Economic Justice and Policy in Jewish Sources

Interview with Jonathan Brandow

This interview, the first in a series of author interviews to take place in each issue, was published in partnership with the Jewish Book Council, a not-for-profit devoted to promoting the reading, writing, and publishing of books of Jewish interest (

Describe your personal journey in writing The Just Market.

About this time seven years ago, I read an article in the Jerusalem Report about Shmittah practices in Israel. The article quoted a religiously observant business leader in Israel’s technology sector named Yossi Tsuria. He suggested that to align with modern realities, Shmittah practices should focus on high-tech rather than agriculture, replacing the ancient economic driver with its modern successor. He proposed that technology companies initiate work sabbaticals and forego new product development for the Shmittah year, instead assisting small and startup operations. Yossi’s creative insight struck me and, during my next volunteer stint in Israel, we met. In between my own business, family and progressive political activism, it’s taken me seven years to apply the kernel of his logic to the broader framework of Jewish economic policy.

Of course, none of this took place in a personal vacuum. I was raised in a strong Conservative Jewish environment; I spent my early teen summers at Camp Ramah. Our family always integrated a strong social justice value as part of our Jewish identity. My parents had voted for Henry Wallace and the Progressive Party before I was born; in the early Sixties they spearheaded a fair housing council in our new suburban neighborhood. My mom was active in the first wave of the Students for a Democratic Society. My childhood rabbi was Alexander Shapiro, who stood with Abraham Joshua Heschel and Rev. Martin Luther King in Birmingham and went on to become a leader in the struggle for egalitarianism in the Conservative movement. Alex Shapiro stands out among those who fashioned my understanding of Jewish commitment.

Later, I became active in the movement against the war in Vietnam, was very involved in the progressive Zionist movement and spent two years in Israel, one of them as a construction laborer. On my return to the US, I graduated from Brown University, moved into rank and file labor activism and then was elected to union office. Although I drifted from both active labor work and affiliated Jewish life for a number of years, those early influences were never far from my mind.

In mid-life, several years after I’d entered a new phase of active Jewish life, I realized that much of the Jewish community ethos had slid from social justice advocacy to an increasingly complacent level of individualized comfort. I felt a real loss. I decided to research the basis of Jewish values I had always assumed—to see for myself whether the link between those values and economic justice issues was merely wishful thinking or substantiated by the source texts. If that relationship was solid, I wanted to create a substantive resource that I would have found useful and that I hoped others would as well. The Just Market is the result.

Your book ranges widely over classical Jewish sources to develop a framework of Jewish economic thought. What did you need to study to prepare to write The Just Market?

I was fortunate to have a secular experience that included ten years in a tough labor-management setting as well as some facility with economic statistics, a by-product of the industry research business I started in 1990 and still operate. My weak side was Talmud; I had never been involved in systematic study of it. I found it difficult to interest rabbis I knew in the concept of analyzing Jewish economic policy through the source texts. Luckily, my Hebrew is serviceable from my time in Israel and later studies, and modern technology made it possible to analyze specific subject areas in detail, simply by refining my electronic search techniques. I also accessed the infrequent but valuable subject literature in the public square—from Meir Tamari, Jill Jacobs, Hillel Levine and Hillel Gamoran—all of whom were of enormous help, though I differed with many of their assumptions and conclusions. To complete the cycle, I looked to the writings of contemporary economists such as Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman, as well as others whose work touched on many of the same themes I identified in Torah and Talmud; and to contemporary observers of the Jewish condition such as Yehuda Kurtzer and James Diamond.

In broad strokes, describe what you discovered to be the Jewish view on trade and commerce.

I’ll answer that, but first I should clarify that trade and commerce are only part of the broader subject of Jewish economic policy that is analyzed in The Just Market. The book describes the specific economic values framework presented by Torah and Talmud, examines the mechanisms developed to activate those values, and discusses their adaptation to the contemporary world. At the risk of oversimplifying, those values are more aligned with social democracy than free market capitalism.

The source texts do assume a competitive economy. Commerce is an important player in that picture, but its unrestricted growth is not the objective of economic policy derived from Torah or Talmud. Rather, ethical commerce is a tool which requires significant regulation in the interests of the general economic mission of facilitating access to the necessities of life (devarim she-yesh bahen khayei nefesh) to all of society’s inhabitants.

Toward that end, ethical, honest business practices toward Jew and gentile alike are critical. Monopolistic practices designed to drive competitors out of business are condemned, as are hoarding and predatory loss-leading, which seek to create shortages and drive up prices. Commodity speculation in particular (which deprives communities and nations of the necessities of life) is prohibited. Trade and commerce must be conducted within a fair labor relations framework.

In what ways did you find that ancient Jewish sources are still as relevant as ever in today’s complex market?

Ancient Jewish economic policies responded to the same economic problems that plague us today: rampant financial fraud; gaping income inequality; lack of employment opportunity; crushing personal debt; a tilted economic playing field. Even Talmudic-era science that was limited by its times expressed values that are still relevant. Wine, for example, was considered among the necessities of life by the Sages, subject to price and profit controls. A mechanical understanding of that doctrine today might be, “We now know that wine is not a necessity of life, and so the controls are irrelevant today”; or perhaps, “The Sages said wine was a necessity then, and so it must be now.”

But as the Talmud makes clear, wine was equated with life because it was considered the most effective of medicines. Effective medicine was the necessity. So when we ask ourselves whether Jewish economic values and policy should support a universally affordable health care system, the answer is “Of course.” The ins and outs of the Affordable Care Act aside, it is a Jewish imperative to create universal access to the necessities of life; health care is naturally among them. The debate that we as Jews should have is how to define and advocate for those necessities in the modern age and the larger society in which we live. This is exactly what the rabbis of the Talmud—who like US Jews lived in a society in which Jews were not sovereign—tried to do. It is simply not a Jewish value to “liberate” the necessities of life into the free market.

In what ways did you find that Jewish principles need the most adjustment today?

Given two thousand intervening years and the enormous economic changes that accrued in the meantime, it’s remarkable how spot-on the Jewish economic values of Torah and Talmud remain. Rather than submerging those principles, the real work lies in sharpening our understanding of the context in which the ancients discussed them and their modern applications.

Let me offer two examples.

In Mishnah Pe’ah, the rabbis of the Talmud look at a primitive mechanism, a catch basket in an orchard or vineyard, that deprives gleaners and laborers of work. And they outlaw it! Why? Because the landowner who places the mechanism “is openly stealing from the poor.” He’s robbing gleaners (and his employees) of productive work in order to increase his profit. That certainly informs the way we as Jews should consider the modern disparity between technologically-driven productivity improvements and their social consequences.

Does that mean that Jews, like Luddites, should oppose new technologies? Of course not. But it does mean that we have an obligation to stand with a Jewish voice for fair treatment of those whose lives are upended due to productivity improvements. In The Just Market, I propose a Shikhekhah Labor Displacement Fund that would take a portion of savings from all productivity improvements and devote them to new employment opportunities and training for workers displaced by a company’s drive for additional profits. It’s certainly possible to disagree with my proposed mechanism, but the principled obligation to compensate displaced workers remains.

A second example concerns the Shmittah release of debt. The debt forgiveness laws were mitigated by Rabbi Hillel’s prosbul around the turn of millennium, and not much has been heard of them since. But Hillel proposed the prosbul because the laws weren’t working in the context of his times; cyclical debt was rampant and had been since Isaiah had denounced the cancer of farm foreclosures more than eight hundred years earlier. The crisis that Hillel addressed was one of not enough capital lending to tide over farmers with insufficient cash flow. It was a devastating problem to which Torah, Isaiah and Hillel all responded; Josephus also writes of violent debt revolts in the Galilee later in the first century CE.

By contrast, today’s domestic debt crisis results from too much capital availability, often fraudulently marketed by predatory lenders through the $30 billion payday loan industry, sub-prime mortgages and, as the New York Times recently exposed, the auto finance industry. So while the economic trigger underlying intractable debt has changed, the victims of the debt cycle have not. And so, as the Talmud indicated might be wise in a changed context, it’s time to reconsider the prosbul as an instrument of Jewish economic policy—and for Jews to advocate for rational debt release policies, which I suggest should revolve around the Shmittah year.

What were your biggest surprises as you did your research?

I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Meir Tamari, the leading figure in what I’d term the halakhic school of Jewish economics, had identified over one hundred mitzvot linked to economic ethics and policies. That led to a second happy surprise: the realization that both Torah and Talmud not only recognized and struggled to address the real life economic problems of common people, but placed a premium on those efforts. All the more reason to elevate the profile of those conversations in our schools, synagogues and other institutions. That, of course, led to a third, less happy realization; this is difficult, sometimes scary stuff for many people, and I believe that the Jewish community has deliberately submerged the profile of these issues over the course of many years because of those fears.

What recommendations do you have for Jewish day schools about how to teach about Jewish values in reference to money and economics?

It’s relatively comfortable to teach about personal conduct and commercial ethics. It’s much more difficult—and I think, at least equally valuable—to encourage students to think about the social implications of business decisions, and the obligation of Jews to act in the world on behalf of economic justice values. I hope that The Just Market encourages that effort and makes it just a little bit easier for those who are inclined to undertake it.

For me, the most exciting aspect of this research was reading the daily newspaper. Every single day I found articles that spoke to the same concepts I was studying in Talmud. The striking relevance of our tradition to the modern world was, even in my sixties, exhilarating. Perhaps your readers might find a lesson in that for Jewish day schools as well.

Jonathan Brandow is author of  The Just Market: Torah’s Response to the Crisis of the Modern Economy, a business owner and former labor organizer who has written for Tablet and Washington Jewish Week.

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HaYidion Money Matters Winter 2014
Money Matters
Winter 2014