A World of Value & Values: The Judeo-Christian Roots of Social Welfare

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Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

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"Deeply embedded in the Jewish mind is the idea that we do not ultimately own what we possess. Everything belongs to God, and what we have, we hold in trust. There are conditions to that trust. As the great Victorian philanthropist Sir Moses Montefiore put it, “We are worth what we are willing to share with others”. Hence, the long tradition of Jewish philanthropy that explains how Judaism encouraged the creation of wealth without giving rise to class resentments."

An impressive study by Harvard political philosopher, Eric Nelson, has shown that it was the Hebrew Bible, as read by the Christian Hebraists in the 16th and 17th centuries, that was the source of the idea that today we take for granted. Namely, that it is the business of a society to engage in the redistribution of wealth through taxation to ensure the welfare of the poor. 

Such an idea could not be found in the Greek or Roman classics that inspired the Renaissance. The concept of welfare (distributive justice as opposed to legal or retributive justice) is Judaic in origin and flows from the same generative principle as the free market itself; the idea that every individual has dignity in the image of God and that it is our task to develop social structures that honor and enhance that dignity.

So not only is the market the outcome of a Judeo-Christian ethic. So too is a keen sense of the limits of the market and the need to supplement it with a system of welfare itself funded by the market. However as the critics of capitalism pointed out, the market does not create a stable equilibrium. It engages in creative destruction, or as Harvard sociology professor, Daniel Bell, put it: capitalism contains cultural contradictions. It tends to erode the moral foundations on which it was built. Specifically, it erodes the Judeo-Christian ethic that gave birth to it in the first place.

Instead of seeing the system as Scottish economist Adam Smith did, as a means of directing self- interest to the common good, it has become more of a means of empowering self-interest entirely to the detriment of the common good. Instead of the market being framed by moral principles, it comes as a substitute for moral principle. In other words, if you can buy it, negotiate it, earn it and afford it, then you are entitled to it – as the advertisers say – because you’re worth it. The market ceases to be merely a system and becomes an ideology in its own right.

From a Jewish perspective, the most important thing about the market economy is that it allows us to alleviate poverty. Historically, Judaism refused to romanticize poverty. It is not, in Judaism, a blessed condition. It is, the Rabbis said, “a kind of death” and “worse than fifty plagues”. 

At the other end of the spectrum they believed that with great wealth comes great responsibility. Richesse oblige. Successful businessmen (and women) were expected to set an example of philanthropy and to take on positions of communal leadership. Any Conspicuous consumption was frowned upon, and periodically banned through local “sumptuary laws”. 

Equally important was Judaism’s positive attitude to the creation of wealth. The world is God’s creation; therefore it is good, and prosperity is a sign of God’s blessing. Asceticism and self-denial have little place in Jewish spirituality. By our labor and inventiveness we become, in the rabbinic phrase, “partners with God in the work of creation”.
 
Deeply embedded in the Jewish mind is the idea that we do not ultimately own what we possess. Everything belongs to God, and what we have, we hold in trust. There are conditions to that trust. As the great Victorian philanthropist Sir Moses Montefiore put it, “We are worth what we are willing to share with others”. Hence, the long tradition of Jewish philanthropy that explains how Judaism encouraged the creation of wealth without giving rise to class resentments.
 
Wealth is a Divine blessing, and therefore it carries with it an obligation to use it for the benefit of the entire community as a whole. Job creation, in Judaism, is the highest form of charity because it gives people the dignity of not depending on charity. “Flay carcasses in the market-place,” said the third century teacher Rav, “and do not say: I am a priest and a great man and it is beneath my dignity”.
 

A good society has its own ecology which depends on multiple sources of meaning, each with its own integrity.  For example, the Sabbath is the day we focus on the things that have value but not a price, when we neither work nor employ others to do our work, when we neither buy nor sell, in which all manipulation of nature for creative ends is forbidden and all hierarchies of power or wealth are suspended.

It is the still point in the turning world, when we renew our attachment to family and community, living the truth that the world is not wholly ours to bend to our will but something given to us in trust to conserve for future generations, and in which the inequalities of a market economy are counterbalanced by a world in which money does not count, in which we are all equal citizens. The Jewish writer Achad Ha-am said that more than the Jews have kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jews. It is the one day in seven when we stop making a living and instead simply live. 

The symbolism of the alternative world created by the Sabbath has value to anyone who wishes to adopt its message; one day in seven in which we set limits to the power the market has to enslave us with its siren song. Instead, we embrace the opportunity to give our relationships the chance to mature and our souls the pure air they need to breathe. The power to challenge the relativism that tells us there is no right or wrong, when every instinct of our mind knows it is not so, and is a mere excuse to allow us to indulge in what we believe we can get away with. 

Daily Goals :
world without values quickly becomes a world without value. We should use this moment to restore to their rightful place in society the things that have value but not a price: marriage, the family, home, dedicated time between parents and children, the face-to-face friendships that make up community, the celebration of what we have not the restless pursuit of what we don’t, a sense of gratitude and thanksgiving, and a willingness to share some of God’s blessings with those who have less. These are the true sources of lasting happiness and have been empirically proved to be so. 

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