Rabbi’s Essays

Yours and Mine
A Rabbinic Approach to Economic Systems

I am not a finance specialist, nor the son of a finance specialist. Well, I might be the father of one. Nevertheless, when the U.S. economy seems to be disintegrating before our eyes, many would deem it appropriate, if not necessary, for the Rabbi to say something. So, here I go:

First, let me establish the boundaries of my remarks. The principal role of a Rabbi is to be the one who knows the sources. Jews turn to rabbis at certain points of stress or questioning and look for answers, or at least, insights that might point toward answers. The Rabbi’s responsibility is to elucidate what Jewish tradition, practice and thought has to say. In the following remarks, this is what I am going to attempt to do.

Prescription proceeds from perception. We decide on our actions as a result of how we see the situation. For this reason, the solution to the current mess-whatever it may be-is controversial, because experts neither agree on precisely what the problem is nor how we got into it in the first place. To oversimplify (but not too much), some economists will assert that the problem is in the absence of proper regulation and oversight; that controls that were put in effect in order to pull the U.S. out of the Great Depression, have been relaxed by past acts of Congress, ignored by the current Administration and overwhelmed by the introduction of new investment instruments that bypass whatever regulations still exist. For them, the solution requires reinforcing and updating the regulatory process.

The conflict is not a matter of facts or evidence. Each side marshals the facts that serve to bolster their side of the argument, and if not ignore then devalue any evidence that gets in the way. My focus, therefore, is on perception, specifically a Jewish perception. What may Jewish sources suggest about how we should view-not so much the current financial crisis-but rather the way in which a people’s economy should operate.

Introducing Our Text

A logical place to start is in the Torah. This is a useful starting point given that much of the Torah is given over to a presentation of the Social Weal, that is, the establishment of a proper Israelite society. Indeed, the principal focus of Torah is justice, both legal and economic. But, Torah is a blueprint for an ideal society. Although the Book of Deuteronomy contains an admonition that God’s instruction is neither too obscure to understand nor too difficult to do, the classic rabbis recognized that this claim is true only if all Israel lived up to the better selves. “A kingdom of priests and a holy people” is the description in Exodus — but not a community of saints!

The central and enduring value of Torah is to be found precisely in its idealism. Its principles and precepts represent just what sort of society to which we ought to be aspiring. Everyday life tends, however, to be filled with compromises. We need to set our sights a bit lower.

Thus, I invite us to turn to the rabbinic literature where Jewish society is pictured in all its nuanced and complex reality, and where the aspirations of the ideal are mediated by brute reality and experience. The main compendium of the writings of the classic Sages is the Talmud, a massive text. There is one text, however, that serves as a ground for classic rabbinic thought: the Tractate Avot.

Avot is found in the middle of the Mishna, an early third-century compendium of the Oral Torah, a tradition that God relayed much of the divine will orally to Moses, who then saw to it that this aspect of God’s expectations for the people Israel would be passed on in the same manner through the generations. In the uncertain period following the failed Bar Kokhba revolt against Rome, this tradition began to be committed to writing, and was ultimately compiled, in part, into the Mishna.

Tractate Avot is unusual and special in a number of ways. First, it contains no controversy. While virtually every other tractate records differences of opinions on matters of the Oral Torah, Avot presents a series of unchallenged aphorisms on the part of the Sages (Avot). A second significant difference is that the aphorisms are not Torah in the conventional sense of being commandments or directives. The Tractate serves another role. First, it establishes the authority of the Sages by drawing a direct line between their teachings and that of Moses. Further, it provides the ethical underpinning by which the rest of the Oral Torah is to be observed. Coming, as I have said, in the middle of the Mishna, and particularly in the middle of the section that deals with criminal and civil law (the “social weal”), Avot is the underpinning for all Jewish thought and practice regarding civil society.

The significance of this Tractate has hardly been lost through the ages. The siddur (prayerbook), which is basically the handbook of Jewish thought, includes Avot. In traditional Jewish practice, each of the six chapters of the Tractate would be read and studied during the six weeks following the end of Pesach and leading up to Shavuot. (The Gates of Prayer included selections from the Tractate at the beginning of the prayerbook. A more abridged version is found in the new Mishkan T’fila, and are also included in the Reform Movement’s prayerbook for the home, On the Doorposts of Your House.)

With all of this as background, let us turn to the relevant passage in Avot:

There are four kinds of human beings. One says: “What is mine is mine, and what is yours is yours.” That is the average kind, but some say it is reflective of Sodom. Another says: “What is mine is yours, and what is yours is mine.” This is the rube. “What is mine is yours, and what is yours is yours.” This is a saint. “What is mine is mine and what is yours is mine.” This is the wicked one. (5:10)

Who am I? Who are You?

The passage, as you can see, is short but extraordinarily rich and insightful. I need at the outset, however, to clarify a translation difficulty. The word “you” (“yours”) is consistently rendered in Hebrew in the singular. The passage deals with the fundamental relationship: me and you (the single individual who I am now regarding). This is only the beginning.

Who is the “you” that I am regarding? It is one of two fundamental possibilities: either a companion or an adversary. I may regard “you” as being very much like “me,” and therefore create the concept of “us.” Or, I may view “you” as competitor or adversary, and therefore create the concept of “them.”

Before saying anything more on the subject, let us consider “I.” The passage begins with the assertion that there are four types of human beings. Where are these four types to be encountered? The answer is: in ourselves.

Rabbi Lawrence Kushner has related the story of the Zen master who, after years of meditation, has determined that most important issue for him to contemplate is “Who am I?” And when he arrived at this decision, a voice arose from the very depths of his soul: “Who is asking?”

Human beings are complex creatures. We cycle through different ‘selves.’ If we are aware of this innate reality, we might be able to repress those selves that we do not wish to be, and bring forth those we prefer to relate to the world.

Hence, overarching the entire passage is the message contained in its first words: there are four kinds of human beings. The four kinds represent the complex of the ways each of us regard the Other: are you with me or against me? Are you “us” or “them”? As we proceed with the analysis, we see the notions of cooperation, competition and attitudes that stretch between them.

Mine and Yours: The Qualities of Society

We are ready now to regard the passage. The most provocative statement is at the beginning, so instead of reading the four kinds in the order given, I am going to reverse them.

“What is mine is mine and what is yours is mine.” This is the wicked one [rasha’].

This assertion, which should strike anyone as reasonably obvious, gives me an opportunity to clarify what might be meant by “mine” and “yours.” At first blush the reference is to material possessions, but the implication can go farther. It can refer to one’s person in the sense of expanded or contracted freedoms of choice. “What’s yours is mine” suggests that I claim that you have an obligation to me in order to fulfill my wishes or desires, but you cannot assert a reciprocal obligation.

The wickedness of this position is not founded merely in greed. It is rather the desire to dominate. The Other (“yours”) is dehumanized into a commodity for one’s own use. Each of one us becomes a rasha’ when we deny or ignore the personhood of the one standing before us.

“What is mine is yours, and what is yours is mine.” This is the rube [‘am ha-aretz].

‘Am ha-aretz is a difficult term to translate. When found in the Bible, it refers to country folk as opposed to city dwellers. Rabbinic literature provides a negative connotation to the term: they are ignoramuses, or at very least, uneducated sorts. The original meaning, however, continues to lurk beneath the connotation. An ‘am ha-aretz, by virtue of being a rural person, is incapable of keeping up contemporary trends; he is inherently unsophisticated. For this reason, I employed the term “rube.” A rube, however, is not a fool (or at least no more or less foolish than anyone else.)

Asserting that “mine is yours and yours is mine” is not a measure of foolishness, but rather indicative of disdain for the work of one’s own hands. The rube is bedazzled by the riches of the city and begins to denigrate his own worth. It is a ‘grass is greener’ complex, where whatever the other person has must certainly be better than what I have. We all fall into this state of mind when we lose confidence in ourselves and in our ability to contribute to society.

The rasha’ oppresses others, and the ‘am ha-aretz oppresses oneself. Both circumstances, if allowed to persist, are clearly debilitating to society. Although each of us have tendencies that lead us to wish or attempt to dominate others, or conversely to lose faith in ourselves, we readily recognize that these are characteristics to resist. We can now proceed to the final two categories.

“What is mine is yours, and what is yours is yours.” This is the saint[hasid].

This stance is the exact opposite of the wicked. For the rasha’, the Other (“yours”) is merely an object to be used and exploited. For the hasid, the Other is fully human; an object, yes, but of love. (“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”) One can give to this Other with the same sense of confidence that one gives to a spouse, a son/daughter or a sibling. It is not with wariness or even with pity, but rather with the sense that my gift benefits all, and therefore benefits myself as well.

Societies like this can work. One of the best examples is the Israeli kibbutz. As in the case of my comments regarding the Torah, the success of such societies is dependent upon saintliness. Within the pioneering spirit of nation-building that was the foundation for the formation and development of the kibbutz, the idea of mutually reinforcing communal generosity managed to hold together for a relatively long time. Ultimately, however, the spirit began to wane, and with it the classic structure of the kibbutz.

Saintliness is a precious and not easily renewable commodity. In the case of “what is mine is yours and yours is yours” we can see two interlocking elements that serve to erode what might be our best nature. One is the inability to distinguish between the “you” who is one of us, and the “you” who is one of them. When we help a fellow human being who is appreciative (one of us), our material generosity is returned with spiritual satisfaction. When, however, we are exploited or, worse, played the fool by our acts of compassion, we tend to become cautious and cynical.

Equally important as an element that erodes our efforts to be saintly is our irrepressible ego. We inexorably take pride in our possessions and tend to use them as a measure of our worth. In the final analysis, we like having things that we can call “mine,” and do not easily give them up. With this in mind, we turn to the last quality:

The Banal and the Monstrous

“What is mine is mine and what is yours is yours.”
This is average [beinoni], but some say it was the attitude of Sodom!

The best that one can say about a society where everyone respects everyone else’s possessions is that it is average. Average, however, is not bad. And, given the need to call something our very own, it is inevitable. The surprising element attached to this quality is the opinion that it represents the inhabitants of Sodom. Sodom was utterly destroyed. The wicked are condemned and even punished, but rarely are they consigned to extermination. What are we to make of the assertion that a clearly average state of affairs may also be deemed as monstrous?

The unforgivable sin of Sodom was inhospitality. The people of Sodom were incapable of treating outsiders as anything other than “them.” The Other was exclusively and permanently an object of either suspicion or exploitation. Inherent in the attitude “what is mine is mine and yours yours” is the notion that “you” are not part of “us.”

The rabbinic statement therefore becomes a warning. Society, as an element of its normative condition, must value personal ownership; such is human nature. If, however, ownership is not simply tolerated, but rather is treated as a high value, then conditions will tend to deteriorate into warring camps: dog-eat-dog competition in which the fabric of society unravels. Genesis records that Sodom and the Cities of the Plain were pummeled by divinely ordained fire and brimstone. We might better understand that they burned themselves out in exhausting and ruinous competition.

Rabbinic thought, summarized in this passage in Avot, asserts that human communities must naturally work to restrain such deleterious tendencies as oppression of one group by another, or of feelings of the lack of self-worth. These attitudes are very real, but it is also very clear that they are wrong. A much more pernicious wrong, however, is to be found in the otherwise normal notion of ownership. When ownership turns into The Ownership Society, then it has signed its own warrant for destruction.

Society ought to be founded on concepts of generosity and compassion. We come into the world owning nothing, and will leave it in the same way. All that we possess is but lent to us. Such are our highest ideals. They cannot be the norm; we are simply incapable of persisting in sainthood. They must not be abandoned either. When we are not reaching for our better selves, then we indulge in the banal.

And ultimately the banal becomes monstrous.