumptions, turns to traditional Jewish texts, among them a passage from the talmudic tractate Avot that contrasts four attitudes to private property:

“What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours” is a balanced attitude. But some say that was the attitude of the men of Sodom.
“What’s mine is yours and what’s yours is mine” is that of a simpleton.
“What’s mine is yours and what’s yours is yours” is that of a saint.
“What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is mine” is that of a wicked person.

Rosen comments:

The first line asserts an individual’s freedom to accumulate wealth. But this could also imply selfishness and disregard for the others. When used that way it was regarded as morally corrupt, like the city of Sodom. The second one illustrates stupidity. If we are going to approve of material possessions, and the right to accumulate, then it stands to reason that each person should be able to choose how, and how much, they want to accumulate. To have people decide for each other is just silly. That is what gangsters, dictators, and ideologues do.

The third proposition says that a rejection of materialism is saintly. But it does not necessarily disapprove of those who cannot adopt such a selfless attitude. And finally, accumulating for oneself by taking what belongs to others is obviously the worst ethical position. One might argue that socialist dictatorships do this as much as capitalist governments: they decide how much you can keep.

In this passage, as in many others, the [Jewish tradition] implies that there is no perfect political solution. In the Bible, there are different models of leadership, governance, and economic systems. Each state—each community—needs to adapt to survive and thrive. A solution that works at one moment in time, or in one situation, may not be the right one forever. Flexibility is essential. Otherwise, systems atrophy. The beauty of democracy, despite its limitations, is that it allows for change.

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More about: Capitalism, Democracy, Judaism, Socialism, Talmud

Will Tensions Rise between the U.S. and Israel?

Unlike his past many predecessors, President Joe Biden does not have a plan for solving the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Moreover, his administration has indicated its skepticism about renewing the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. John Bolton nevertheless believes that there could be a collision between the new Benjamin Netanyahu-led Israeli government and the Biden White House:

In possibly his last term, Netanyahu’s top national-security priority will be ending, not simply managing, Iran’s threat. This is infinitely distant from Biden’s Iran policy, which venerates Barrack Obama’s inaugural address: “we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”

Tehran’s fist is today otherwise occupied, pummeling its own people. Still, it will continue menacing Israel and America unless and until the internal resistance finds ways to fracture the senior levels of Iran’s regular military and the Revolutionary Guards. Netanyahu undoubtedly sees Iran’s growing domestic turmoil as an opportunity for regime change, which Israel and others can facilitate. Simultaneously, Jerusalem can be preparing its military and intelligence services to attack Tehran’s nuclear program, something the White House simply refuses to contemplate seriously. Biden’s obsession with reviving the disastrous 2015 nuclear deal utterly blinds the White House to the potential for a more significant victory.

To make matters worse, Biden has just created a Washington-based position at the State Department, a “special representative for Palestinian affairs,” that has already drawn criticism in Israel both for the new position itself and for the person named to fill it. Advocated as one more step toward “upgrading” U.S. relations with the Palestinian Authority, the new position looks nearly certain to become the locus not of advancing American interests regarding the failed Authority, but of advancing the Authority’s interests within the Biden administration.

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More about: Benjamin Netanyahu, Iran, Joe Biden, U.S.-Israel relationship