There has been an ongoing conversation within our country about how we can further bolster an economic system in America that can nurture economic growth, enhance both individual and societal wealth and also take care of those most in "need."
Jewish tradition has a paradox within our sacred teachings. We are commanded by God to nurture individual freedom so that every person can achieve success with their own individual labors, and we are also commanded to take care of those who do not have the proper resources to take care of themselves.
The Book of Psalms teaches that "when we eat from the labor of our hands, we are happy and all is good with us." This teaching highlights the innate dignity in working for a living, and having success in this endeavor.
The Chazal (Sages of Blessed Memory) further taught that anyone who pursues their Torah study without also holding an occupation will fail in their study, and ultimately live a life of sin.
When the Israelites were considering taking on their first monarch, the prophet Samuel warned against the risks of "big government" when he declared that a king "will take the very best of your fields, vineyards, and olive groves and give them to his own servants. He will take 10 percent of all of your flocks, and ultimately you will become his slaves."
The concern against "slavery" is at the heart of our Peoplehood; we constantly recall Pharaoh's lash upon our collective back when we were slaves in Egypt. We treasure God for redeeming us from Egypt so that we could be free, and never be enslaved or enslave others again.
God wants every human being to be free. Private property, the ability to pursue earning power and advance one's life status, is basic to Jewish thought.
Every individual is supposed to be free to "sit under their own personal tree."
The Talmud is explicit in its teachings that personal drive and ambition are necessary inclinations so that we will desire to "build a home, have a family and engage in business." The curse of poverty is considered an act of enslavement. The rabbis' bias was to have in place whatever system can best eliminate poverty, and then with whatever poverty still does exist, to effectively help assist those in need to get them permanently out of poverty.
This Divine Mandate to eliminate poverty is why we don't translate tzedakah as "charity" (giving from the heart); rather it's an act of "justice" (the Hebrew root being tzedek) that we assist those in need.
The Torah asks us to consider the words Tzedek, tzedek, tirdof -- "Justice, justice shall you pursue." We pursue justice by assisting the poor and tithing our income, and more importantly we believe that the highest form of tzedakah is to help someone secure the ability to make their own living.
This is best summed up as "teaching a person to fish" versus just "giving a person a fish."
Milton Friedman, the renowned free market economist, gave an interview in 1977 in which he reflected on his time spent in Israel. He noted that Israel was a country that struggled with the reality for the need to encourage free market solutions for the betterment of all, and the desire to take care of those in great need. While recognizing that Jews had experimented with socialism, he noted why socialism couldn't achieve its ultimate goals and ultimately Israel had to pursue free market solutions to their national system.
Recently, Temple Sholom hosted the Jerusalem Institute for Market Studies (JIMS) and their founders, Robert Sauer and Corinne Parenti-Sauer. JIMS has become a preeminent nonprofit economic policy think tank that tries to promote social progress in Israel through economic freedom and individual liberty. They argue that Israel must continue its pro-market economic reforms in order to benefit all Israelis.
As we discuss economics in our own country, it is interesting to consider the challenges in Israel and also to reflect on how our Jewish values are in sync with our primary concern for what are the best solutions.
As Milton Friedman pointed out in his essay "Capitalism and the Jews -- Confronting a Paradox," we know that Jews have benefited enormously from free enterprise and competitive capitalism, and there have been many Jews who have opposed these very notions during the past several centuries.
Together, let's come together to civilly discuss the economic issues, and learn both the economic theory and how it might or might not be in sync with our sacred teachings throughout the millennia.
Rabbi Mitchell M. Hurvitz is senior rabbi at Temple Sholom of Greenwich, co-founder of the Sholom Center for Interfaith Learning and Fellowship and a past president of the Greenwich Fellowship of Clergy For an archive of past Greenwich Citizen Columns, visit www.templesholom.com.