Sabbatical and Jubilee Years as a Social and Political Vision

Behind these biblical practices is a vision of how politics, economics, and relations to the environment should be structured that makes manifest spiritual concerns as well.

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Waskow is a contemporary commentator whose teachings on Jewish civilization often reframe or revalue traditional categories and practices. Here, following a detailed survey of the laws of the sabbatical year and the jubilee year, he offers a survey of how the Torah's laws might be understood by political theorists and economists today. Pages 151-152 from Down-to-Earth Judaism, by Arthur Waskow. Copyright (c) 1995 by Arthur Waskow. Used by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

How does this whole pattern match up with anything that "modern" economists and politicians might say? It is quite different from all of them in any flavor: conservative, liberal, or radical.

On the one hand, the biblical pattern encourages getting ahead in the world through hard work, thrift, expansion, ownership, and putting lots of indentured employees on the payroll. Surely most modern capitalists would applaud this. Yet on the other hand, every seventh year this process pauses in midstride as people are forbidden to get ahead by working the land, and as those who have fallen into the pit of debt clamber out. Even more extraordinary, once a generation the Torah tries to dissolve "getting ahead" altogether, and affirms the social, economic, and political equality of all Israelites. Once a generation, it cancels out all success and all failure by sharing the most important element of the Israelite economy: land.

Most modern secular socialists might hail such a transformation as "the Revolution"--once and for all! The Torah does not. Instead, it expects and affirms that once equality is achieved, it will not and should not stay put. For then the process of "getting ahead" and "falling behind" will begin all over again. And it will keep on, with pauses every seventh year, for another forty-nine years.

The notion that ownership, working status, and money should all constantly change through a sacred cycle of time is a unique vision of biblical economics, different from anything that the modern age has proposed or carried out.

And the vision is not only economic, not only ecological, not only political. It is all of these--and through them "spiritual" as well. As Rabbi Max Ticktin points out, the Jubilee challenges ancient and modern ideas of making oneself immortal by piling up material goods. The Jubilee brooks no Pharaoh with jewels buried in a pyramid, no billionaire who believes that "whoever dies with the most toys wins."The Jubilee replaces "having more" with "going deeper," deeper into one's own self as part of the One Self that unifies the world.

Was the vision carried out? Part of it was--especially the seventh-year Shabbat for the land and the annulment of debts. The fiftieth year's wholesale redistribution of land was rarely, if ever, actually done. Yet the vision survived.

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Rabbi Arthur O. Waskow

Rabbi Arthur Ocean Waskow directs the Shalom Center and is the author of numerous books, including Godwrestling, Godwrestling--Round 2, Seasons of Our Joy, The Bush is Burning, and These Holy Sparks.