Religion & Beliefs

Why The Torah Will Never Save The Economy

Given the crisis capitalism is enduring in these times, it should come as no surprise that religious figures of all stripes are advocating a return to the principles of their respective traditions as a solution. Whenever a whole people experiences … Read More

By / April 6, 2009

Given the crisis capitalism is enduring in these times, it should come as no surprise that religious figures of all stripes are advocating a return to the principles of their respective traditions as a solution. Whenever a whole people experiences adversity, many of us can’t help but think back to the Bible, which is full of these instances–Israel turns its back on God and is punished until righteousness returns to the hearts of the populace. God doesn’t visit misfortune upon us except to test us, thus sayeth our holy men.

All religions with a Holy Book struggle to stay relevant from the moment the book gets written. Scriptures preserve the mores of the day in a sort of amber made of parchment. As time moves on, clerics have to keep extruding relevant advice from ancient texts, stretching and distending the meaning of these old-fashioned hidebound proscriptions and prescriptions like so much saltwater taffy. And the more established (read: older) a religious tradition, the less it has to say about the reality of modern life. Naturally, you shouldn’t be surprised when your religious figureheads try to salvage some kind of meaning from the old books (what else are we paying them to do?) and so there must have been an avalanche of sermons in houses of worship across the board over the past year trying to glean something about the current economy from long-outdated sources. Since the Five Books of Moses alone provide three different (and somewhat contradictory) prohibitions against lending money at interest, it seems natural to try to link these passages to today’s credit crisis. Now that there’s a problem, we are obliged to pretend we knew all along that the economy collapsed because we had sinned against the precepts of the Bible.

The Torah describes a legal system for an agrarian society. In order to make the transition to a capitalist economy, authorities had to engage in various dodges to directly contravene previous regulation, beginning with King Josiah and Deuteronomy. Most scholars today recognize several distinct stages of biblical authorship (known as the Documentary Hypothesis), and through this lens we see how ancient Jewish financial regulations change within the pages of the Penteteuch itself. The first prohibition against interest-taking is in Exodus, chapter 22; written around 850 BCE: "If thou lend money to any of My people, even to the poor with thee, thou shalt not be to him as a creditor; neither shall ye lay upon him interest." By 620 BCE, King Josiah and the Deuteronomists had changed the proscription to "Unto a stranger thou mayest lend upon usury; but unto thy brother thou shalt not lend upon usury" which  opened up a loophole allowing creditors to use a third party to charge interest to their fellow Israelites, sort of like divine money laundering. By the time the Jerusalem priesthood wrote Leviticus around 450 BCE, the law changed again: "if thy brother be waxen poor, and his means fail with thee; then thou shalt uphold him…Thou shalt not give him thy money upon interest, nor give him thy victuals for increase." Regulation is one thing, and deregulation is another; what deregulation does is cede moral territory for material gain. Look at how simple and broad the earliest prohibition is: lending money at interest to anyone is forbidden (even unto the stranger among Israel). Subsequently, when the government wanted to increase the tax rolls, Deuteronomy inserts a way to sidestep the old blanket proscription by explicitly allowing usury in certain circumstances. Two hundred-odd years later, Leviticus retains the old loophole ("thy brother" as opposed to "any of my people") while reworking the focus of the law; now it is only the Hebrew poor who are covered by anti-interest legislation. Rabbinical authorities from the Mishnah onwards have employed various evasions and by now there doesn’t seem to be any practical restriction against lending money at interest, even to fellow Jews (e.g., try walking into a Bank Leumi with a rabbi’s note invalidating interest on a loan they’ve granted you and see what happens). Old laws are as impractical today as they were practical back then. If an economy is to be considered capitalist, it needs to be able to charge interest. Judaism, Christianity and Islam all have prohibitions against interest that stem from the Hebrew Bible, and all three have their own ways of dodging the ban. As economies move forward, they need new regulations to keep them in line; repealing or resurrecting old laws merely resurrects old scams and dormant instabilities within those market systems. Having said all this, the moral value of usury remains dubious. It’s interesting to see how many people have turned their ideological backs on the idea of "making money from money" when it stops working; during the boom times, few people had anything bad to say about the ridiculous schemes the financial industry was cooking up to enrich stock holders and financial instrument consumers (it was a lonely time for us purists). Success is seldom questioned. For all their righteous indignation, I haven’t heard a religious figure propose a real alternative to credit (except for the Muslim jurists who recently declared various new forms of "Islamic banking" unkosher, leaving the traditional schemes allowing interest to be charged without calling it such to remain unchallenged). If we really committed to wiping out interest, the economy would have to be completely refashioned–which is not something I’m against at all; I just doubt everyone else’s committment to that larger goal. Some people yearn for a simpler time, but are unwilling to give up the modern world’s comforts. Those who think that somehow we ought to turn to the Bible’s economic system because they see a modern failure are cherry-picking a few choice phrases from an irrelevant text; their motives have nothing to do with the past and everything to do with the present. ("Seek and ye shall find," says the New Testament.) Why doesn’t anyone focus on bringing back slavery or thinning the population by enforcing all the death penalties? Either one, from a purely functional standpoint, might work as well as abolishing the charging of interest. We work in a modern, secular system – nothing is going to be solved by moving backwards. Anyone who thinks the Bible is the answer to our problems needs to buy a farm and go back to the land first. But don’t forget to leave your fields fallow in the seventh year, a quarter of your orchards for the homeless, and return the land to its original owners in the 50th. Sell your children into slavery and have them executed if they disobey. If you want to charge interest on a loan, go find a helpful and willing Amalekite, if you haven’t slaughtered his wife and children and livestock. For that matter, quit going to synagogue and start offering animal sacrifices from your bountiful flocks. But please, stop pretending that any of this makes sense in the present day.