This week I write with a particular awareness of the time of year. It's Rosh Chodesh Elul, the start of the month leading into Rosh Hashanah. It's our annual time of introspection and self-analysis. It's also a week since the presidential election choice has been clarified, with the selection of Rep. Paul Ryan as Gov. Mitt Romney's running mate. In any election year, the choice of our leaders is a personal commitment we each make, a choice about the society we would like to see in the year ahead. It's time to think about the election philosophically and spiritually.
Parashat Re'eh is the first of a set of three Torah readings that I consider to be political, at least in part. Throughout the parashiyot (weekly readings) of Re'eh, Shoftim, and Ki Tetze, there are laws and lenses for society. These do not translate easily or directly into modern America. Rather, they frame certain issues and offer certain perspectives that help us stand back from our own assumptions about politics and government.
I believe that the first step in being a voting citizen is to have a political philosophy. That means reflecting and clarifying our own assumptions and principles about what makes a good society and what makes society function well.
The first question a political philosophy in contemporary America asks is: Is there such a thing as a good society? If so, we think about how to achieve it. Each person or facet of society has some responsibility for it that we have to work out. If there is no such thing as a good society, then the ideal is a society that allows everyone to choose their own version of an ideal life.
The answer to the question about the good society gives you a defintion of individual liberty. If there is no good society, then individual liberty should be expansive. if there is such a thing as a good society, then individual liberty has a purpose and some boundaries.
The second issue is about the role of different institutions in our society. It's common in America to talk about the individual versus the government, or business versus the government. I think that these are the major forces in society
- the individual citizen
- businesses on a small or medium scale
- businesses that are part of everything we do -- finance, communications, medical care
- small scale organizations that are not about money -- civic groups, religious groups, etc.
A political philosophy asks: In what ways are any of these contributing to, or working against, the good society or the liberty of the individual? What should we do to boost the contributions or rein in the excesses?
I think this is a better set of questions than "more government or less government." Your answers to these lead you to specific thoughts about specific issues.
So where is the Torah? As I wrote in the bulletin at the beginning of summer, the Torah doesn't have a single answer on the issues. But there are more perspectives than you might think. True, the Torah doesn't speak about "big banks" -- but in Parashat Re'eh, for instance, the Torah speaks a good deal about lending and borrowing. (And the Talmud is very knowledgeable about credit and even about financial innovations such as futures.)
Here are just a few principles in this week's parasha.
*Economic life and community life are interwoven. The economy isn't a separate sphere. Prosperity and the celebration of the holy days are discussed together. Prosperity is funneled into bonds between the well-off and those without land to sustain them. Prosperity even links Israelites and non-Israelites.
*Lending and giving. The Torah talks about tithing, a giving of one-tenth of one's harvest each year. In years 1, 2, 4, and 5 of every seven-year cycle, that tithe is used as part of a pilgrimmage to Jerusalem, to celebrate with the entire nation. In years 3 and 6, the tithe stays in town. It is shared with everyone who has no land to sustain them, whether Israelite or not.
According to the Mishnah, tithing is not really an "offering." A person who does not tithe is "stealing from the poor." (There are other tithes and required offerings than the one mentioned in this week's reading.) Jewish scholars discuss whether the Torah's system is essentially a flat tax or not.
The Torah also talks about lending as a way of meeting the needs of a poor person in a sustainable way. I believe the Torah is not only talking in economic terms. Lending creates a certain kind of relationship -- a partnership over the long term, a horizon where someone can look forward to dignity down the road if not immediately. Rabbi Moses Maimonides taught that lending to a poor person, or investing in their work, is the highest form of tzedakah.
*There is both hope and despair about ending poverty. Helping those in need is not only about the outcome. In this week's reading, the Torah says two things. "There shall be no needy among you — since the Lord your God will bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you" (Deuteronomy 15:4). And, famously, in the same chapter: "For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land, which is why I command you: open your hand" (Deuteronomy 15:11).
Eradicating poverty is a goal, and it's reasonable to measure how well we do it. At the same time, the Torah makes clear that the act and intention to fight poverty is important even when it doesn't meet that goal.
When I study these, I see a more complicated picture than "liberal" or "conservative." I see questions about the nature of society and the role of money that the Torah would ask both liberals and conservatives. To liberals the Torah might say, for instance: Do the programs you advocate create relationships of mutuality and dignity? To conservatives the Torah might say: What proportion of one's wealth comes with an obligation to society? The point isn't to play ping-pong, but to study and reflect. To clarify one's political philosophy, then to critique and improve it. And only then, to vote. And then after that, to keep acting in society.