I continue with my notes on Jacob Neusner’s The Theology of the Oral Torah: Revealing the Justice of God (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1999), coming now to chapter 7, World Without Change.
Here are the previous installments of my review/notes:
Neusner’s Theology of the Oral Torah (introduction and chapter 1)
Neusner’s Theology of the Oral Torah, chapters 2 and 3
Neusner’s Theology of the Oral Torah, chapters 4 and 5
Neusner’s Theology of the Oral Torah, chapter 6
This is a very interesting chapter, particularly in light of the current troubled financial world. Interestingly, an article in Time magazine highlights the perspectives of two different rabbis on the financial crisis who posit that had the traditions in Scripture and Oral Torah been followed, such a crisis would never have occurred. There is also mention of what sounds like a very interesting book, a collection of articles entitled Judaism and Economics, forthcoming from Oxford University Press. It should prove more enlightening than the article. Yet, as we shall see below, there would need to be a number of changes or provisos to much of the Oral Torah’s economic program in order to apply it worldwide. But, as a broad sentiment, it is certainly the case that even an application of the strictly moral aggadot with an economic theme would have prevented the ongoing financial mess. Greed is, as we all well know, a sin for all, and any way to triumph over it is to be welcomed.
So, as we have learned already about what the Oral Torah’s theology relates about God’s justice, the role of Israel and the gentiles in God’s overal plan, and how the sages recognize and systematize timeless paradigms from Scripture in the Oral Torah, we now turn to the sages’ theology of economy.
The sages maintained that, in a world without change, justice required that each person should emerge from a transaction exactly as he entered it. A perfect world–one beyond time–also is a world wholly at rest, in a steady state so far as wealth is concerned, and for the same reason. Perfection entails stasis, permanence, transcending both time and change alike. That is why, with all things in proper place, hierarchically arrayed, exact justice requires that in all exchanges no one’s circumstance should shift upward, no one’s downward. All should preserve the status quo, possessing at the end the same value as at the start of the transaction. Since the sages took as their task to reveal the perfection of justice in all dimensions of the world that God made, they naturally turned to questions of a material order. The sages’ theology of the commonwealth, of political economy, forms the equivalent of the principle of measure for measure in establishing justice for crime and sin, but it applies to everyday affairs. For in the sages’ theology of justice, enduring stability is to characterize the perfection of all relationships in Israel as in Eden. (p. 280)
Properly ordered economics is necessarily a part of a just social order, and a reflection of God’s justice in Oral Torah, as so clearly stated above by Neusner. The sages’ theory of economics , the rational disposition of scarce resources, however, encompasses transactions not only of this world, but those of supernatural worth as well, as we shall see. Theirs is an economic theory to preserve stability in what is of permanent value in this world (real estate: land), yet of ever-increasing riches of supernatural value (Torah study). This leads to two interrelated principles: 1.) The principle of justice requires transactions to preserve a steady state of wealth. Yet, Torah-learning is capable of increasing its value infinitely. Halakhah thus ensures transactions consist of the exchange of equal value. 2.) Torah-learning as infinite is the counterpart to finite worldly wealth, specifically land, real estate. Real estate, particularly in Israel, was finite and scarce, and limited in it transfer and use by Torah. Torah-learning, however, is limitless in transfer and capable of infinite increase. Land and Torah study are mirrored in one another (pp 280-281).
The sages set forth a fully articulated and systematic economics, answering questions concerning wealth, money, property, production and the means of production, ownership, control of the means of production, price and (“true”) value, and the like. That statement cannot be treated as mere moralizing, for it vastly transcended the requirements of episodic sayings about mercy to the poor, recommendations of right action, fairness, honesty, and so on. There honourable sentiments, commonplaces in religions, do not by themselves add up to an economics. Issues of the rational disposition of scarce resources are treated in a sustained and systematic, internally coherent theory that in an encompassing way explaines why this, not that, and defines market in relationship to ownership of the means of production. (p. 282)
Oral Torah really does preserve an economic system, or at least a sufficient foundation of cases and principles that one could be implemented according to its guidelines. What exists is detailed enough that a system could be extrapolated that would cover every contingency. This is in contrast to generalizing moralistic maxims (which are also found in the sages’ work–the importance here is that they are not the only things found there) which provide no practical guidelines for economic practice or theory. So what kind of economy does Oral Torah envision?
To understand the economic principle of the sages’ theology of a practical world without change, we must take note of the difference between two economic systems, the market economics with which we are familiar, and distributive economics. In market economics merchants transfer goods from place to place in response to the working of the market mechanism, which is expressed in price. In distributive economics, by contrast, traders move goods from point to point in response to political or theological or other commands independent of market pressures. In market economics, merchants make the market work by calculations of profit and loss. In distributive economics, there is no risk of loss on a transaction. In market economics, money forms an arbitrary measure of value, a unit of account. In distributive economics, money gives way to barter and bears only intrinsic value, as do the goods for which it is exchanged. It is understood as “something that people accept not for its inherent value in use but because of what it will buy.” The idea of money requires the transaction to be complete in the exchange not of goods but of coins. The alternative is the barter transaction, in which, in theory at least, the exchange takes place when goods change hands. In distributive economics money is an instrument of direct exchange between buyers and sellers, not the basic resource in the process of production and distribution that it is in market economics. (p. 282)
This is fundamental to understanding the Oral Torah’s establishment of safeguards to preserve a stability of both value and wealth in transactions. These could not be maintained in a market economy. To those who might quibble, imagining a free market economy to be as Divinely-ordained as Scripture, one can only out that the principles of distribution are dictated by God in the Scriptures themselves. The sages rendered those dicta into paradigmatic principles of economic justice while also including the dicta themselves as an integral part of their theology of economics. “Community, self-sufficiency, and justice–these formed the foci of [the sages’] economic thinking” (p. 283).
The household is the basic economic unit in the sages’ system, as an agricultural unit. Other economic entities (traders, craftsmen, and so on) are dealt with in relationship to the household, which maintains the focus throughout. All relationships are guaranteed transactions of real and equal value, with all responsibilities for parties stipulated. Each party to a transaction with a householder “is culpable should he damage property of the householder, but that judgment simply states the systemic interest in preserving the present division of wealth so that no party to a transaction emerges richer, none poorer…” (p. 283).
In everyday transactions as the sages sorted them out, they proposed to effect the vision of a steady-state economy, engaged in always-equal exchanges of fixed wealth and intrinsic value. Essentially, the law as medium of theology aimed at the fair adjudication of conflict, worked out in such a way that no party gained, none lost, in any transaction. The task of Israelite society, as the sages saw it, is to maintain perfect stasis, to preserve the prevailing situation, to secure the stability of not only relationships but status and standing. That in the end reenforces the results of hierarchization, leading upward in the social order from God, the one, at the top, to the many distributed below. That is why, in the interchanges of buying and selling, giving and taking, borrowing and lending, transactions of the market and exchanges with artisans and craftsmen and laborers, it is important to preserve the essential equality, not merely the proximate equity, of exchange.
Fairness alone does not suffice. Status quo ante forms the criterion of the true market, reflecting as it does the exchange of value for value, in perfect balance. That is the way that, in reference to the market, the systemic point of urgency, the steady-state of the polity, therefore also of the economy, is stated. The upshot of their economics is simple. No party in the end may have more than what he had at the outset, and none may emerge as the victim of a sizable shift in fortune and circumstance. All parties’ rights to and in the stable and unchanging political economy are preserved. When, therefore, the condition of a person is violated, the law will secure the restoration of the antecedent status. (p. 284)
This system of economic justic both perceives and also facilitates, because mandating it, a static amount of wealth in the system. Maintaining that no individual is to gain wealth as the expense of another, it is truly just. It is likewise truly anathema to the world’s financial entities today.
This brings us to the centerpiece of the sages’ conception of the exchange of goods and services outside of the market-mechanism, which is the notion of inherent or true worth. In market economics true value bears no clear meaning. The market mechanism — willing seller, informed buyer — dictates value, without the mediation of other considerations. In distributive economics, people know precisely what it means. In line with this conception prices must accord with something akin to true or intrinsic value, so the market simply facilitates the reasonable exchange of goods and services by bringing people together. The market provides no price setting mechanism that operates on its own, nor is the market conceived as an economic instrument, but rather, as one of (mere) social utility in facilitating barter, encompassing, of course, barter effected through specie or money. (p. 285)
There is true value inherent in every transaction, and the sages’ economy attempts to maintain the balance in every transaction based on true, inherent value, whether for goods or services so that no party is ever defrauded, that is, deprived of wealth. The market is not a price-setting mechanism but a forum for the distribution of goods and services in which the principle of equitable transfer of wealth is enforced (pp 285-286)
Barter of commodities, not exchange of (abstract) money, is what characterizes the exchange of things of value. Money as an abstraction. It does not merely represent something of value nor is it something itself of value. The entire notion of trade other than as an act of barter of materials or objects of essentially equal worth is rejected. Trade now is merely a way of working out imbalances when one party has too much of one thing but needs the other, while the other party has too much of the other thing but needs what the former has in excess. Since money does not effect a transaction, we have to determine that sort of specie which is (functionally) deemed to constitute currency, and that which is regarded as a commodity. In general, the more precious the metal, the more likely it is to be regarded not as money or ready cash, but as a commodity, subject to purchase or sale, just as much as is grain or wine. (p. 287-288)
In the days of the sages’ writing, of course, coinage was of inherent value in being struck from metals, especially gold and silver. This inherent value often changed, however, as the metals were debased though alloying at one time or place, and more pure in another time or place. The pre-exilic Israel of Scripture utilized specific weights of silver and gold in such transactions.
When the sages, as we shall see, compare the scarce resources of land with the unlimited resources of Torah-learning, they dealt with two media of sanctification, holy land, holy learning. That is the basis of equivalence, so far as I can discern. Accordingly, we must keep in mind, wealth and ownership of “land” speak of a very particular acreage, specifically, the territory known to the sages as the land of Israel, that alone. And, in this same context, only Israel is subject to wealth, because it is only when an Israelite owns land in the Land of Israel that God shares in the ownership and cares about his share of the crop (to go, as we shall see, to his scheduled castes, the priests, Levites, and poor, or to the support of the city, Jerusalem). It follows that land in the Land of Israel that is liable to sacerdotal taxes must be owned by an Israelite. Gentiles are not expected to designate as holy portions of their crop, and if they do so, those portions of the crop that they designate as holy nonetheless are deemed secular. (p. 289)
That is what I meant above in reference to the extensions that would need to be introduced into the economic theory of the sages for it to be applied worldwide. Their interests are Israel-centric: both Israel as a land and Israel as a people.
Wealth is conceived as unchanging and not subject to increase or decrease, hence, by the way, the notion of true value imputed to commodities. For if we imagine a world in which, ideally, no one rises and no one falls, and in which wealth is essentially stable, then we want to know what people understand by money, on the one hand, and how they identify riches, on the other. The answer is very simple. For the halakhah, wealth constitutes that which is of lasting value, and what lasts is real property in the land of Israel, that alone. As I said, real estate in the land of Israel does not increase in volume, it is not subject to the fluctuation of the market, it was permanent, reliable, and, however small, always useful for something. True enough, we find more spiritual definitions of wealth, for example, Mishnah-tractate Abot 4:2: “Who is rich? He who is happy in what he has.” So too, one can become rich through keeping or studying the Torah, e.g., “He who keeps the Torah when poor will in the end keep it in wealth (Mishnah-tractate Abot 4:9). So too we find the following, “Keep your business to a minimum and make your business Torah” (Mishnah-tractate Abot 4:10). But these sayings have no bearing upon a single passage of the halakhah in which a concrete transaction in exchanges of material goods take place, nor does anyone invoke the notion of being satisfied with what one has when it comes to settling scores. (p. 290)
And this understanding of land leads to an extension of the principle of stasis as justice, because of the two foundational principles of a fixed amount of wealth, and of equivalent transfer of wealth in every transaction.
For the sages since scarce resources are preserved in a steady-state, profit or interest violate the norm; if I collect more than the true value of a piece of land or a cloak, I end up richer than before, and the buyer, poorer. And if, moving to the abstract, I treat money as subject to increase or decrease, I do the same. Hence, in the distributive economics of the Oral Torah, which sets squarely and symmetrically on the counterpart judgment of the Written Torah, profit-making and usury cannot be tolerated. If I lend a denar, I should get back a denar; if I lend a kor of wheat, I should get back a kor of wheat. Waiting for my money yields no gain to me, the use by the other no charge to him. And if a kor of wheat costs more than I get it back than when I lent it, that makes no difference, wheat remains wheat. (p. 290)
The Mishnah defines usury as repayment of 25% over what was loaned in cash, or 50% over what is loaned in kind; usury is explicitly banned, of course, in Scripture. Mishnah likewise forbids trading in naked or uncovered futures. Discounts for paying in advance for a purchase of property is also considered usury, though one may, in fact, discount a rental amount paid in advance (pp. 291-292).
From the specifics, let us turn to the theology that animates the details. The sages’ distributive economics derives from the theory that the temple and its scheduled castes on earth exercise God’s claim to the ownership of the holy land. It is, in fact, a theology that comes to expression in the details of material transactions. The theology derives from the conviction such as is expressed in the Psalm 24:1, “The earth is the Lord’s.” That conviction is a statement of ownership in a literal but as we know, also in a very particular sense. God owns the earth. But the particular earth that God owns consequentially is the land of Israel, and, within that land, the particular earth is land in the land of Israel that is owned by an Israelite. With that Israelite, a land-owner in the land of Israel, God is co-owner. From that theological principle, spun out of the notion that when Israelites occupy the land that God has given to the Israelites, namely, the land of Israel, that land is transformed, and so too are the principles of ownership and distribution of the land, all else flows. (pp 292-293)
The householder is thus God’s partner, and it is thus the householder and his attitudes and actions that remain in focus in halakhah. With benefits come responsibilites which are outlined in Scripture and Oral Torah: no mixed planting of crops in one field; reversion of property to the original owner in a jubilee year; the stipulated shares for the priesthood, the Levites, and the poor; etc.
So much for the rational disposition of scarce resources, aimed, as we see, at the establishment of a steady-state economy, a world in perfect order and without change. But the sages treated as equal in standing real estate and Torah-learning. In that way they also took up the opposite of the notion of scarce resources, insusceptible of increase, such as real estate in the Land of Israel. They contemplated the conception of resources susceptible of infinite increase. In doing so, they accomplished the redefinition of scarce and valued resources in so radical a manner that the concept of value, while remaining material in consequence and character, nonetheless took on a quite different sense altogether. Issues such as the definition of wealth, the means of production and the meaning of control thereof, the disposition of wealth through distributive or other media, theory of money,reward for labor, and the like — all these questions found their answers in systematic discussion of another “scarce resource,” another currency. Specifically, the definition of wealth changes from land to Torah. Why was such a transvaluation of value found plausible? Land produced a living; so did Torah. Land formed the foundation of the social entity, so did Torah. (p. 296)
Land and Torah study form a mirrored pair, as noted above: the one, quite literally earthly, the other heavenly; one, a limited resource, the other unlimited. Yet both are units of real economic value in this system, as is elaborated below.
[T]he theory of the rational disposition of scarce resources now encompasses the rational increase of resources that, by an act of will, the Israelite can make infinitely abundant — an anti-economics. How does the theological goal, the formulation of a steady-state economy, follow? When it comes to land, a finite resource, one’s gain marks another loss. But when it comes to Torah, a renewable resource, everyone gets richer when anyone acquires more: all Israel is enhanced. It follows that the sages’ theory of a just society of permanent stability opens out onto a supernatural world of ever-increasing abundance. Only when we keep in mind, at every line of the discussion here, the supernatural character of holy Israel and the promise of the Torah as God’s medium of self-revelation can we see how a single account of a perfect world at rest is set out here. That comes when we grasp how both the distributive economics of the halakhah and its counterpart-economics in the aggadah work together to form a coherent statement. That takes place when they are viewed in the larger theological context here under discussion. (p. 297)
This is not merely a spiritual or mental benefit of Torah, but an actual living that comes from it. That is, we are not describing here either a bumper-sticker platitude, “Torah is life,” nor are we expecting riches to drop from the sky for studying Torah. The idea is that Torah study can provide a living just as land can:
Owning land involved control of the means of production, and so did knowing the Torah. But — more to the point — from land people derived a living, and from Torah people derived a living in precisely the same sense — that is to say, in the material and concrete sense — in which from land they could do so. That is alleged time and again, and at stake then is not the mere denigration of wealth but the transvaluation of value. Then the transvaluation consisted in the disenlandizement of value, and the transvaluation of (knowing or studying) the Torah, the imputation to Torah of the value formerly associated with land. And that is why it is valid to claim for Torah the status of a counterpart-category: the system’s economics, its theory of the way of life of the community and account of the rational disposition of those scarce resources that made everyday material existence possible and even pleasant: an economics of wealth, but of wealth differently defined, while similarly valued and utilized. So the concept of scarce resources was linked to the conception of Torah and took on altogether fresh meanings, but in exactly the same context and producing exactly the same material consequences, e.g., having food to eat and a dwelling for shelter, with the result that we have to redefine that which serves the very category, “economics,” altogether. (p. 300)
This replacement of land with learning Torah for one’s living does not refer to earning a living solely from teaching or studying Torah. The sages are singled out for honor for their learning, but they are not a separate caste. Nor is instruction in elements of Torah reckoned a unit of value. The sages worked for a living, doing things other than Torah for a primary livelihood. It is, in fact, explicitly stated a number of times in tractate Abot that Torah study cannot be used as an excuse to avoid the obligation of earning a living. So, everyone teaching and everyone learning Torah should, according to the sages, have some kind of work that provides a living. So then how are we to understand that Torah provides a living just as one’s land would provide a living? Part of the answer is surely the practice of what one has learned:
Precisely why Torah works as it does is made explicit at [Mishnah Qiddushin 4:14]: “It keeps him from evil when he is young.” …If I know the Torah, I will not sin but will remain virtuous. The conception that, if I study Torah, I automaticall get the food I need to eat and the roof I need for shelter is not at issue here, where our concern is with being kept from evil in youth and enjoying God’s blessing in old age on account of keeping the Torah–a very different thing…. (pp 303-304)
Other sages, in Abot, would minimize work so as to devote more of life to learning Torah. Torah (including both Written Torah, or Scripture, and Oral Torah) is always held as of the highest value, but it is not explicitly said to replace land ownership. Other references are to Torah metaphorically as bread, or as coinage, but not to an explicit and literal economic role that Torah study holds. Still others refer to it as the instrument through which Israel has come to possess the Land, but this is still not the replace ment of land with Torah for a living. (pp 305-312)
We come closer to the answer in Pesiqta de Rab Kahana XXVII:I.2:
2.A. R. Berekhiah and R. Hiyya, his father, in the name of R. Yosé b. Nehorai: “It is written, ‘I shall punish all who oppress him’ (Jer. 30:20), even those who collect funds for charity [and in doing so, treat people badly], except [for those who collect] the wages to be paid to teachers of Scripture and repeaters of Mishnah traditions.
B. “For they receive [as a salary] only compensation for the loss of their time, [which they devote to teaching and learning rather than to earning a living].
C. “But as to the wages [for carrying out] a single matter in the Torah, no creature can pay the [appropriate] fee in reward.” (p. 313)
So we find that Torah teachers are in fact paid for their time as compensation for what money they might otherwise have earned in their “day job.” This is in keeping with the principle of economic balance in all transactions–the services of the sages in teaching Torah must be compensated, otherwise injustice is done to the sages through their loss of wealth. On the other hand, synagogues and schools were owned by the sages and their students. So, as a concrete economic fact, sages and disciples both receive ownership of communal property and receive support through compensatory wages: a living just like one might have from one’s own land. In addition, they earn the respect of the community, for doing something infinitely valued, which likewise increases their compensation. Those in the community benefitting from the sages’ instruction in Torah were none too subtly encouraged to contribute to the support of the sages, so that they too might share in the supernatural benefit the sages gained through Torah study, as a kind of Torah tax:
Such contributions form the counterpart to taxes, that is, scarce resources taken away from the owner by force for the purposes of the public good, that is, the ultimate meeting point of economics and politics, the explicit formation of distributive, as against market, economics. Then what is distributed and to whom and by what force forms the centerpiece, and the answer is perfectly simple: all sorts of valued things are taken away from people and handed over for the support of the sages. (p. 317)
The people (and the sages) saw an immense value economically in Torah study, turning the sage into a veritable guarantor of blessings and a protector from curses, disaster, invasion, and destruction. Instruction in Torah came to be considered to protect a city to such a degree that some sages would later claim no need to pay taxes to build city walls or to support an army.
Neusner concludes this chapter with the following summary:
Economics deals with scarce resources, and the “disenlandizement” of economies in favour of Torah-learning has turned upon its head the very focus of economics: scarcity and the rational confrontation with scarcity. To land, rigid limits are set by nature; to the Holy Land, still more narrow ones apply. But to knowledge of the Torah, no limits pertain. So we find ourselves dealing with an economics that concerns not only the rational utilization of scarce resources, but also the opposite: the rational utilization and increase of what can and ought to be the opposite of scarce. In identifying knowledge and teaching of the Torah as the ultimate value, the sages have not simply found of value something other than had earlier been valued; it has redefined economics altogether. It has done so, as a matter of fact, in a manner that is entirely familiar, by setting forth in place of an economics of scarcity an economics of abundant productivity. In so doing, the sages take a position consistent with their generative conception about Torah as distinguishing Israel from the nations. Torah serves, then, to form the point of differentiation in every detail, inclusive of the matter of value: the nations value land, Israel values Torah-learning; the nations know scarcity and have to learn the rules of estate management we call economics; Israel knows only abundance, on the condition that it chooses abundance. (p. 320)
Having slept on it, I wanted to add some more to the notes on this chapter, which really only “clicked” somehow during the night.
At heart, we come down to an unusual development on the part of the sages in their, to us, rather strange presentation of Torah learning as an economic entity. As used by Neusner above, the definition of economics is “the equitable distribution of scarce resources.” And in the above, we note, as Neusner says, that the Torah is perceived as of ever-increasing, infinitely increasing value, and of ever-increasing, infinitely increasing amount, so its distribution (through study) cannot be truly viewed as “equitable” and it cannot be viewed as a “scarce resource”: whatever the counterpart in the transaction, it is not equal, so the usual just balance of value in parties of a transaction, and the assurance of the maintenance of a steady state of wealth are both overthrown. Inherent value is an artifact of a community’s perceptions. A community recognizes inherent value based in their perceptions and community values, and in the particular case of Israel, Torah is recognized as of supreme and ever-increasing value; it is also recognized as of ever-increasing abundance, for it can be transferred at will to anyone else. The superabundance of God’s Torah is thus available to all, if they choose it. This does not overthrow the system of economic justice because no party loses wealth in the transfer of Torah: the sages studying and teaching Torah experience its superabundance like a gushing spring so they are not defrauded, and those receiving Torah from the sages are receiving something of greater value than whatever they have given in exchange, in a transaction benefitting them on the side of grace.
Next comes chapter 8, Complementarity, dealing with the Oral Torah’s theology describing the ways in which God and man relate.
Thank you for reading.