Tzelem Elokim and the Free Market

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January 1, 2009
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by Yehiel E. Poupko

Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were business people. The Torah gives us an audit of their wealth. Surely they were blessed by God and just as surely they knew how to engage in the commerce of domesticated herds and flocks. The framework of a life lived with justice, righteousness, holiness, and purity is this real, normal, messy, and hurly-burly world. Adam is put in the Garden to “till it and to tend it.” We are expected to work that garden to make it grow and to benefit from its produce. And to then bring it to market.

The free marketplace, in which producers and manufacturers of goods meet people who want to purchase their goods, is the realization of two fundamental Jewish ideas. What is it that constitutes the marketplace? First there is the obligation to improve civilization by learning about nature and learning how things work. This is known as science. This is necessary in order to develop a better chair, a better medicine, a better computer. Technological advance is the result of human beings seeking to build civilization and to better the human condition. Some one who gets up in the morning with nothing to do and no place to be, who sits idle, is not contributing to Yishuvo Shel Olam, to the development of civilization. The second is free will. The marketplace is constituted of free will. Human beings freely manufacture goods through their God-given intellectual and emotional resources, which enable them to acquire knowledge and use judgment and wisdom to create ever better goods. The human manufacturer meets the human customer and they engage in the free will exchange of value for goods.

The Talmud Yerushalmi expresses a simple truth when it says that, in the main, the existing price for goods is the proper price because if it is too high the customer will not purchase and if it is too low the entrepreneur will not sell. In general, Jewish law prefers the mechanisms of the free market for providing the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Surely there are occasions when the rabbinic courts intervene in the interests of justice and righteousness. 

One of the great questions that believers face is if God created the world then how does any one human being have a right to the exclusion of all human beings, to own private property? Indeed, through the mitzvot of the sabbatical and jubilee years, the Torah on the one hand affirms the right to the private ownership of land but then places significant limitations on it. However, this applies only to land.  This does not apply to material wealth gained through industry and commerce based on all other sorts of activities. Indeed, the right to own private property is one of the fundamental ways in which human beings attest to their individual sanctity. Private property is witness to the human being extending his or her sanctity over something in the real world.

Judaism seeks to hold on to two good and sacred principles. One principle is the obligation to build civilization through the human ingenuity and creativity that is expressed in the free market. At the very same time Judaism knows that this will not work for certain people. This is captured in the Yom Kippur service, as the prophet Isaiah reminds us:

This is my chosen fast…share your bread with the hungry, take the homeless into your home, clothe the naked, when you see him or her do not turn away from your very own flesh.

At the very same time, upon exiting the Holy of Holies, among the High Priest’s last prayers for the day of Yom Kippur is “for a year of corn, wine, and oil. A year of prosperity…of dew and rain and warmth, of ripening fruits…A year of no inflation, a year of plenty.” The High Priest prays for the health of the free market.  Judaism expects the obligation to build civilization to go hand in hand with the obligation to engage in tzedakah.

In With All Your Possessions: Jewish Ethics in Economic Life, Meir Tamari writes “No anti-commercial tradition existed in Judaism as existed in Christian social thought.” The recent collapse of financial markets does not come as a surprise to the Jewish tradition. There are mitzvot and halakhot because there will always be people who will seek their interests through dishonesty. The free market is based on truth-telling and trust. Trust has been broken and needs to be reinforced and reestablished. Judaism’s commitment to the free market remains intact.

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Rabbi Yehiel E. Poupko is Judaic Scholar at the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.

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