Author Archives: Jeffrey Dekro

Jeffrey Dekro

About Jeffrey Dekro

Jeffrey Dekro is the senior vice president at the Jewish Funds for Justice.

The Divine Ownership Of Wealth

The following article is reprinted with permission from SocialAction.com.

The key teaching of this week’s Torah portion, Ekev, is that all wealth originates with God. “When you have eaten your fill,” Moses warns the people, on the edge of the Promised Land, “and have built fine houses to live in, and your herds and flocks have multiplied . . . beware lest your heart grow haughty and . . . you say to yourselves, ‘My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me.’. . . Remember that it is the Lord your God who gives you the power to get wealth . . .” (Deuteronomy 8: 12-18).

This teaching provides the theological foundation for Judaism’s economic philosophy. According to Rabbi Meir Tamari, director of the Centre for Business Ethics in Jerusalem, the concept of the divine ownership of wealth “is the only reliable means whereby greed is able to be channeled into morality” (The Challenge of Wealth, 1995). Rabbi Jacob Neusner similarly affirms that the concept that “God owns the land and that the household holds the land in joint tenancy with God” accounts for the “mixed economics–market [and] distributive,” of Judaism (The Economics of the Mishnah, 1990).

Parshat Ekev makes this as clear as day: “[T]he heavens to their uttermost reaches,” cries Moses, “belong to the Lord your God, the earth and all that is on it!”–to the God who “upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and befriends the stranger, providing him with food and clothing. You too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 10: 14-19).

The sense of social responsibility mandated by this teaching is radically different from the worship of private property that has marked American culture since the ascendancy of conservative politics under Ronald Reagan. Lowering or eliminating taxes, cutting back on social programs, delegitimating government, cultivating the celebrity of the rich, punishing rather than rehabilitating the poor–these features of conservative philosophy add up to the “haughty” attitude that Moses warns against: “My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me.”

To oppose this with a statement about the divine ownership of wealth, however, does not add up to a very effective opposition–not in an era in which even many religious folk have “shaved off God’s beard” and embraced more humanistic and naturalistic theologies. Our task, therefore, is to translate Moses’ statement that “the heavens to their uttermost reaches belong to the Lord your God, the earth and all that is on it!” into humanistic terms.

This translation can be gleaned from the statements of several notable Jews:

In a 1998 profile, the late Joseph Worth, who invented the airplane engine that propelled Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis across the Atlantic, stated that “There are no real inventions. I don’t even like the word. There are only developments.” Similarly, Albert Einstein, the paradigmatic “genius” of the 20th century, was nevertheless firm in his insistence that “in science . . . the work of the individual is so bound up with that of his [sic] scientific predecessors and contemporaries that it appears almost as an impersonal product of his generation.”

In a 1992 essay, political scientist Gar Alperovitz enumerated the long chain of “developments” involved in the creation of wealth: When “a bright young . . . inventor produces an innovation that makes him a millionaire . . . his ‘invention’ . . . is literally unthinkable without the previous generations,” including “the evolution of overall skill levels, repeated generations of schooling,” the “centuries of science” and “the development of technologies and inventions among hundreds of thousands of scientists and engineers and millions of skilled working people.” The young inventor, Alperovitz concluded, “picks the best fruit of a tree which stands on a huge mountain of human contribution.”

Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream added a business perspective to this discussion in a 1992 essay: “I always felt that we were holding the business in trust for the community. After all, the community allows you to exist. . . They provide the infrastructure; they provide all the resources that you use; they provide everything except the idea.”

Inspired by these statements, we translate the humbling religious recognition of the “divine ownership of wealth” into an equally humbling recognition of the collective effort involved in the generation of wealth. Within our wealth-worshipping culture the assertion of this reality is deeply radical, for it declares individual wealth to be neither a right, nor a privilege, nor a measure of individual human worth–but a form of stewardship, freighted with responsibilities.

The "Waters of Lustration:" Tears and Tzedakah

The following article is reprinted with permission from SocialAction.com.

The Torah portion this week, Hukkat, begins with an instruction that even the sages of Israel found cryptic beyond understanding. A person made "unclean" through contact with a corpse is to be sprinkled with "water of lustration" made from the ashes of a sacrificed "red cow without blemish." The ritual is elaborated for five full verses and described as "a law for all time."

In the medieval Midrash Tanhuma, Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai is described explaining the "water of lustration" to a non-Jew as a ritual of exorcism, but to his own disciples he declares: ". . . the corpse does not defile, nor does the water cleanse. The truth is that the rite of the Red Heifer is [simply] a decree of the King who is King of Kings. . . [and] you are not permitted to transgress . . ." (translation by Bialik and Ravnitzky in Sefer Ha-Aggadah).

This biblical sense of defilement contained in these verses–the state of tum’ah, often translated as impurity, that is temporarily fostered by sex, childbirth, death and other natural bodily functions–is often seen as offensive and misogynistic by modern people.

Nineteenth century Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, however, noted an etymological relationship between tum’ah and timtum, "confusion"–a connection which suggests that the intensity of physical experience, rather than its innate yuckiness, is what renders a person "impure" by virtue of his or her being emotionally overwhelmed.

According to Rabbi Joseph Grunblatt of Touro College, the talmudic sages described the nature of tum’ah as "she-metamtem es halev–it blocks . . . it petrifies the heart." Reflecting on the birthing experience, Phyllis O. Berman, director of the summer program at Elat Chayyim, writes that tum’ah comes "when the focus is narrow and we can see only that immediate thing that’s right at hand for us."

These interpretations of tum’ah as a function of consciousness can be used to establish contemporary meaning for the opening verses of Hukkat. Ever since the mass slaughter of World War II and the grotesque genocide of the Holocaust, we have all lived surrounded by corpses: growing up with the threat of nuclear annihilation and ecocide; witnessing cruel, genocidal warfare in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Somalia, Kosovo, Vietnam, Chechnya, East Timor, Angola; inuring ourselves to the starvation and mortality-by-diarrhea that wrack the underdeveloped world; suffering senseless violence on our own streets and playgrounds; numbing ourselves with a steady stream of "entertainment" killings on television and movie screens.

Steadily, our sense of humanity has been overwhelmed; our perception of human beings as made b’tselem elohim (in God’s image) instead of as corpses has been confused; our hearts have become "petrified."

How can we be made "pure" rather than suffer being permanently "cut off from Israel" (Numbers 19:13)? What might we use instead of the arcane and obscure Red Heifer to create a cleansing "water of lustration?" Jewish sources suggest two possible ingredients: tears and tzedakah (charity).

In this week’s parasha, both Miriam and Aaron die and are buried. In Miriam’s case, mourning is usurped by a sudden lack of water in the wilderness community of the Israelites–as though the stemming of tears and the stemming of blessing were interconnected. In Aaron’s case, "All the house of Israel bewailed Aaron thirty days" (Numbers 20:29). Once again, tears become the well waters of the human soul and the currency of our relationship with God: "When we shed tears for a virtuous human being," says the Talmud (in Tractate Shabbat 105b), "the Holy One counts them and lays them up in [God’s] treasury."

By Jewish standards, however, every human death is equivalent to the loss of an entire universe. Perhaps, then, were we capable of weeping for every one of the senselessly slaughtered of our world, we could, as the Midrash expresses it, "cool hell with our tears."

Yet tears alone do not bring cleansing from our contact with death. Our "water of lustration" must also contain the ashes of the Red Heifer, the ashes of sacrifice: tzedakah. Over and over, the Jewish tradition describes the centrality of tzedakah in Judaism’s cosmology, including that it "saves from death" (Proverbs 10:2 and Bava Batra 10a).

The rabbis took this quite literally, recounting, in a Talmudic catalogue of "synchronicity" events, how deeds of tzedakah saved one or another of their comrades from drowning, from snakebite, from mortal injury. Less literally but no less significantly, tzedakah is the spiritual love potion of Judaism–awakening our souls to the humanity of others, to the binding ties of community, and to the reality of our renewable partnership with Creation.

Combined, tears and tzedakah create a cleansing "water of lustration." It is dashed on us each time we give tzedakah, as the tradition bids us, to mark the death or yahrzeit (the anniversary of a death) of someone we mourn or honor, and in connection with those holidays on which Yizkor (the memorial prayer which mentions giving tzedakah) is recited. It is also dashed on us when we prepare to enter each Shabbat, as we fill our tzedakah boxes, sometimes weep over the candle flames, and gain our neshamah yeterah, our "extra Shabbat soul," in a process of cleansing and rebirth.

Science Vs. Sabbath?

The following article is reprinted with permission from SocialAction.com.

Behukotai concludes the book of Leviticus and details the blessings or curses that will befall the people as a consequence of following (or not following) "the commandments that the Lord gave Moses . . . on Mt. Sinai." A particularly strong link is established between the sabbatical year–the rest from economic activity–and the fate of the people.

A disobedient people, Behukotai warns, will be scattered among its enemies and "then shall the land rest and make up for its sabbath years." The Torah portion’s portrait of devastation could serve as a modern environmentalist’s worst nightmare. The skies will become "like iron, and your earth like copper, so that your strength shall be spent to no purpose. Your land shall not yield its produce, nor shall the trees of the land yield their fruit." Armed enemies, pestilence, cannibalism–Behukotai has all the ingredients of post-apocalypse sci-fi in which the social and natural order utterly break down.

From the biblical perspective, all of this is the outcome of unrestrained greed–of humanity’s yetzer hara, the evil or lustful urge, slipped loose from the yoke of the covenant. The power of this urge is held in high respect by rabbinic Judaism as the motivating force underlying all economic development: "[W]ere it not for the yetzer hara," says one midrash, "a person would not build a house, marry, create children, or engage in commerce."

But for civilization to endure and justice to reign, the yetzer hara must be restrained, based on the fundamental understanding that the earth belongs to God. We are living as tenants with a lease, the terms of which include the weekly Sabbath and the sabbatical year, as well as the Levitical laws about not harvesting to the corners of the field, about sacrifices and tithes, about caring for the widow and the orphan, etc. Without these restraints, the yetzer hara engulfs the world.

Do we need a latter-day version of the sabbatical year to fend off environmental devastation? Rabbi Arthur Waskow argues as much in the book we edited, Jews, Money & Social Responsibility, when he suggests that "every seven years, we should give one year off to all of the people who specialize in research and development…Now, when the earth itself is endangered…when better to reconnect the liberation of humankind with the resting-time of the earth?"

Waskow expands on this in his two-volume collection, Torah of the Earth: "Today, when ecologists say, ‘If you insist on pouring carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and never letting the atmosphere rest from that overdose, there is going to be global warming and your civilization is going to be knocked awry if not shattered,’ they are simply saying what Leviticus 26 said."Faith-based environmentalism, however, raises thorny issues of its own–particularly when it leads to a "deep ecology" sensibility that regards material progress itself as the enemy.

Norman Levitt notes this in his 1999 book, Prometheus Bedeviled: Science and the Contradictions of Contemporary Culture:

"[E]nvironmentalism," he writes, often "harbors a strong edenic strain, the desire for the whole of humanity to revert to a purportedly ‘natural’ lifestyle…the practical implications of this propensity are serious and unsettling. Consider…the changes necessary to meet the global-warming threat. It is unlikely that these will be accomplished if we insist at the same time that human values worldwide have to be made over in the image of the ecological ideal."

Our challenge may be less to grant a "rest and recreation" sabbatical year for scientists than to adopt measures that would increase their independence from corporate power structures. Only by granting scientists this autonomy, Levitt argues, will society start to measure environmental impact realistically–motivated not by the possibility of profit, nor by the biases of politics or religion, but by the objective, expert opinions of scientist-citizens. In the U.S., some sort of extra-constitutional authority, similar to the Federal Reserve, might serve.

Levitt’s proposal will no doubt push many alarm buttons, as we of the post-bomb generations too easily conflate science with corporate malfeasance and hold a Frankensteinian, rather than a Promethean, view of scientific progress. Yet our environmental future certainly depends as much upon the ongoing ability of scientists to increase the carrying capacity of our planet as it depends upon the ability of our religious leaders to awaken the Sabbath-consciousness of humanity. Perhaps a meaningful dialogue between the "Waskowites" and the "Levittites" would lead to renewal of Behukotai’s blessings.