Karl Marx may have been the pioneer, but many other Jews were also involved in the struggle for communism, particularly in the early days of the Russian revolution. Personally, I don’t think that we have any apologies to make for this phenomenon. Having suffered unbearably under successive oppressive regimes, many of those political activists genuinely thought communism would be better for the people than czarist corruption. Their sense of idealism fueled hopes for a better life and a more equitable future for all. On paper, communism was a good idea. The fact that it failed—and that the new leaders outdid their predecessors’ oppression—may reflect the personalities involved as much as the system they promoted.
What is Judaism’s economic system? Is there one? I would describe it as “capitalism with a conscience.” In promoting free enterprise, the Torah is clearly capitalistic. But it is a conditional capitalism, and certainly a compassionate capitalism.
Winston Churchill once said, “The inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of blessings. The inherent vice of communism is the equal sharing of miseries.” So Judaism introduced an open market system, where the sharing of blessings was not left to chance or wishful thinking, but was made mandatory. Our Parshah gives us a classic example.
Shemittah, the Sabbatical year, was designed to allow the land to rest and regenerate. Six years the land would be worked, but in the seventh year it would rest and lie fallow. The agricultural cycle in the Holy Land imposed strict rules and regulations on the owner of the land. No planting, no pruning, no agricultural work whatsoever in the seventh year—and whatever grew by itself would be “ownerless” and there for the taking for all. The owner could take some, but so could his workers, friends and neighbors. The landowner, in his own land, would have no more right than the stranger. For six years you own the property, but in the seventh you enjoy no special claims.
This is but one of many examples of Judaism’s “capitalism with a conscience.” There are many other legislated obligations to the poor—not optional extras, not even pious recommendations, but clear mandatory contributions to the less fortunate. The ten percent tithes, as well as the obligation to leave to the poor the unharvested corners of one’s field, the gleanings, and the forgotten sheaves are all part of the system of compassionate capitalism.
Judaism thus presents an economic system which boasts the best of both worlds—the advantages of an unfettered free market, allowing personal expression and success relative to hard work, without the drawbacks of corporate greed. If the land belongs to G‑d, then we have no exclusive ownership over it. G‑d bestows His blessings upon us, but clearly, the deal is that we must share. Without Torah law, capitalism fails. Unbridled ambition and the lust for money and power lead to monopolies and conglomerates that leave no room for the next guy and widen the gap between the haves and the have-nots. The Sabbatical year is one of many checks and balances that keep our capitalism kosher and kind.
Some people are too businesslike. Everything is measured and exact. Business is business. If I invited you for Shabbat, then I won’t repeat the invitation until you reciprocate first. If you gave my son $100 for his bar mitzvah, then that is exactly what I will give your son. We should be softer, more flexible, not so hard, tough and businesslike. By all means, be a capitalist, but be a kosher capitalist. What a person is “worth” financially should be irrelevant to the respect you accord to him. Retain the traditional Jewish characteristics of kindness, compassion, tzedakah and chesed, generosity of spirit, heart—and pocket.
May you make lots of money, and encourage G‑d to keep showering you with His blessings by sharing it generously with others.