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


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

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.

Townsend tells a story of how humanity has evolved from a natural world where mate selection is often driven by conspicuous, wasteful consumption of resources, like the oft-told story of the peacock’s feathers. The more beautiful and munificent a peacock’s feather display, the clearer it is to the peahens that this male is strong and fast (how else could he avoid predators dragging those feathers around?). Even more, he has good genes (look at those feathers!). This wasteful display of conspicuous consumption cannot be faked and can only mean one thing – good mating material.

“In capitalist societies we organize our status and our sex status through stuff, through what we earn and what we own.”

Townsend reminds us that sexual desirability is inextricably linked with social status as well as, and sometimes instead of, physical fitness. As human societies have developed, signals of status, power, and fitness have been conferred in different ways. In some societies the religious leadership can confer status and decide who can marry whom. The caste system confers status, or a feudal system, and certainly economic systems.

“We have built status deeply into our societies and into how we judge each other.”

In our Western capitalist democracies, it is economic success that confers social status. Wasteful spending means that if we can afford all those material possessions, we must also be wealthy enough to be able to feed, house and clothe ourselves well. We are signaling that we are good mating material.

“Huge amounts of our consumption behaviors are based on trying to affect our level in the status hierarchy.”

Townsend reminds us that this link between social status and sexual desirability is inextricably bound to our pre-conscious biology. So she argues that when ‘traditional’ environmentalists tell us to stop consuming, to stop wanting stuff, they are actually telling us we should stop wanting sex.

“Nobody buys an Alfa Romeo in order to be smarter. Nobody gets a boob job in order to be a better parent.”

And no one does either of those things without being fully aware of the impact on their status.

The problem with this system is that there is not enough stuff in the world for all seven, eight, or nine billion of us to be able to participate in the race for economic status. So if we can’t stop consuming, we have to change how we build, measure and confer status.

These are things the fruits of which a man enjoys in this world, while the principal remains for him in the World to Come: Honoring father and mother, acts of kindness, and bringing peace between a man and his fellow. But the study of Torah is equal to them all. (Mishnah Peah 1:1)

Townsend then builds a clear picture of how social media status can replace status as measured by economic accumulation and consumption. She argues that our children, who are fixated on their smart phones and tablets, are in the vanguard of this revolution.

I prefer the Torah of Your mouth over thousands in gold and silver (Psalms 119:72).

Social media recognition (all those “likes”, “shares”, “re-tweets”) are now the currency of status. Desirable individuals share funny, smart, sassy and unusual material. They curate a world that attracts their friends and makes them popular, whatever their economic status. If we can nurture this trend, rather than be horrified, then perhaps we are reshaping status without having to reshape the meanings and use of status. We know that humanity will not stop wanting sex, will not stop wanting to signal status in the social hierarchy, but we also know that different approaches to what drives status can and do work.

“Authentic human experience is more likely to gain you social status online than just posting pictures of your shoes”

I have not been too subtle, sprinkling quotes from Jewish text throughout this piece. It is no secret that now, in recent history, and over thousands of years, Judaism has treasured learning and education. Education has conferred status at least as great as wealth in many Jewish communities. Other behaviours also confer status, and in fact much of organized religion is about promoting values over riches, and promoting the status of the pious over the status conferred by wealth.

A GOOD name is rather to be chosen than great riches, and loving favor rather than silver and gold. (Proverbs 22:1)

If we hope that all of humanity can share in abundance, and not just hoard it for our narrow Western world, then we need to find new ways to measure status, social hierarchy, and sexual desirability. Our tradition shows us the many ways it has to signal status that have nothing to do with economics. The digital worlds of social media are finding new ways to do the same. Between the ancient wisdom and the new, we can find abundance by seeking a status not governed by wealth.

Richard DaleRichard Dale is COO at Optum Labs, an open research and innovation center dedicated to improving patient care and outcomes in the health care industry. Richard is also a well-regarded mentor to founders of early stage startups, including non-profits, in the Boston area.

Previously Richard was a Principal at Sigma Partner, an early stage Venture Capital firm. Richard came to the VC world after a long period as an entrepreneur and startup executive. He co-founded and had various leadership roles at Phase Forward, a provider of software services for pharmaceutical clinical trials which went public and later was sold to Oracle. Prior to that, Richard was VP Operations for Vermeer Technologies, creators of FrontPage, which was acquired by Microsoft in 1996. Richard’s career began as a software engineer and database expert, including working for a software company in Jerusalem in the late 1980′s.

Richard is an avid recreational cyclist and rides a recumbent bike. He blogs occasionally at In other community involvement, Richard is on the board, and is past board chair, of Hazon, and is a previous Trustee of JCDS, Boston’s Jewish Community Day School.  Richard and his family are active and long-standing members of the Newton Centre Minyan, in Newton MA where they live.

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 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”.

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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 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


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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Yours? Mine? Ours? Economies for a Sustainable Earth

In honour of Earth Day, which we marked on April 22nd, 2014, below is a video from one year ago reflecting on questions of managing our planet sustainably.

On April 22, 2013, the FinkeIstein Institute of the Jewish Theological Seminary sponsored a program called “Yours? Mine? Ours?” which addressed the following question: In a finite world, how are we to equitably and sustainably share, manage and manipulate the common resources of the earth?

Expanded a bit, the question goes on: What can be considered “just” in the ownership, allocation and use of the world’s resources, from which our wealth comes and on which our economy and humanity’s well-being springs?

Even more, how do we build a marketplace that honors this vision?

We are compelled to ask – and answer – this question because for the first time in history, humans have become a geophysical force – a species able to affect by our appetites and behavior not just a river bank or a city or a floodplain or forest (as in the days of old) but the very workings of the planet. And though we tend to forget, the workings of the planet form the very foundations of the well-being of our civilization, and each of us.


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.

Kedushat Shevi’it – The Holiness of the Seventh Year

By Dr. Meesh Hammer-Kossoy

I recently ran, together with my entire family, in the Jerusalem Marathon. Admittedly, I ran merely the five kilometer non-competitive race, but it was a special feeling just the same. It was a chance to run with an amazing mosaic of people including Jews from America, soldiers from across the country, high school kids from Gush Etzion and even Christian pilgrims from Hungary and Italy. More than a dozen Pardes students, teachers, and staff from the Pardes Institute for Jewish Studies (where I serve on the faculty) were out running the full marathon, half marathon, 10-K or family run, and it felt like the entire neighborhood was there, too. In fact, throughout the last months of training (yes, I had to train even for the 5-K run), there has been a feeling of camaraderie and excitement on the streets as the number of runners multiplied in preparation.   We got strength from each other, and the successes of the day have inspired us to push forward to greater heights.

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