Review of The Oxford Handbook of Judaism and Economics ed. Aaron Levine (Oxford University Press, 2010) 662 pages.
by Jason Rubenstein

Is it trade unionists all the way down?

Reading the Oxford Handbook of Judaism and Economics, edited by the late Aaron Levine, one finds a variety of quantitative, historical and ethical essays which explore both economics from a Jewish perspective and Judaism from an economic perspective. But despite this methodological diversity, the pieces are clustered together on the strip of land between the oceans of Hayek-inflected libertarianism on the one hand and collectivism which conceives of property itself as an ideological smokescreen on the other. The tension between ‘property rights’ on the one hand, and ‘ethics’ – never defined, explored, critiqued, or justified – characterizes these essays, which seek to accommodate what they take as twin, orienting, given categories. They are land-locked essays: not only do they not bring up pearls from the depths of fundamental analyses of the assumptions within which they operate, they mostly don’t even dip their toes in the waters.

Given that through the twentieth century, Judaism was alternately (and sometimes simultaneously) blamed and praised for its affinity to both capitalism and socialism, certain fundamental questions are in order before plunging into the union of Judaism and modern economic life and theory. Do Biblical and rabbinic anthropologies endorse Adam Smith’s of homo economicus, and if not what can we learn from their divergence? What would a synthesis between economic thinking, which axiomatically sees consumption as a good, and the Talmudic statement “God inspected every gift He could give to Israel, and found none better than poverty” (Hagiga 9b) look like? These questions are not formulated, much less creatively considered, in the Oxford Handbook of Judaism and Economics.

When using economics to derive new insights into Judaism (sections VI and I), this volume is at its best. Laurence Rabinovich mines historical data on the relative values of metals and weights of coins to determine the (surprisingly small) historical values of payments for divorce settlements. Also in the area of coinage, Lawrence Schiffman offers three theories of the value of coin-based currency – metal standards, coins as commodities, and fixed values of commodities (with fluctuating currency values!) – to deftly clarify the notoriously knotty Talmudic discussions of inflation and deflation in the context of the prohibition on collecting interest.  Similarly, Yaakov Ellman deploys his encyclopedic knowledge of economic realities in the Sassanian Empire to breathe new significance into the Babylonian Talmud, for example noting that Iran’s high summer temperatures adversely affect citron production, a fact that explains the royal significance of King Shapur’s serving his guests citron in the story recorded in Bavli Avoda Zara 76a-b. In a quantitative analogue to this type of inquiry, Katz and Rosenberg model the conditions under which the Rabbinic principle waiving penalties equal to the value of a stolen object for a thief who turns himself in would be beneficial to owners, who stand to gain more from (more common) returned property than they do from the (rarer) caught thief who pays double: a low likelihood of catching thieves.

When we turn to appraising Judaism’s approach to economic activity, things get a bit rougher. Problems arise as early as Levine’s introductory essay, which, after briefly reprising the history of halakhic genres, immediately launches into a tendentious account of the treatment of gentiles and their interests in the eyes of Jewish law. Levine glowingly recounts R. Zevi Hirsch Ashkenazi’s “powerful argument” and “diatribe against those claiming that the Torah’s prohibitions of dishonest behavior govern only transactions among Jews” and dwells on their reception history. But the arguments of those who made, and make, the opposite claim, that Jewish law discriminates economically, are not given the same treatment. If Levine is right, one wonders how a learned saintly figure like R. Yehiel Yaakov Weinberg could have so misunderstood Jewish law as to be embarrassed at its discrimination against gentiles. If Levine is wrong, as he almost certainly is, then a dominant stream of Jewish thinking legislates individual economic interactions largely for the benefit of a particular community, rather than on the basis of maximum efficiency for all individuals. This would mean that central concerns of Jewish law are both in tension with and privileged over the tenets of impartiality and universality, which are fundamental axioms of utilitarianism and which in turn justify the descriptive and prescriptive platforms of micro-economics.

All of this raises the possibility – or specter, if you share what seem to be Levine’s convictions – that some aspects of Judaism challenge the thinking and assumptions that undergird neo-liberal economics. This possibility was held to be the truth – and a most important truth – by figures like R. Yehuda Leib Ashlag, who understood the Lurianic unfolding of the cosmos as culminating in a humanistic socialist regime. According to R. Ashlag’s thinking, which he maintained even after the horrors of Stalinism had become known in the West, only in building an economy driven by the principle of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” will human beings have properly constituted themselves in the Divine likeness as givers who manifest their deep desire for the good of the Other. Despite being a committed universalist, R. Ashlag appears nowhere in this volume.

It is not only economics, but in fact Judaism as a whole, which is not treated critically in this volume. Outside of section VI, which I discussed above, the genre of writing is not the “critical examinations of the progress and direction of debates [for] scholars and graduate students,” promised on the book jacket, but something closer to homiletical: no Biblical scholars are cited, neither are historians of classical or medieval Judaism. In short, few of these essays – in fact, none other than the ones mentioned above – are in dialogue with scholarly Jewish studies.

For example, Asher Meir, without qualification or evidence, asserts on behalf of Catholic Israel “As a people, we look back towards four thousand years of history and precedent, but ultimately we are an optimistic and forward-looking people”. A similarly unscholarly identification between author, reader, and text pervades much of this volume. Yoel Domb assumes that his readers share his anxiety at the thought of Jewish authorities from different eras disagreeing with one another. Without feeling the need for justification, he asserting a narrow hermeneutic, and on its basis rejects the very fairly coherent analysis with which he opens his piece:

  • The above analysis reflects an apparent dissipation of the original Biblical concern for borrowers’ personal rights. Over a turbulent period of some five hundred years, prominent Jewish authorities seemingly eroded the prohibitions that had been observed over the previous two millenia. It is insufficient to suggest that these changes were merely the result of social upheaval and borrower misbehavior. We need a rationale that can justify these transformations as a continuation of the Biblical spirit and its approach to debt retrieval. (emphasis added)

I am not convinced that the ostensible audience of this volume, “scholars and graduate students”, at least in Jewish studies, will share Domb’s need for such justifications, particularly not if the only way to achieve it is Domb’s, where merely citing the Mekhilta de-Rashbi is sufficient for having “established the deeper meaning of the Biblical command”.

The bad news is that because of its narrow, uncritical approach to both Judaism and economics, the Oxford Handbook of Judaism and Economics will not take its readers beyond materials and ideas with which they are already likely to be familiar. The good news is that this shortcoming is due to this volume, not the breadth and richness of the topic – the last word on Judaism and economics has not been said, because in the history of Jewish thought, the trade unionists have had powerful, colorful, and creative companions and critics.

Jason Rubenstein is a member of the Talmud faculty and Dean of Students at Mechon Hadar.

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