Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Behukotai (Individual & Community)

For more teachings on this week’s Torah portion, see the archive to my blog for April 20 2006, and May 2007, 2008, 2009, and May 2010 (to be posted).

Sefer Vayikra: A Brief Hadran

Even though this year the two concluding parshiyot of the Book of Leviticus are read separately, they are integrally related. I recently started learning (again), with a hevruta, selected portions of Ramban’s Torah Commentary. He sees Behukotai specifically as a continuation of Behar, or perhaps, contrariwise, Behar as a prelude to the latter. He reads the admonitions and blessings of Chapter 26 as specifically relate to Behar, which is a codex of laws about what to do when entering, and living upon, the Land. Indeed, he reads Vayikra as a whole as related to the situation of preparing for entering land, and adds that, had the tribes not sinned with the affair of the Spies, they would have entered immediately, and the Torah would have concluded with Leviticus {that’s how I read him, anyway}. Just as the construction of the Sanctuary serves as a festive, solemn conclusion to Exodus, with the Divine presence dwelling therein as it dwelled on Mount Sinai, so too do these chapters serve as a kind of solemn coda to the book of what he calls the “Covenant of the Tent of Meeting.”

Two important literary features linking Behar and Behukotai: first, the use of the number seven at the end of each section of the admonition: “If thus far you do not listen to Me, but walk with me crookedly {?}, I will continue to admonish you seven times over for your sins” (Lev 26:18, 21, 23-24, 28, with variations). Seven is also a key number in the preceding chapters, in both Emor and Behar: in the Shabbat and weekly cycle; in the festivals; and in the sabbatical and jubilee year, in cycles of 7 and 7 x 7 years. Second, the verses of blessing here end with the words, “I am the Lord your God who took you out of Egypt, and broke the yoke of your bondage, and I made you to walk upright” (Lev 26:13, which seems to echo similar verses in Behar dealing with slavery and the Exodus (25:38, 42, 55).

“If You Go with Me in Qeri

A key word in the Tokheha, the solemn exhortation about future punishments which forms the center of last week’s parashah, is qeri. Repeatedly, we are told: “If you walk with Me be-qeri, then I will walk with you be-qeri, trying you seven times over for all your transgressions.”

But what does this word mean? The usual meaning is “by chance,” or “through happenstance”—that is, not treating the covenant with God and His commandments in a serious manner, but seeing them as something which one can be done casually, as the mood or whim possesses one. Or, more seriously, a view of the world as governed by random chance, as ultimately governed by chaos and meaninglessness (see Rambam, Hilkhot Ta’aniyot 1.4)—all this before modern “Chaos theory.” Or may it be something more deliberate: the RSV translation renders it as “contrariwise,” and the NJPS goes one step further, translating it, rather strangely to my mind, “with hostility.” The matter needs further thought and study. One thing is for certain: when the Tanakh uses a given term repeatedly, as a leitmotif, it is most decidedly not by chance.

More on Socialism and Capitalism: An Open Letter

Last year our issue for Behar-Behukotai was devoted to an essay in honor of my mother’s 25th yahrzeit entitled “Communism, Capitalism, and What’s In Between.” This elicited a number of reader reactions; in particular, one reader from the United States made some lengthy comments. As I never answered these in a timely manner, I have decided to reopen the discussion when this parashah came around this year, in the form of an open letter. Hence, this number will be longer than usual, and somewhat meandering, covering as it does numerous subjects related to this issue. However, I trust that readers will bear with me, as I consider the subject of great importance.

JS wrote:

What does Behar tell us about the best form of government, the best economic system? It certainly expresses what might be called a collectivist Utopian concept as does [Rav Yitzhak Breuer in his book] Nahaliel. But it has to face who we are. I remember a comment by a Hungarian professor I knew years ago, who said that if you have ten hungry people and one loaf of bread you must be a socialist (he meant a Communist), otherwise you would kill each other. But his then junior professor (who later became president of Hungary, at least for a while) said to me that socialism requires a capitalistic back to ride on. The first was a Jew, the second not.

I think experience has shown us that a free market system, including a global market, provides a better living. The Russians showed us that, as does any comparison to the “old days,” the benefits of materialism. We do live better than when I grew up. This is not an unbridled benefit, but is a benefit, that is for sure. We live better and the government doesn't oppress us the way the Communists did. We might make mistakes, but they were our choices, not ones dictated by the all-powerful, all-knowing BIG BROTHER. My experience in life has taught me that people are not always better off when the state does it. Capitalism, even the dog-eat-dog type with its corruption, can't compare to the corruption and incompetence of a modern state, even a social-democratic one, let alone a Communist state.

You end up arguing for a European social welfare state, singling out the most antisemitic Northern European countries, the Nordic states, rather than the hopeless Mediterranean Greece, Portugal, etc., that have spent themselves into poverty. Of course, before the Norwegians found offshore oil (done by the capitalist oil companies), they were very poor farmers who drank a lot. I don't go for these countries. They don't reproduce themselves and have large numbers of Muslim workers, that generates people like Le Pen in France and Haider in Austria. …

[On the other hand,] I could also tell you about my growing up dirt poor in [the Midwest] where, in the ‘30s the only Communists I knew (Arbeiter Ring people) ran a small tailor shop and became wealthy when they bought shares in a company run by [a relative]. To be sure I did meet many NY communists in college, and they were something!

In a more recent letter, he adds:

Two added thoughts. I bought hearing aids from a private hearing aid specialist. I paid her and she has given me wonderful after-sale service. This caused me to speculate: suppose we had a single payer system as do so many Western welfare states. Suppose they allowed me get a hearing aid. Would the post-sale service be as thoughtful and comprehensive at the one I received from my private audiologist?

Of course there are variables. I suspect that a thoughtful and caring state audiologist might give as good service as my private audiologist. But experience with state people has not always been so good. Much may depend on the budget and resources. She might not have the time to do what my private audiologist does for me. My audiologist values my business and she will get more customers if she treats me well and I tell my friends about her. The power of the profit motive…

Another item must be added to the mix. Under a single payer system, were I lacking funds I might not be able to afford a hearing aid or I would have to wait six months for one. Add to this the fact that I can, under certain circumstances, take a tax deduction so that my loss is paid for partly by the state. See what a tiny issue exposes!

My second point relates to a talk I heard at my school yesterday. The lecturer has written a book about victim's rights. My interest was in part piqued by my brother's loss of his only son to two savage murderers. The lecturer was very sharp but she lost me when she said the needed action required government action and money! I could see some role for the state, such as the nature of the trial and punishment, but with public entities in dire financial state where would the money come from for what she wanted? Much of the psychological help she wanted could be done by private organizations, such as the church or other nonprofits. But the State!

Dear JS,

Allow me to begin by summarizing what I understand to be your main points: 1) human nature mitigates against socialism; 2) socialism, and specifically Communism, has a bad record of communism—i.e., the “Big Brother” syndrome, described so dramatically by George Orwell in his book 1984. One might add that Orwell was bitterly disappointed with Marxism, particularly as a result of his experiences fighting alongside Marxist–Communists during the Spanish Civil War of 1937 (incidentally, many American Jewish Communists fought, and some were killed, in that war). In Homage to Catalonia he describes their overly politicized behavior and non-comradely, even divisive attitude towards their non-Communist fellows-in-arms in the anti-Franco struggle. 3) Capitalism, through competition, encourages better quality, service, and more goods for everybody.

I will begin my answer with a caveat: as I have lived in the late 20th and am now living in the 21st century, I cannot approach these questions with the same idealism my parents brought to it in their youth, some eighty years ago. The world has learned some harsh and bitter lessons from the failure of the attempt at Marxian socialism in Russia and the incredible cruelty and the horrors inflicted in its name. But this does not prove, as held by Fukuyama, the eternal and unquestioned superiority of the Western liberal free-enterprise (i.e., capitalist) system. For me, the question remains open, and the quest to improve social arrangements, including the all-important economic ones, must continue, albeit in a less dogmatic fashion than in the bad old days of the CP.

Second, my own basic value position, which I am convinced is expressed in the Torah, and particularly in Parashat Behar, is that all human beings are entitled to a decent life. Your perspective seems to be that of yourself and individuals in similar situations. Your example of the hearing aid is an illuminating one: As I understand it, you are a retired professional man, living reasonably comfortably in the US, so of course you can afford superior service on the private market. But the question that concerns me is: what about the poor, those who have not had the same opportunities you enjoy? They cannot offer hearing aids at all. But, as far as I know, in social-welfare states, such things are available to all.

My starting point is the idea, which I have heard expressed by many here in Israel, that human beings, by virtue of being human, are entitled to certain basic things: health care, education, and not being left hungry or homeless without a roof over their heads. The capitalist system provides a comfortable life for many—whether a majority or a minority depends upon your perspective—but also leads to serious suffering and injustice to others, often (usually?) through no fault of their own. But my main point goes deeper than that. You present the traditional defense of the capitalist system: namely, that it provides the opportunity for the little guy to make a good life for himself, without depending too much upon others, and without the interference of what you call the “all–knowing Big Brother.” If you will, the American dream—the self-made man, the “rugged individualist,” who makes it as a small businessman, artisan, or professional. Or, to put it in a broader intellectual perspective, the basic thesis of Adam Smith: that through individuals acting out of what he called “enlightened self-interest,” things will balance out in the end; that an “invisible hand” will help bring about a decent society. My question is whether this belief, which may have been true for the 18th century mercantile society in which Smith lived, remains valid today, or whether we have entered a new era in which the old truths are no longer valid.

I hold that the world has changed drastically: the world of the old American Dream no longer exists. I submit that capitalism today is radically different today even from what it was fifty years ago, in our own childhood or youth. The change in the size and scope and range of global corporations has so greatly changed quantitatively, as to make a qualitative difference.

A few examples: the squeezing out of the small business man. Small bookstores, grocery and produce stores, restaurants, coffee shops, inns, are gradually disappearing, and are being replaced by monolithic chains, be they supermarkets, book chains, hotels, quick food chains, etc. All this, besides limiting economic opportunities for the “little guy” (who is more likely to seek a career as a “manager”), makes for a narrower, more uniform, blander culture. It also creates a large underclass of people who end up working in what are essentially menial, dead-end jobs. Instead of the small grocery store owner, who had a certain human dignity and made a moderately decent living, today there seem to be an increasing number of workers—I think of the people working in fast food chains, check-out girls in supermarkets, etc.—who receive minimum wage, and find it very difficult to meet even basic human needs. Moreover, in the absence of a national health care plan, they cannot afford decent health care, and often don’t have a decent diet either but eat a high proportion of “junk food.” All this is vividly portrayed in Barbara Ehrenreich’s book, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, a journalistic account based on the author’s own attempts to survive for a year living as these “invisible” people do.

Or, on a higher professional level, there is globalization and the “outsourcing” of jobs to India or other places where labor is cheap, and the disappearance of jobs on the middle professional level (in computers, for example, this has happened to several people I know).

On the consumer level: The concentration of economic power in fewer and fewer huge corporations enables them to behave in abusive ways towards their customers as well. For example, the cell phone companies in Israel charge huge ”exit fees” if someone is dissatisfied with the service and wants to break his contract, which typically requires that he stay with his service provider for a year-and-a-half. This of course mitigates against the classic capitalistic philosophy of free competition, but what has seems to have happened is that in many fields, because the infrastructure is so expensive (and not shared by the rival companies, as might seem reasonable) there are only a handful of big companies, which dictate more-or-less similar conditions, to their own benefit and everyone else’s detriment. But price-gauging is the least of the ills of the cell-phone industry. I have heard of cell-phone companies secretly placing huge relay devices, emitting high levels of radiation, on roofs or inside apartments in residential buildings (for example, on Rehov Tahkemoni in Mekor Barukh) where people are raising small children. Since the technology is new, no one knows exactly the health hazards are—and the companies use their economic clout to stifle unbiased research nto the dangers of cell phones. What has happened, perhaps paradoxically, is that many of the same evils people used to attribute to the all-powerful state under communism are happening with the vast global corporations, which de-facto have too powerful a role in our present economy. What I wonder is whether this isn’t the result of a certain inherent logic of the capitalist system.

Another point: we take for granted the prominence in the middle-class employment market of such fields as management, advertising, PR, marketing, etc. But all of these, sorry to say, are fields which don’t really create anything really useful that serves genuine human needs, but serve the big corporations to market and make money, to create artificial needs (including planned obsolescence, forcing the consumer to replace items more frequently than he might otherwise wish or even afford) and, to put it bluntly, engage in large scale lying and deceit, where image and illusion substitute for reality. Watch five minutes of TV advertising, any time of day or night, anywhere, and you will see what I mean.

A related point is the universal use of sex to sell—the sexy girl draped over a car, or refrigerator, or eating a container of fruit yogurt—which is taken for granted. This has contributed to what I call the hyper-sexualization of our culture, which has brought on its wake various evils—and I’m not being prudish.

Yet another disturbing change I have observed in our culture over recent decades is the decline of the humanities and other “non-useful” professions and areas of study—such as history, philosophy and literature—in the universities. Of course, these departments still exist (although in many places even that is by no means assured), and there are a certain number of bright young people who have chosen to devote their lives to these fields, but their number and importance in our general cultural life seems to be drastically declining. By the way, something similar seems to be happening to Judaic studies in the universities here in Israel, leaving the interpretation of Judaism for future generations more and more to the yeshivot and the Ultra-Orthodox, with what I find to be a narrow, a-historical and even primitive interpretation. It would appear that here, too, the profit motive is predominant, and those fields which are less likely to generate wealth, even if they offer great intellectual and spiritual challenges and satisfaction, are less popular.

By nature—dictated as they are by economic motivation—corporations tend not to be socially responsible unless forced to be—and when challenged, can afford expensive lawyers to fend off lawsuits. (Another key factor: the legal system no longer functions as an instrument of justice – one of the central ideals of Judaism – but has become an arena of largely cynical power conflicts.) A case in point is the British Petroleum oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, with its massive environmental damage, which may take decades to recover—for which BP has paid only a small fraction. Or, on a larger and more dramatic scale: the behavior of the Republican Party (reminiscent of a fundamentalist religion denying evolution or heliocentric universe!), in stifling serious public discussion of world-wide climate change taboo, certainly within their party and certain media. Again, because the consequences of effective action runs against their economic philosophy of unfettered growth and freedom of enterprise, they foster deep intellectual dishonesty.

Another consequence of increasingly aggressive capitalism is the privatization of education. Historically, public education has served to provide an opportunity for poor but bright kids to rise in society. How many American Jews, especially of the second generation, became what they were thanks to free public education? With current trends, with partial privatization of education—that is, with the government proving only the minimum to public schools—that may not happen in the future. Kids in Tel Aviv and Ramat Hasharon and Herliyah will enjoy good schools, while those in Netivot and Yeroham and Mizeh Ramon will perpetuate poverty and ignorance and unemployment for another generation.

As for your comment about the social–democratic states of Northern Europe: their present alleged anti-Semitism (or anti-Israel sentiment) is irrelevant to the validity of their economic system (unless you claim there is some sort of cause and effect between the two, which I don’t see). By the way, Denmark and the other Scandinavian countries had a relatively good record in the Holocaust; their present anti-Israel position is largely in response to the influx of Muslim immigrants, combined with the general atmosphere in much of Europe. As for our question, the crucial issue is this: a welfare state requires a major revamping in the tax structure. People must be prepared to accept a much higher rate of taxation, which they do because they know that in return they receive health care, free education for all (including universities), paid vacations, retirement benefits, etc. This requires a certain tradition, and can’t be changed overnight.

At this point, I must make a major caveat, returning to what we said at the beginning about human nature: that, whatever system one has, one needs to deal with the inevitable shortcomings inherent in human nature. Capitalism appeals to greed and, as mentioned, claims that, by allowing things to work on the basis of self-interest, they will work out in the end. Allow me to mention, as counter examples, the name Bernard Madoff and the experience of recent years in the US. Communism, or Socialism, appeals to idealism, to feelings of human solidarity and mutual responsibility, but leaves the door open for the exercise of raw desire for power and, in its initial stages, revenge of the poor against the rich. Thus, the Leninist theory of a “vanguard party” invited abuse by types like Stalin.

People today in the West, because of the so-called “death of the Left,” often reject the very existence of “class conflict” as a factor in society. Of course it is. On the other side, rigid, orthodox Communists saw everything as economics, ignoring religion, nationalism, group identity, ethnicity, etc., as significant factors in human community. This may be one reason why the so-called Left supports the Arab-Palestinian side in knee-jerk fashion: namely, because they see them (by and large correctly) as the lower economic class—but ignore everything else around the conflict, such as the aspects I discussed two weeks ago.

The bottom line is, as I said at the beginning, that there is no foolproof system. Nevertheless, I believe a serious discussion of socialist values is long overdue—specifically in Israel, which is at a turning point, or has been already for several decades. From a largely egalitarian society, with the kibbutz movement, the political domination of the nominally socialist Mapai (Labor Party), and the prominent position of the Histadrut Labor Federation (which has admittedly lost its way), it has moved towards rampant privatization and a highly centralized form of capitalism. (It is perhaps germane to mention here, close to my mother’s yahrzeit, that this was one of the things that attracted my parents to Zionism in the 1950s, following their deep disappointment in the Soviet Union and the “Sun of the Nations.”) I’d like to see this trend, which creates deep fissures in the public, stopped. If we believe that Israel is still the great project of the Jewish people in our day, we should foster it becoming, as a Jewish country, one in which there is greater justice, equality and social solidarity, rather than an ever more fragmented and divergent society, split into rival trends and sectors, as it has become over the past few decades. I see this as the central task of Zionism in the 21st century—alongside doing everything possible to achieve peace with the Arabs.


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