Shared Values

The Hour

By Leonard Fein

Published April 28, 2010, issue of May 07, 2010.
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Let’s talk about Jewish values.

I don’t mean the oft-cited “shared values” that tie Israel and America together. As every American president and every Israeli prime minister has said, the relationship between the two nations is rooted in more than strategic convenience; it is informed by the values the two nations hold in common. A discussion of the nature and limits of those values, especially in a time when both countries are engaged in active and often acrimonious debate over their status, is for another day.

Here, my purpose is to explore one particular value that is widely regarded as a core Jewish understanding, and then to track its potential implications.

I am inspired to go down this path by a newly published book, a book of prodigious scholarship and startling insights and arguments. “The Hebrew Republic: Jewish Sources and the Transformation of European Political Thought,” by Eric Nelson, a professor at Harvard, is a lightweight book with a heavyweight punch. Essentially, Nelson argues that in the 16th and 17th centuries, in the wake of the Protestant Reformation, Christian scholars turned to the Bible as the most authoritative depiction of God’s intentions, and, because the Talmud and later commentaries — Maimonides and Rashi in particular — were newly available, became close students of the classic rabbinic literature.

Nelson makes that case convincingly, and goes on to revise and reconstruct the history of political thought on that foundation. Here is one example: In the Greek and Roman tradition, incorporated into English, there is a familiar distinction between “justice” and “charity.” The distinction between the two, as Nelson points out, is the element of personal discretion, a legal obligation versus a personal choice.

But Hebrew makes no such distinction. The same word — tzedek/tzedakah — refers to both conventional legal obligations and charitable acts.

Is this merely a quirk, a lexical shortcoming? Or does it reflect a very different understanding of the world? Yes, the world.

The biblical assertion is that God owns everything, and is therefore entitled to put his own conditions on people’s use of his property. When God mandates care for the poor and the orphan, he is not proposing something for our consideration. God is the landlord, we the tenants, and caring for the poor is one of the terms of the lease. Nelson’s argument is that this snippet of theory underpins a remarkable array of biblical statutes, including, in particular, the use and division of the land of Israel. And out of this line of reasoning, the Christian scholars of the 16th and 17th centuries turned the conventional interpretation of property law on its head. Believing, as they did, that God’s instructions to the Israelites on how to set up the Jewish commonwealth after their sojourn in the desert would be the most perfect plan for their own political organization, they moved powerfully from the primacy of private property to endorsement of the state’s active pursuit of an equitable distribution (.i.e., redistribution) of property.

This conclusion will doubtless shock and even distress many of those who encounter it. It challenges conventional understandings of property, ownership and equity. One wonders, for example, what Orthodox Jews, given their generally conservative political orientation, will make of it. Or, for that matter, how wholly secular Jews may seek to exploit it. The general rule is that people use the tradition to validate what they already believe. In this instance, the beginning of wisdom is to read Nelson.

And the continuation of wisdom is to think through just what we mean, or might, or should, by “Jewish values.” Are such values defined by what Jews actually do? Or is it what rabbis say we should do — and if so, what happens when the rabbis, as they do and will, disagree with each other? Nor are scholars and magazine editors and bloggers (and yes, columnists, too) shy in proposing to instruct us. How do we distinguish between our ideal selves and our real selves, and when we see the inevitable gap between the two, are we inclined to improve our behavior or to relax our ideals?

It is fatuous to suppose that the day will come when all Jews, or even just all American Jews, or just all Israeli Jews, will agree unanimously on the values we hold dear. Does that mean that each of us is autonomous, that there is no external source of authority? It is easy, and therefore tempting, to say, as Mordecai M. Kaplan famously did, that “the past should have a vote, but not a veto.” And surely if learned Christian scholars found merit in classic Jewish texts, we might have a go at those texts ourselves. The only useful advice I have to offer is that we should not undertake such inquiry alone. If we are going to be selective in our encounter with ancient wisdom, let us be selective in the company of kindred spirits, seeking to keep each other thorough, honest and appropriately modest in our journey.

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