By Avi Sagi and Yedidia Stern
tr. Yale J. Reisner
Note: This essay was published in Israel’s Ha’aretz newspaper, on September 24, 2007- before the start of the previous shmita year. The authors relate to the Israeli reality then – which is only recently beginning to change. Many of the recent new initiatives around shmita have been taken as a response to critical appraisals and calls for action similar to the ones expressed here, but their trenchant critique remains highly relevant.
Shmita in Israel is an oppressive experience that misses a potential moment of benevolence in our national life. The biblical concept has turned into an additional battleground between the halakhic authorities, one forbidding, the other permitting, without regard for the noble idea which has been stripped of its meaning in the Jewish state. The list of the injured is long: the religion, which is decaying into irrelevance and worse; the state, which is missing an opportunity to improve its image by donning glorious ethical Jewish garb and contributing to the repair of the world; Jewish agriculture, whose withered belly is struck by the fist of halakhic prohibition; and the citizenry in general, one-fifth of whom are poor and who will be forced to pay an exorbitant price for basic goods, particularly in the shmita year.
In the Talmud it is said: “Jerusalem was destroyed only because they ruled according to the [letter of the] law of the Torah” (BT Bava Metzia 30b). In other words, the formal strictures of law overtook the social religious experience, emptying it of its content. With great pain, one must acknowledge that the unperceived gap between the spirit of shmita and the manner of its realization in the year 5768 (2007-8 CE) raises a religious doubt as to the future of Jerusalem.
The Torah commands: “Six years shall you sow your land and gather its produce. In the seventh, you shall let it rest and lie fallow. The poor among your people will eat and what they leave behind will be eaten by the beasts of the field” (Exodus 23:10-11). After six years of labor, the goal of which is to maximize economic gain, Jews are told to stop. The field in which they labored and toiled will be abandoned by its owners, but open to all; the orchards which they tended and cared for will not be pruned or tended; the gardens that so pleased them will grow weeds and brambles. Not only that: They must leave the produce of their land available to all people and beasts. The most important indicator of property ownership – controlling or designating its use– is set aside for an extended period of time. Indeed, the demand to abandon the land and let it lie fallow seems to run against the achievement-oriented grain of human nature. It has far-reaching implications on the existential human plane and also in social, national and religious spheres.
How is a person’s worth measured? Gabriel Marcel, the French philosopher, held that people answer the question “Who are you?” as if they’d been asked “What do you have?” The acquisitions a person gathers complete his existence; people and their holdings are one. Money and property determine our worth in our own eyes and in the eyes of others. Emanuel Levinas commented that the human condition pushes us to conquer the other and to “erase” the other’s face. With this background, there should be, there really must be a shmita year. It punctures the bubble of property-holding that has swelled up and places us outside of our property, on a par with others whose property is greater or smaller than ours. Shmita teaches us that a people are not what they have, but rather what they are. It forces us to consider our internal existence and not our property-holding existence.
Alongside the existential message, there is also a social message. The Torah does not mandate a new division of wealth and full equality every seven years. If that were to be so, economic life would deteriorate in the absence of personal initiative. Yet a society that adopts property as a one-dimensional measure of worth threatens itself with the loss of its essence. Shmita is a balancing factor. For six years, you shall labor, gather and use. In the seventh year, you shall rest, share and release. You are not required to relinquish your property, but you must learn to separate yourself from it and, in so doing, to restrain capitalistic forces that otherwise have no limits. People are asked to work against their nature and to create a space for the human presence of the other, weak or weakened.
In privatized, globalized and fractured Israel, shmita is a vital exhortation. We have amongst our national resources a ready cure to restore our weakened human solidarity. In this sense, shmita is a component of our national vitality.
The remainder of the article will be published in two weeks.
Prof. Avi Sagi teaches in the Department of Philosophy and established the program for Hermeneutics and Cultural Studies at Bar Ilan University. He is also a senior research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.
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