I began paying serious attention to Jewish philosophy more than 30 years ago, triggered by my realization that all of the translations of Hillel’s core summation of Judaism that I had encountered (I don’t have the skills to read the original) were expressed in the negative: Do not do unto others what you would not want done unto you. As a third-generation Jewish red-diaper baby and a recovering socialist — recovering not from the idealistic vision of a planned, egalitarian society, but from the historical reality of millions dead as a result of that planning — I found the self-restraint expressed by Hillel to be extraordinarily wise. Joseph Stalin had done unto others. Chairman Mao had done unto others. Pol Pot had done unto others. Hillel was careful to discern between missionary zeal and empathy.
There was much more to find in Jewish religious texts that reinforced my socialist ideals while placing restraints on my own zeal. The aggadic insistence that all 600,000 Hebrew escapees from Egypt had to stand at Sinai or the Torah would have been withheld; the teaching that tzedakah is an act of justice, not generosity, and does more for the one who gives than the one who receives; the built-in restraint on inherited wealth imposed by the Yovel, the half-century Jubilee year in which land and wealth are redistributed; the gleaning rights of the poor, and the numerous other property laws in the Torah that privilege the community’s needs over individual property rights; the fact that the entire core story of Judaism was about liberation from class slavery — all of this reinforced my belief in socialism as necessary and superior to capitalism, and expanded my understanding of socialism as being not only about “ownership of the means of production,” but also about the social, psychological, and spiritual reality of human beings.
At the same time, however, there was the talmudic telling of how, when the rabbis captured and imprisoned the yetzer ha-ra (the “evil urge” — lust, selfishness, competitiveness), the result was a world without growth, without striving, without creativity — because, as the rabbis concluded, it is in the nature of human beings that “without the evil urge, no one would build a house, marry, have children, or engage in trade.” There was the warning of Sanhedrin 97a: “All the calculated dates of redemption have passed, and now the matter depends upon teshuvah and mitzvot” — a teaching that for me thoroughly contradicted the Marxist “calculation” of the historical inevitability of socialism (after the self-devouring of capitalism) and therefore expunged my politics of a certain “history’s-on-my-side” arrogance. There was the Torah’s resignation to the idea that the poor will always be with us, and that our individual responsibility to alleviate poverty and social distress does not end when the government passes a welfare program. These and many other Jewish teachings challenged me to reconcile the undeniable social reality of economics with the self-interested, status-seeking reality of human beings — to move beyond a class-struggle analysis toward a more universalistic sense of human responsibility; to unleash my natural inclination toward utopian socialism and set aside the “scientific” pretenses of Marxism; and to properly fear, and never ignore, the relationship between “planning” and “coercion,” between the rights of the collective and the liberties of the individual.
In short, there were aspects of Jewish philosophy and our religious tradition that helped to teach me to be as cautious about the dangers of embracing socialism as I am about the dangers of living with the anarchic, idolatrous individualism of capitalism — cautious, but not paralyzed, because as both Karl Marx and the sages of the Talmud said (Kiddushin 40b), what counts is not just contemplating the world, but changing it.
Change it we must; it’s time. A system ruled by small, oligarchic boards of directors will never be adequately responsive to the needs of the majority. A system that is structurally concerned only with the creation of profit — and that now permits 85 individual families to own as much wealth as half the planet’s human households combined, according to Oxfam — will never adequately cultivate human potential in all of its diversity. Moreover, our planet cannot bear the rapaciousness of capitalistic growth and innovation for very much longer.
I believe it’s time, once again, to risk capturing the yetzer ha-ra of capitalism: to establish a decent standard of living for all people regardless of how educated, innovative, or otherwise “worthy” they are; to tax great wealth at much higher levels in order to fund our communal needs; to evaluate products for their ethical, social, and environmental impact before turning them loose in the marketplace; to explore non-growth economic models for the sake of environmental sustainability; and much, much more.
With Hillel looking over my shoulder, however, I would have us experiment with such innovations cautiously and democratically, motivated more by visions of possibility than by mere rage at the status quo — and I would have us preserve the memory of those millions killed in the socialist past, not in order to paralyze our activism, but in order to remember how very complicated it will be to build a humane, democratic socialism.
If not now, when? Yes, but…email print