At Sixes and Sevens: Some Shmita-Inspired Reflections on Sukkot

Dr. Jeremy Benstein

“Fair moon, to thee I sing, bright regent of the heavens, say, why is everything either at sixes or at sevens?”

– Gilbert and Sullivan, H.M.S. Pinafore, Act II, 1878

While generally on the same page about Jewish observance, my wife and I sometimes differ about particular holidays or rituals. For instance, after the transcendent spiritual high of Yom Kippur, she finds the very material, nature-and-structure focused themes of Sukkot a come-down. And the explicit fertility imagery in the symbols of Sukkot? Less than inspiring: “it’s all so ridiculously pagan!” she’ll protest. I on the other hand, while far from being a mystic, love the tactile and sensual connection to all things natural, and love even more the idea that we successfully weave these seemingly idolatrous motifs into our celebration and worship. “It’s all so deliciously pagan!” I’ll retort.

What fertility imagery is that? For those not familiar with the ritual, it can be described thus: Every day of the seven days of Sukkot, we take a long stiff palm branch, the lulav, together with other leafy greens, and a round fleshy citron, the etrog, and we clasp them together and shake them up and down and back and forth and dance with them, leading up to the prayers for the life-giving liquid of rain on the culmination of the holiday on the special Eighth Day of Assembly, Shemini Atzeret. What can I say? Native Americans ain’t got nothing on us.

This being a shmita year, it struck me that one of the specific rituals that we have with the lulav and etrog actually replicates the rhythm of the shmita cycle. At one point in the service, during the Great Hallel, the psalms of praise, while we are holding our sacred vegetation, we shake them in six different directions – forward and back, right and left, up and down: the six axes of three dimensional space. However, when saying the name of God in the prayer, we are meant to cease movement, holding the minim close to our hearts.

This is the seventh direction, the one that binds all the others together, not an axis of physical space, but the direction of interiority, of the spirit, the meeting of paths that lead to the Center. It is a sort of eye at the center of the storm: that point of calm, of inward focus, the state in which we are cognizant of the “still, small voice” (I Kings 19:12), when after being pulled and shaken in all directions, we are at rest, at one.

The idea of 6 + 1 directions immediately suggests a connection to the Shabbat/shmita cycle of 6+1 days/years. Clearly, we Jews have a thing with sevens: Shabbat is the seventh day, there are seven species of the Land, and we have seven founding personalities of “the nation”: four matriarchs and three patriarchs. The big pilgrimage holiday of Pesach and Sukkot are seven days. Moreover, there is an addition to each of those holidays. Shemini Atzeret is the 7th +1 day, the 8th day from Sukkot- and it is called atzeret like Shavuot- which is seven weeks after Pesach, that is, the 7 x 7th + 1, the 50th day, just as the Yovel, the Jubilee, is the 7 x 7th +1, the 50th year, of the shmita cycle squared.

But while seven is indeed near ubiquitous, there is something a little different specifically about this rhythm of 6+1. There is no real objective basis in nature for the cultural or religious centrality of the number seven. However, it has been noted that six circles or spheres will always self-organize equally around a seventh at the center. The three axes of physical reality each go off in two vectors, making six directions, all organized around and connected at the Center. This is the 6+1 that we experience in the day of Shabbat and the year of shmita: a day, or year, that is meant to have a centering, grounding, and unifying effect (whether internally or communally), after being pulled and shaken in all the myriad directions of the economic and social realities of our lives.

The directions themselves are replete with potential symbolism, all meeting at the Center, the point of connection and reconnection. In short, when you shake that lulav, take a minute to meditate on the following:

  • Backward and forward movement calls up images of the unending passage of time – the connection to past and future, of past with future, the intergenerational responsibilities to both progenitors and progeny. We of course stand at the center, in the momentary present, building bridges of sentiment and action between history and memory of what has been, and between dreams and ideals of what yet could be.
  • Right and left speak the language of politics, poignantly reminding us of the need to heal the wounds of our fragmented society: between conservative and progressive, between me/in-group/parochial and we/out-group/universal. Nobody sees themselves as an extremist – everybody sees themselves as standing firmly in the Center, surrounded by people and factions who are “overboard” in one direction or the other. As in many areas, we need to expand this Center, building bridges between these poles as well.
  • Up and down of course call out the eternal dyads of heaven and earth, transcendence and immanence, spirit and matter. One of the great unifications that we can strive for is to heal the great rift, the insidious dichotomization, between body and soul, our temporal physical selves and our divine intimations of eternity, and bring into alignment our spiritual values and our social and ecological reality.

So this Sukkot, this shmita year, don’t just “release, rethink, renew, and reimagine.” The pastoral produce – myrtles, willows, palm and citron – products of the redolent fecundity of the earth, the transpirational spirit-breath of the air, the radiant energy of the sun, and of the restorative, life-giving waters, of above and below can literally help ground you, and Center yourself in our many worlds and realities. And then, after dancing, chanting, waving and shaking, pause, hush, reflect, and to paraphrase E.M. Forster: “Only re-connect.”

Jeremy Benstein_150Dr. Jeremy Benstein is the co-founder of the Sova Project and the co-founder and Deputy Director of the Heschel Center in Tel Aviv, and director of the Center’s Environmental Fellows leadership program. He holds an A.B. degree from Harvard, a master’s degree in Judaic Studies from the Schechter Institute and a doctorate in environmental anthropology from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He works extensively in leadership development and capacity building with environmental activists and educators in Israel, and has lectured widely (US, Canada, England, Italy, Spain, Turkey) on Judaism, Israel, and the environment, including the environment as a focus of shared citizenship between Jews and Arabs in Israel. Jeremy’s interests focus on the interplay of religion, culture and values with questions of sustainability, topics he has explored in his book The Way Into Judaism and the Environment (Jewish Lights Publishing, 2006). He writes a weekly column for the Hebrew newspaper Haaretz.com on the Hebrew language, and is recently remarried and lives with his spouse Annabel and their five children in Zichron Yaakov‫.

The views expressed on this site do not necessarily reflect the views of The Sova Project or its founding partner organizations.  All comments on this site are the responsibility of their writers.

Rosh Hashanah Shemitah Seder 5775

By Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin

To be shared, celebrated and enjoyed!

This seder is meant to be a template to be used and adapted as celebrants desire.

Please do share any adaptations, improvements, suggestions, etc. with me.

Ever since the first breath of creation, time has unfolded in cycles of seven. Six days reach their crescendo in the seventh day, Shabbat – the Sabbath, the day of rest. Six years reach their crescendo in the seventh year, Shemitah – the sabbatical, the year of renewal. Seven cycles of seven years reach their crescendo in the Jubilee year, the ultimate enactment of re-creation.

All three call forth nostalgic images of Eden, when humanity lived in abundance, peace, equity and ease.  All offer a way of partial return. But there are differences among them: Jubilee is more fantasy than experience, more vision than practice. And while it remains part of our sacred narrative, it has nonetheless fallen out of our sacred calendar.

Shabbat, on the other hand, is a constant presence. It is celebrated weekly, as time apart, 25-hours of a lived dream dimension. We enter Shabbat by leaving the work-a-day world and cross into a domain that is edenic, “a taste of the world to come.”  We are at leisure, eat well, avoid strife and pretend to create one world, diminishing the boundaries that daily divide us.

Shemitah sits between these two. Neither a fantasy nor a constant presence, it is both a vision of a new reality and a practice to be lived in here-and-now. It happens in the same time and space as all other years, only we are to live this year differently, more equitably, more fully, more intentionally than the six years before. It is a year of harmony and celebration with the earth, when the land of Israel rests from the agricultural labors imposed upon her yet when she yields sufficient goodness for us all to thrive. It is a year of commonplace manna, when food is ours for the taking, but modestly, temperately, with a deep sense of gratitude and awareness; when debts are forgiven and there is equity for all; when property boundaries are suspended and all becomes once again part of the Commons. It is, in short, a year of rebooting, recalibration and realigning our assumptions about property, land use, economic justice and social equity. Not as a dream but as a reality.

Rosh Hashanah 2014 marks the next shemitah year (the Hebrew year 5775).  Jews around the world are seeking ways to enter into the laws and spirit of this sabbatical year as they have never done before. They are extending its message beyond the boundaries of Israel to wherever they live; and extending the thrust of its ethic beyond the agricultural sector. To mark this moment, to help us begin this historic revisioning, renewal and re-imagining of the ways to live a year of shemitah, we offer this Rosh Hashanah seder. It is modeled on the Jewish tradition of new year’s simanim, symbolic food, like the traditional apples dipped in honey, that represent the blessings we hope will be ours.

The seder consists of six small cups or bowls arrayed on a decorative base plate.

This base plate represents the whole, the sweep of time, the sphere that encompasses and defines every 7-year cycle. For shemitah is not just one segregated year, as Shabbat is not one segregated day; it is the year that frames and gives shape to all the other years, both those just past, and those yet to come. Upon this foundation plate rest the six cups or bowls. Together they represent the six attributes that define the essence of the shemitah year, and a life lived in goodness, sacred striving and delight.

Slices of apples (and other perennial delicacies of your choice) are arrayed in the center of the base plate. These recall the fruits of Eden that sustained us, and the Tree of Knowledge that launched us on the irresistible human enterprise of curiosity, desire, exploration and pursuits. And it represents the perennial foods (fruits, nuts and berries) that grow on their own during the shemitah year and that we gratefully eat at a time when we do not plow, sow, reap or commercially harvest the produce of the field.

On this base plate set the following:

Cup One: Honey representing Sova – Enoughness. Sova is the feeling of fullness without being stuffed; of contentment through what was given and not wanting anything more; of maximum satisfaction with minimum consumption and disruption. This first cup is filled with honey. Pass around the cup for all to dip the apples in the honey, say:

“In this year of shemitah, may we know no hunger, either spiritual or physical. May we be as readily sated with the delights of life as this cup is filled by these drops of honey.”

Cup Two: Wine (consider fruit wine, including Passion Fruit Wine from Israel or homemade date wine)* signifying Hodayah – Gratefulness. Hodayah is the feeling of gratitude, of deep satisfaction and elusive peace with what we have received. Wine is the age-old symbol of celebration, an expression of shared gratitude. It takes years for the vineyard to grow and produce grapes and time enough for the wine to ferment. On the human side, this requires steadfastness, peace, stability, and longevity; on nature’s side cool and heat and sun and rain and rich soil all in the right amounts – surely things to be grateful for. This cup is filled to the rim with the wine. (Wine cups at everyone’s place may be filled with this too.) Hold it up and say:

“In this shemitah year, may we know peace and be strangers to disappointment and disruption. May the earth find renewal amid its rest. And may gratitude fill us all as the wine fills this cup.”

Cup Three: Figs representing Revaya – Abundance. Revaya is the awareness of the vast resources of a healthy world, the earth’s ancient capacity of growth and self-renewal, and our call to keep it going. Figs are not like most other fruit crops. The fruits on one tree do not ripen all at once but one by one, each in its own time. They offer abundance without surfeit. This cup is filled with figs (either whole or cut, fresh if available though dried figs are fine too), speckled and spangled with seeds. Pass around the cup for all to take from it and say:

“In this year of shemitah, may we recognize abundance and know no waste. May we celebrate the vast goodness that lies within even the most modest cache of life; may we reverently receive life’s abundance and, like the continuous fruiting of the fig tree, give what we can, at the time that is right.”

Cup Four: Raisins representing Hesed – Goodness, Kindness, Generosity. Hesed is a response to our gratitude for the varieties of gifts we have received in this world. Having received we are moved to give. Such is the nature of the gift. The raisins heaped in this cup signify the sweet, satisfying substance that can be given even after other extractions of goodness have been taken. They recall the leaves, the juices, the wine, the vinegar, the shade, the wood and delight that are all gifts of the grape. In response to all that we have been given, we are moved to give more. Pass around the cup for all to take from and say:

“In this shemitah year, may we know no greed. May we recognize the gifts we have received and in return realize the manifold ways of giving that lie within each of us.”

Cup Five: Pomegranate representing Poriyut – Fertility. Poriyut is the creativity, the dynamism, the fecundity that characterizes the majesty of nature. It is what allows us to eat during this year of fallowness and renewal. It is the dormancy that bursts forth, in the right conditions, inspiring the human gifts of imagination, discovery and awe. This cup is filled with pomegranate seeds, symbols of overflowing fertility. Pass the cup around for everyone to taste and say:

“In this shemitah year, may we know no barrenness, no emptiness. May this year of material enoughness bring forth overflowing acts of discovery, delight and spiritual bounty.”

Cup Six: Dates representing Otzar – The Commons. Otzar is earth’s shared resources, owned by none and gifted to all. It is the storehouse of the ages, the fundamentals of life that we all depend upon. It is the stuff of earth and society, natural and cultural, that we share now in our lifetimes and leave behind for others. Our stories, our knowledge, our goods, our homes, our earth. This cup holds stuffed dates, signifying all that we share in the giving to and taking from the Commons. (Another option: put a few symbolic dates in the center cup but in addition, array dates – pitted and sliced – on the outer edge of a serving plate, surrounding a center mound of stuffing: chopped almonds, walnuts, pistachios or pine nuts that have been soaked in honey and wine. Let everyone fill a date with the sweet filling and give it to someone else at the table.) Everyone takes a date and says:

“In this shemitah year, may we know no isolation, no loneliness, no selfishness. May we recognize that we are joined in partnership to the earth, and to one another through our common heritage, the Torah, our past and our future that bind us to one another forever, throughout the cycles of space and time.”

Then wash it all down with a drink of l’chaim.

Note: This multi-layered seder is a tradition that can be adapted to mark every year of the shemitah cycle. On Rosh Hashanah of the shemitah year (the seventh culminating year), all the cups are filled, celebrating the completion of one shemitah cycle. The following year, the first year, only the first cup with the  honey – and the apples – appear on the plate. The second year, the first two cups; the third year, the first three, and so on until the completion of the cycle and the celebration of the next shemitah year.

Biblical Shemitah Texts:

  • Exodus 23:10-11
  • Leviticus 25:1-7
  • Leviticus 25:20-22
  • Deuteronomy 15:1-6

*Only wine that includes grapes qualifies for the Kiddush blessing: borei pri hagafen, who creates the fruit of the vine. “Shehakol nihiyah bed’varo” is said over fruit wines without a grape base. If the blessing over wine (Kiddush) and bread (Hamotzi) have already been said at the beginning of the meal, no additional blessings need to be recited over the foods of the seder plate.

Nina_150

Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin is the co-founder of the Sova Project and the founder and director of the Baltimore Jewish Environmental Network, an organization dedicated to greening her local Jewish community; the founder and director of the Baltimore Orchard Project, an organization that grows, gleans and gives away urban fruit; and a co-founder and chair of the Interfaith Partners for the Chesapeake, an interfaith organization that works on behalf of the health of the Chesapeake Bay watershed and all its inhabitants.

 

The views expressed on this site do not necessarily reflect the views of The Sova Project or its founding partner organizations.  All comments on this site are the responsibility of their writers.

 

Shmita and Human Rights

By Shaiya Rothberg

In reading the previous contributions to the Sova Project, I am struck by how many facets of Torah wisdom they touch on: everything from personal spiritual practice to politics and the economy. I’d like to add another perspective and suggest that human rights theory and praxis are an important part of the Shmita project. I’ll begin with some Torah sources that frame my understanding of human rights.

The Bible teaches that in the beginning, at the very dawn of humanity, we were all one person. In that state of primal species-ness, when we had just entered Eden, we were not even separated into male and female. We were the collective totality of everything Homo-sapien; one body – one mind. And in that state, God commanded us:

וַיְצַו ה’ אֱלֹהִים עַל-הָאָדָם לֵאמֹר  מִכֹּל עֵץ-הַגָּן אָכֹל תֹּאכֵל 

And YHVH-Elohim commanded humanity saying from all the trees of the garden you may freely eat.

The sages of the Talmud (Sanhedrin 56b) learn from this verse about what God commands all people: the Noachide laws. Rabbi Yochanan learns from the first word in the verse – וַיְצַו – and God commanded – that all human beings are commanded to set up legal systems (“mitsvat dinim”). What does that mean? In his commentary to the Torah, Nachmanides says that “dinim” are like “mishpatim” (see Breshit 34:14) and that this is what they are about:

אֶת-מִשְׁפָּטַי תַּעֲשׂוּ…אֲשֶׁר יַעֲשֶׂה אֹתָם הָאָדָם וָחַי בָּהֶם  אֲנִי ה’.

You shall do my laws…which if a person does, she shall live through them. I am YHVH.

“God says ‘which if a man do, he shall live by them’ (Lev. 18:5) – because the laws [dinim] were intended to foster life for human beings through the establishment of civilized communities and peace among people so no one damages or kills his fellow.” (Nachmanides on Vayikra 18:4-5).

If we follow the intertextual path laid out by Rabbi Yochanan in the Talmud and Nachmanides in his commentary to the Torah, we find that way back in Gan Eden (the Garden of Eden), God commanded collective humanity to establish the rule of law in all places to guarantee dignified life for every human being.

My thinking about these themes is informed by Moses Maimonides, who gave them his signature medieval philosophic twist. First, he explains (The Guide 2:40) that given the material makeup of human beings, their survival requires the rule of law. Without it, they’ll kill each other. It turns out that the Bible’s primal myth about what God said to humanity in Gan Eden reveals a truth that is critical for the survival of humanity as understood by reason and philosophy. Maimonides further explains that the rule of law as envisioned by God is twofold: it seeks to mend the body and soul of humanity. Maimonides’ idea of “mending the body” of humanity is more or less the same, I think, as what Nachmanides said about dinim above: “civilized communities and peace among people so that no one damages or kills his fellow.” In another place (The Guide 3:27), Maimonides emphasizes that this includes a suitable environment, healthy food, and so forth.

The second aim of the rule of law, “mending the soul”, is of much higher value for Maimonides. It consists of a global order in which all the resources of the planet are invested in cultivating consciousness of God among all human beings. That’s the kind of global economy that interests Rabbi Moses Maimonides. At that time of redemption, every person alive will know God to their fullest potential, and the consciousness of God will fill the earth like the waters fill the sea (See Hilchot Melachim 12).

But mending the global “soul of humanity” is a long way off. First we have to mend the body. While there are pockets of dignified life for humans in some places, the collective body of humanity is broken and desecrated. I think that one of the most important reasons that corporations and states are free to rampage across the globe, destroying the environment for short-term profits, is the same lawlessness that enables them to operate their vast military and financial machines in total disregard for human life and dignity. There is a common failing underlying both racist oppression and the devastation of the environment: our inability to hold the powers that be accountable to the rule of just law.

But in a world of 190 states, to what law can they be held accountable? On this point, we can learn from Rabbi Chaim Hirschensohn (1857-1935), a sage of religious Zionism trained in his father’s yeshiva in Jerusalem. Rabbi Hirschensohn believed that mending the body of humanity involves the slow evolution of human civilization. Gradually, the peoples of the earth will enact covenants between them on higher and higher standards for protecting humanity, as exemplified by the treaties on the laws of war signed during his lifetime. While he was critical of the international institutions of his day, he saw that in them the peoples of the world were gathering together to agree on norms that would enable them to fulfill God’s commandment – mitsvat dinim – to protect all human beings through the just rule of law. We might say that in Rabbi Hirschesohn’s vision, the free peoples of the earth will gather together to enact a human covenant that will enable them to pursue humanity’s divine purpose.[1]

I think it is clear that the global human rights movement today is the embodiment of Rabbi’s Hirschensohn’s vision of the movement for the human covenant. The essence of the human rights movement, as I see it, is inviting all human beings to a global discourse built on non-violence and equality aimed at 1) agreeing on basic legal norms to protect and nurture humanity and 2) building pressure to make those norms a reality.

For all their failings, it is remarkable how widely accepted human rights theory and praxis have become in less than seventy years. They are a sort of lingua franca of moral and political legitimacy. Never before have we been closer to species-wide agreement on the contours of global justice. Important in the context of Sova is that human rights discourse has clearly begun to shift away from its previous over-emphasis on civil and political rights and to focus much more attention on economic rights and environmental sustainability. The rise of human rights is a dramatic event in the history of our species that may well end in total failure. But it is hard to imagine a more perfect embodiment of Rabbi Hirschensohn’s vision of how humanity should try to fulfill her divine obligation to protect all the members of the species.

I believe that human rights and sustainability are connected at their core: political oppression pollutes our waters. Mending the body politic of humanity requires empowering global civil society through human rights standards to which the peoples of the world will hold their states accountable. The unity of these struggles is embodied in the inner logic of Shmita and Yovel: The Earth is the Lord’s – Back to the Land – Set the Captives Free. Somehow in the magic 7, and 7 times 7, of Shmita and Yovel, there is a power that drives the political and economic interests back into their places – You shall not pass! – and makes room for the sacred life-giving rhythm of the Shmita. May our learning and kavanot (intentions) add to the power of the upcoming Shmita year to heal the brokenness of our species.

[1] For selections from Rabbi Hirschensohn’s writing on these subjects (pgs. 11, 32-34), and additional interpretation of his ideas in light of human rights (pgs. 68-70), download the (free) course-book of “The Torah of Human Rights” at humanrightstorah.org.

 

Shaiya RothbergShaiya Rothberg lives in Jerusalem with his wife and three sons, and teaches Bible, Jewish Philosophy and Kabbalah at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem. He also directs the yeshiva’s Human Rights Track. Shaiya holds a PhD from Hebrew University in Jewish Thought, and a B.A. in Jewish Philosophy and Talmud from Bar-Ilan. To learn more about the ideas in this blog (and to download a free copy of the course-book for the Torah of Human Rights), see humanrightstorah.org.

The views expressed on this site do not necessarily reflect the views of The Sova Project or its founding partner organizations.  All comments on this site are the responsibility of their writers.

The Modestly Dressed Environmentalist

By Richard Dale (@rdale)

We live in a world of abundance. I would like to propose that in order to maintain this abundance and make it available to all of humanity, we might look at how Jewish traditions have foreseen the most modern of phenomena: Social Media. You might share, tweet and “like” this article, or you might comment on its erudition (or lack thereof)… and either way you are participating in a world of renewable abundance. Curious? Read on!

Rabbi Meir would say: Whoever studies Torah for Torah’s sake alone, merits many things; not only that, but [the creation of] the entire world is worthwhile for [that person] alone. (Pirke Avot 6:1)

I recently saw a wonderful TEDx talk, from the London School of Economics (LSE), entitled “The Naked Environmentalist”, given by Solitaire Townsend. The un-cited quotes to follow all come from Townsend’s talk.

Continue reading

The Gifted Economy

By Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin

We long to live in Eden, that idyllic world flowing with beauty, bounty and equity, the world that is captured in the very first chapters of Genesis. The Bible imagines Eden as a place where gifts flow freely from God to Earth, and emerge from the ground in a graceful partnership between nature and humanity. It is a place where we all have enough; where we keep no accounts, accrue no compounded debt; a place where our exchanges are in the form of gifts, not purchases. It is a world in which we are cherished for who we are and what we choose to offer each other, not measured by what we earn, amass and hold for ourselves.

But that is not the world we live in. Not even close. Instead we live in a world of markets and finance, loans and debts, where our value is what we consume, and our worth in what we “make”.

Continue reading

A Tale of Three Economies

By Dr. Jeremy Benstein

“We don’t know who discovered water,” Marshall McLuhan famously stated, “but we can be pretty sure it wasn’t the fish.” And just like fish in water, it is easy to remain oblivious to the environment in which we are immersed, assuming unthinkingly that this is not only all that is, but all that is indeed possible, that alternatives are not even conceivable.

I’m sure that’s how most of us relate to our economy. Since the fall of the Iron Curtain (the phrase itself sounds woefully archaic) and the disintegration of communism as a competing ideology, it is practically an article of faith that there is only one possible economy, namely, ours: neo-liberal, free market consumerist/corporatist capitalism. Sure there are arguments between “right” and “left”. These want what they term less nanny-state regulation and less state support of the free-loading poor, while those want the opposite- in their words, more political oversight to ensure public health and well-being, and a stronger safety net for victims of the system.

Large as these seemingly seismic differences seem to loom in American politics, they are essentially quibbles, while the basic structural assumptions of the economy and its functioning continue surprisingly unchallenged in the broad social discourse.

But our societies and our economies are not facts of nature, they are human-made, and the extent to which we are willing and able to transform those structures to better serve our broader interests and well-being is mainly a question of being able to conceive of alternatives, a question of imagination.

With that in mind, I’d like to put into words some of these assumptions by outlining what I see as three essentially different economies, based on diverse premises, that, if nothing else, could perhaps ignite our imaginations to consider other possibilities for our society and directions for addressing the challenges we face.

1. Contemporary Western neo-liberal – The economy that shapes our lives goes back to John Locke and later, Adam Smith. One of the deepest assumptions in this tradition is that people have a fundamental and nearly inviolable right to private property. This principle is so integral that a great deal of political philosophy is occupied with justifying even the possibility of governments taking anything at all in the form of taxation, whether for basic services (beyond defense) or for purposes of welfare, such as poverty alleviation. Though these foundational figures were indeed religious, this approach is essentially “secular” since it bases the idea of wealth creation in the individual autonomy of persons, and the rights to their bodies and their labor. Mix that with unowned natural resources, and the result is private property that is wholly owned by its human creator.

Some interpretations of this- from Calvinism to “the American dream” – lead to a distinct understanding of wealth and poverty: that wealth is deserved, that it is a sign of divine favor, and that the poor mainly have their own selves to blame – for laziness or profligacy or even lack of moral worth.

One result of this is that relations with the poor are based at best on charity and philanthropy, that is, on a voluntary, essentially emotional attitude, since caritas and phil(-anthropos) both mean ‘love.’ Helping or supporting the poor is essentially an optional act of human kindness.

What else could it be, you ask? Read on.

2. (A) Traditional Jewish model – Jewish approaches to economics are less systematized than the above, but there is a strong contrast to the basic underlying assumption of the autonomy of the individual and inviolability of the ownership of private property. Material abundance in the world is a divine gift, and we merit our enjoyment of that gift only to the extent that we build a just society that insures equitable access to sustenance and livelihood for all. There is a different balance of individual and community, where the well-being of the individual is understood to be embedded in, and dependent on, the flourishing of the community.

Thus, while there is still a strong sense of property, it is not in any sense absolute. Both my body and my talents are not exclusively my own, nor are the natural resources that are given to us for use: they are unearned gifts that are part of a larger whole. Taxation and other modes of maintaining the dignity and well-being of the poor need no justification – for their share in the wealth produced is theirs by right. The Hebrew word for “charity” is tzedaka, which famously comes from the root tzedek, meaning “justice.” It’s not about voluntary loving-kindness, but about desserts. When we say that something like leaving set portions of your fields for the poor is a mitzvah, that doesn’t mean it’s (merely) “a good deed” (as many people understand mitzvah), but that it is a commandment, an obligatory action, incumbent upon you by virtue of you having land and access to its produce.

Most importantly, land itself cannot be privately owned, in the Western sense of real estate to be bought and sold with lasting effect. “The land cannot be sold in perpetuity, for it is Mine, and you are but sojourners and temporary residents with Me” (Lev. 25:23). This has a great equalizing effect, with the central implication that the poor are your brethren, members of your community. The idea of a moral hierarchy of the wealthy and the impoverished, or that poverty is in any way a reflection of negative personal worth, is abhorrent. It is not an exaggeration to say that the poor are constant reminder to every Jewish community, a reminder that inequity will always exist in our social and economic systems, and it is our divine duty to work at eradicating it.

That is accomplished through a plethora of community structures whose objective is to ensure the optimal distribution of wealth for the good of all. Everything from cash allotments, to soup kitchens, to gemachim, free loan societies for everything anyone might need, including furniture, wedding dresses for poor brides, children’s toys, and much, much more.

Compared to “business as usual” (Economy #1) this sounds quite idyllic and even radical, so it’s hard to imagine how those values could be taken even further. But that is where the Shmita ideal comes in, and completely shuffles the deck.

3. The Shmita model – Shmita, the sabbatical year, is the final year of a seven year cycle, during which not only is the land left uncultivated, but even more far-reaching is that all obstacles to access to those lands are removed. It is a violation of an explicit commandment to lock or fence your lands, for all are to eat equally and be granted equal shares (even the animals). All are invited to gather or glean from perennials and grains and vegetables that have seeded themselves. It is literally “to each according to their abilities” (now who said that?).

In the regular Jewish economy (#2), while the underlying theology states that “the earth is the Lord’s,” in practice, land is apportioned and there are rich and poor. During the Shmita economy, that radical claim of the illegitimacy of human ownership is really put into practice, resulting in a society-wide leveling.

The most fundamental definitive component of private property- one’s exclusive control over productive land – is abolished for the year. Now, in an agrarian society, prohibiting farming for an entire year, where farmers renounce all exclusive claim to what their land produces, sounds like a death sentence. Indeed, an individualist culture would probably have difficulty surviving a year like that.

But a society with a strong communal fabric and deep social solidarity will not only survive that year that is so radically other, it will flourish, and will take advantage of the need to band together to celebrate the achva (“fellowship”-from ach, “sibling”) that they have the privilege of experiencing once every seven years. Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin calls this “the gifted economy.”

In many ways, the regular six years of the cycle are a precursor to that main event, for they build the basic social and economic infrastructures that lead up to this utopian ideal, this apotheosis of a truly social-spiritual economy. Those kinds of communal infrastructures are the sort we in our economy #1 can only dream about.

But dream we must, to begin to imagine other possibilities, other realities, for as the poet W.B. Yeats once penned, “in dreams begins responsibility…”

Jeremy Benstein_150Dr. Jeremy Benstein is the co-founder of the Sova Project and the co-founder and Deputy Director of the Heschel Center in Tel Aviv, and director of the Center’s Environmental Fellows leadership program. He holds an A.B. degree from Harvard, a master’s degree in Judaic Studies from the Schechter Institute and a doctorate in environmental anthropology from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He works extensively in leadership development and capacity building with environmental activists and educators in Israel, and has lectured widely (US, Canada, England, Italy, Spain, Turkey) on Judaism, Israel, and the environment, including the environment as a focus of shared citizenship between Jews and Arabs in Israel. Jeremy’s interests focus on the interplay of religion, culture and values with questions of sustainability, topics he has explored in his book The Way Into Judaism and the Environment (Jewish Lights Publishing, 2006). He writes a weekly column for the Hebrew newspaper Haaretz.com on the Hebrew language, and is recently remarried and lives with his spouse Annabel and their five children in Zichron Yaakov‫.

The views expressed on this site do not necessarily reflect the views of The Sova Project or its founding partner organizations.  All comments on this site are the responsibility of their writers.

Could America Celebrate a Sabbatical/ Shmita Year?

By Rabbi Arthur Waskow

This essay arises from the work of The Shalom Center. For other examinations of the spiritual roots and flowerings of transformative Judaism, see www.theshalomcenter.org.

 

In the great rhythm of reading Torah, this past Shabbat, May 10-11, Jews read a portion we call B’Har (“On the Mountain” — Sinai itself).

It comprises Leviticus 25, and it calls on us to let the whole land and the entire community rest from working or being worked, for one year of every seven. That year is called “Shabbat Shabbaton or “Shmita.” “Shabbat Shabbaton means “Super-Sabbatical,” Shabbat restfulness and calm raised and deepened to the exponential power of calm and restfulness. “Shmita” means “release” or “non-attachment.”

Does this ancient Torah address the greatest dangers of our present and our future?

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