Topic: Law, Ethics and Debt
Parashat Re’eh is an important source for the Jewish calendar and dietary laws. It also provides striking examples of the role of law in society and governance.
Observing God’s law – the commandments and the statutes – is a major theme of the book of Deuteronomy which includes many specific laws as well as some of the fundamental ethical principles of Judaism: the pursuit of righteousness (16-29) and doing what is right and good (6:17-18) are well known and have their place alongside the imperative to holiness (Leviticus 19:2) and loving one’s neighbour (Lev 19:18) which, for the rabbis, was the great principle of the whole of the Torah.
A medieval Jewish commentator, Nachmanides, pointed out that whereas laws cannot cover every situation, ethical principles apply universally in all of our lives, as well as serving as a guide for developments that might be new and unprecedented. Even when law is available, it is not always sufficient in itself; an action might be legally permitted but in any given situation one only proceeds if it is clear that no aspect of what one is doing will infringe the will of God as expressed in the ethical principles. Law and ethics together form ‘halacha’, the way in which we are to go and, as we will see, it is often more wide ranging than secular understandings of laws tend to be.
In our parashah, at the beginning of chapter 15, we find a remarkable law that cancels all debts every seven years. Even more extraordinary is the instruction that follows in verses 9-10. If a poor person requests a loan in the year immediately prior to the seventh year (the ‘shemittah’ or year of release), the lender is unlikely to get his money back, but that is no excuse: “Beware that there be no base thought in your heart saying: ‘The seventh year, the year of shemittah is at hand’; and your eye is set against your needy brother and you give him nothing; and he cries unto the Lord against you, and it will be for you a sin. You must surely give to him, and you must not be grieved when you do so, because for this the Lord your God will bless you in everything that you do…”
God here is our teacher who hears all of our fragilities and failings and helps us, step by step, to move beyond them and become better people. The language used is very important: the person who stands before us is not a ‘pauper’ or an ‘immigrant’; he is our brother and he is crying unto the Lord because he is desperate and he has no one to turn to. The loss of this language and its replacement by bureaucratic categories, algorithms and the rhetoric of fear has grave consequences, because it transforms our perception, forestalling empathy and imaginative engagements and creating a society in which good people can do things that are very terrible without any sense that anything at all is amiss, let alone sinful.
Rashi explains that our chapter focuses on lending rather than giving because it is talking about situations where people are in need but do not wish to accept gifts or take charity. In these circumstances one arranges a loan. It might also have been in the shemittah case, that the needs are considerable and the donor could not afford to meet them via a straight gift.
What is striking is that law is being used creatively, to gradually transform individuals and, in the process, to develop community that will be sensitive and supportive of everyone who is in need. This applies to language and format, as well as the substance of the obligations.
Creative law also works at what will become the level of government, legislating for the rules of the marketplace. Cancelling all debts every seven years would satisfy most understanding of a radical legal intervention that would dramatically alter normal economic behaviour.
Nehemiah 5 offers a grim introduction to the social consequences of debt in the ancient world that helps us understand the law and its purposes. In essence, it is the story of a small community at the beginning of the second Temple period that was torn apart and reduced to despair by spiralling debt and interest charges – the debt had been incurred as an attempt to stay alive in time of famine. Debt involved not only interest payments but also fields and houses being taken as security for the loan, and families living in total destitution.
Nehemiah belatedly intervened and persuaded the Judean elite to restore the properties and stop taking interest on the loans, which they should not have been taking in the first place.
The issues surrounding debt are complex. The Judean wealthy were legally entitled to lend money and take the properties as security, but they were not entitled to destroy people’s lives and drive community into penury.
In those circumstances the ethical principles of halacha wholly transcend the rights of the lender and the duty of government is, as Amos so memorably put it, to “let justice role down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream” (Amos 5:24).
While cancelling all debts every seven years might not be practical today, the Hebrew Bible’s radical approach is by no means unhelpful. It reminds us that we cannot afford to think of economics without reference to its impact on the wider world. It also helps us understand that debt is not immutable: it is a human construct and, as we created it, so we can nullify it or mitigate its effect if we choose to do so. Nehemiah delayed dealing with the crisis he faced because he was “thinking about it”. On the eve of economic meltdown, that was not a good idea.