Is Capitalism the Torah Way? by Rebbetzin Devorah Fastag
This piece is not meant to offer advice on economic issues in the US or anywhere else. It is meant to correct a misunderstanding of Torah.
Some people – usually Americans – are under the misimpression that to be orthodox means to idealize capitalism. I once heard a speaker praising capitalism as if it were a part of Torah. I’ve even seen it written – albeit jokingly – that Hashem is a capitalist.
In this piece I wish to show that Hashem is not a capitalist, and that capitalism is not a part of Torah. Again, what is written here is not meant for any political purposes, only for properly understanding Torah.
Pirkei Avot (5:26) tells us, “Ben He- He says, the reward is according to the pain”. Capitalists do not pay according to the pain. Capitalists worked poor people 16 hours a day in sweatshops, paying them terribly low wages. They worked people in mines – including little children – for long hours under awful, dangerous conditions, again for low wages. According to Hashem’s rules of payment, the people who endured the most hardships and faced the greatest dangers are paid the most. In capitalism the owners and executives are paid well, while the workers who were suffering were paid terribly. Cholila vichas, Hashem does not do this. Furthermore, as we will soon see, Hashem wants the rich to support the poor.
But isn’t socialism anti Torah?
Unfortunately, in our times socialism is equated with so called “liberalism”, which has come to mean permissiveness for immorality and sympathy towards evil. To understand why this happened we must look more deeply into the processes whereby Hashem runs His world.
There is a rule that when any power comes into the world it is meant to be used for goodness. If it does not reach its true purpose in holiness then it is used by negative forces to aid evil (see Michtav MeEliyahu 4 P.123). As we will discuss later, we are now in the period when the world is being prepared for Moshiach. This process began over 200 years ago. Part of the good that Moshiach brings the world is economic equality (Kol HaTor Pp. 34-35). Therefore a new ideal of economic equality came into the world. When this power reached non Torah society they called it socialism. Socialism, however, did not reach its true purpose on the side of holiness because we did not bring Moshiach. Therefore, it fell to the hands of impure forces, and so it became equated with permissiveness for immorality.
Yet the ideal of economic equality is essentially good because it is based on the premise of equal good for all, which reverberates with the ideal of “Love your neighbor as yourself”. Capitalism, on the other hand, is totally selfish. It has nothing to do with goodness, fairness, or consideration for others, only with gaining more wealth for the capitalist. If we no longer have sweatshops, child labor, and cruel conditions this is partly because the spirit of socialism affecting the world in the beginning of the last century caused public opinion to favor limiting capitalism. As mentioned, this was an emanation of the approaching geula, bringing the world closer to economic equality.
But if economic equality is good, why don’t we see socialist ideals in the Torah?
Actually, we do. The Torah does not command total socialism, because this world is presently not in a perfected state. For a perfect world we must wait for the redemption. But the Torah does not allow total capitalism either. The Torah tells the rich to share with the poor. This is not just a good deed, as it is in a capitalist society; it is mandatory. Ma’aser ani, tithes to the poor, is not voluntary, as are donations in capitalism. Tithes are required, and so is leaving leket, shickchah, and pe’ah for the poor (Vayikra 19:9-10).
While these mitzvot are incumbent on the individual, the community is also expected to take care of the poor. It does not always do this, but that is a sin. Megillas Eichah tells us, “Yehudah was exiled from poverty and from much work” (Eicha 1:3). One meaning of this statement is that Judea went into exile because it withheld the required gifts to the poor, and worked the Hebrew slaves beyond what was permitted (Yalkut Shimoni 1010).
Is the Torah in favor of taxing the rich to support the poor?
The Kli Yakar on Vayikra 19:15 explains the words “Do not do an injustice in a law case” as saying that, while it is incumbent on the rich to support the poor, it is forbidden to do this by making a rich person lose a law case to a poor one in order for the rich to support the poor. He says that, though it is truly a matter of justice for the rich to support the poor, justice should be done in court “and at a different time he (the judge or government) should obligate the rich man to support him (the poor man)”.
Here we see that it is not only voluntary for the rich to support the poor; it is justice, and when necessary, the society or government should obligate such support.
Furthermore, the prophet rebuked the people that “gezelas ha’ani bivateichem” (Yeshayahu 3:14); the robbery of the poor is in your houses. One meaning of this is that they filled their houses with costly furnishings, using money that should have been spent on the poor. As the Michtav MeEliyahu (vol.4 P.297) writes, “It is permitted for a person to use his money for himself liberally only if he gives in the same manner to the poor. But if he has in his house” a large and small measure” (Dvarim 25:14), meaning one standard for his own expenses and another standard for the needs of the poor, then this is certainly robbery”.
In our times, economic equality is even more important, because, as mentioned above, it connects to the redemption. The gemara (Sanhedrin 98a) says that Moshiach ben David will not come until all the measurements are equal, which, the Vilna Gaon explained to mean, until there is economic equality (Kol HaTor P.34).
Again, this doesn’t mean that socialism, as it is enacted in the world, is always good. Because we were not worthy of bringing the redemption, the ideal of equality fell to the impure forces. But the ideal itself is part of the preparation for the redemption. The Vilna Gaon most strongly encouraged economic and social equality, especially in Eretz Yisrael. Before he sent his students to Eretz Yisrael he told them that without this, their plan to hasten the geula could not succeed (Kol Hator P.34).
But if socialism is right and capitalism is selfish, why does the Torah says that there will never stop being a poor person (evyon) in the land (lo yechdal evyon mikerev ha’aretz – Dvarim 15:11)? Why, throughout Jewish history, were there always rich and poor? And don’t Torah sources, such as Mesilas Yesharim, say that Hashem created rich and poor in order to test people?
Let’s take these points one by one.
The Torah’s statement that there will never stop being a poor person in the land is a prophecy, not a mitzvah. It is not telling us that we should ensure that this situation exists, or that we should accept this without trying to do anything. To interpret it this way would be similar to concluding that,since Hashem told Adam that he would die, we should not do anything to save people’s lives. Obviously, this is not so. Hashem wants us to try exceedingly to save people’s lives. Similarly, Hashem wants us to do what we can to prevent poverty. And just as death is not forever, it exists only until tichiyas hameisim (the revival of the dead), so poverty is not forever; it lasts only until the complete redemption, as is written in the prophecies of consolation read after tisha b’av.
(After the complete redemption all the curses of Adam and Chava and of the Jewish People disappear. At that time all curses and sorrowful predictions of the Torah will be understood according to their kabbalistic meanings, which are not curses at all – see Tiferes Shlomo on the curses of parshat Ki Tavo).
Interestingly, there is an allusion to equality in the mitzvah of shmitta. Shmitta, the Shabbat of the land, represents the Shabbat of this world, the period after the redemption (seen in Sfas Emes, Parshat Behar, based, I believe, on the Zohar.) Regarding shmitta the pasuk says, “The Sabbath of the land shall be for you to eat, for you, for your slave, for your female slave, for your hired worker and for your resident alien” (Vayikra 25:6). Rashi explains:
“Even though I forbade them (the produce) to you, I did not forbid eating or enjoying them, but that you do not act as if you are the owner, but rather they shall all be equal in it; you, and your hired worker, and your resident alien.
In other words, the Torah is telling us that shmitta brings economic equality. Since shmitta represents the period after the redemption, we can understand that after the redemption there will not be capitalism, but rather economic equality.
But it goes further. We are now in the period of the world which is parallel to Erev Shabbat. In this period, we must prepare for the world’s Shabbat by instituting equality. This is the interpretation given by the Vilna Gaon on the words of Chazal, “Ben Dovid will not come until all the measurements are equal” (Sanhedrin 98a, Kol Hator P.34). In order for Moshiach Ben David to come we must first have equality.
Now we can understand why throughout world history there were rich and poor but in our times the ideal of socialism has taken hold. They were not in the erev Shabbat of the world and so did not yet have the powers of approaching redemption. We do, and we must use them.
Of course these powers can be misused as well. To give handouts to healthy people rather than giving them work, is destructive, not constructive. And communism, which was based on the idea of economic equality, became a monster. This is because every power comes into this world with a negative parallel called a klipa. As the Sfas Emes on Miketz 35-36 says, “There is nothing in holiness that does not have a klipa and concealment opposite it”. That klipa uses the same basic power for evil rather than for good. When we, G-d forbid, do not properly use our powers for good, they fall to the klipos, which use them for evil.
We see a chilling example of this principle in Joseph Stalin, who confiscated people’s lands for the government, moving entire populations to other locales to implement his “programs”. And as we all know, he ferociously fought against religion.
It seems that Joseph Stalin was the klipa of another “Joseph” – Yosef Hatzaddik (This was pointed out to me by a friend). The parallel and superficial similarity is obvious. When Egypt was suffering from famine and its people in danger of starvation, Yosef took all their money and their land, giving it to Paro (the central government) and moved the people to new locales.
Yet the differences between Joseph Stalin and Yosef Hatzaddik are also strikingly obvious. They were opposites; Yosef on the side of holiness, and Stalin on the side of evil.
Stalin fought against Hashem, outlawing religion. Yosef told everyone about Hashem, and had the Egyptians make brit milah (Rashi on Bereishit 41:55). And while Joseph Stalin caused the death of an estimated 20 to 40 million people, the Egyptians told Yosef Hatzaddik, “hecheyetanu” – you have given us life (Bereishit 47:25), for Yosef Hatzaddik, with his economic program so reminiscent of communism, saved the Egyptian population from starvation.
Afterwards the Egyptians were resettled on the land Yosef gave them, which was probably equal for everyone. And when Yosef distributed seed to start planting again, he told the heads of the households that after giving one fifth of the produce to the government (Paro) they should give of the rest of the produce to everyone dependent upon them, not only to themselves, but also to their slaves and children. Apparently, it was now a federal crime to underfeed one’s slaves or children, a crime that could be punished by Yosef. Yosef thereby insured that everyone would be fed properly.
It is also highly probable that Yosef had a sliding fee for those who came to buy food from him. Otherwise, how could all the Egyptians, whether rich or poor, have used up all their money at the same time? (The Torah tells that the Egyptians used up their money after one year – Bereishit 47: 14-15). In the second year of the famine, all the Egyptians paid for food with their animals, and again, they all were left without livestock at the same time (ibid 16-18). How could this have happened unless Yosef took more from the rich and less from the poor?
None of this is to suggest that we should or could implement all of Yosef’s tactics in order to bring the world economic equality. Although some tactics, such as sliding payment scales, are possible even today, others are not. It takes a tzaddik of Yosef’s caliber to accomplish what he did. Aside from Yosef’s great personal righteousness, his modesty and morality, he was totally devoted to the job of feeding the people and shared the pain of the hungry. He did not cohabitate during the famine, nor did he eat anything till he finished selling the food of that day to those who needed it . Only someone so selfless and good can properly use these powers.
And so indeed, according to Kol HaTor, it will be the continuation of Yosef’s own soul, Moshiach ben Yosef, who will eventually bring the world true equality.
And what about the test of rich and poor?
Yes, Hashem uses both wealth and poverty to test people. The rich should not become arrogant or selfish, but must kindly and considerately share with the poor. The poor may not steal from the rich, nor may they be jealous, nor may they complain against Hashem, cholila for making them poor. Both rich and poor are rewarded when they use their situation properly.
But although Hashem uses life situations to test people, we, as people, are not allowed to do this. We may not make people suffer to test them. If Hashem wants such a test He will make it happen, but that does not affect how we must behave. Just as Hashem might make people die, but we must try to save them; just as Hashem can make people sick but we must try to cure them, so Hashem made poverty, and wants us to save people from it. We may not allow poverty to continue if there is a way to fix it.
As for Hashem, tests are meant as tests, not as ideal situations. The archetypical test, akeidat Yitzchak, displays devotion to Hashem, but it certainly doesn’t show that Hashem wants human sacrifice, and that this is His ideal! Similarly, if Hashem tests people by having rich and poor in the world, this doesn’t mean that this is His ideal. We have already shown that Hashem wants us to help the poor and supply their needs.
Another example of this idea would be Hashem’s originally denying the Jewish People water and food in the desert. Hashem did this to test if they trusted Him. He did not do this because He thought leaving people without water and food was an ideal. On the contrary, Hashem wishes very much to give everyone their needs. His true midda is expressed in the bracha, hazan es hakol – He who feeds all – instituted by Moshe Rabeinu after the appearance of the manna. This heavenly food was given equally to the entire Jewish People, an omer measurement for each head. No rich and no poor.
And so, although Hashem tests people with wealth and poverty, that is not His ideal or true midda. This will be apparent at the time of the redemption, with the installment of equality.
;May we see the coming of Moshiach very soon, and with it, the revelation of Hashem’s justice, kindness, and goodness for all!