Thursday, May 12, 2011

Is God a Socialist? Notes on the Jubilee

This is the personification of
Israel from the Comic Torah.
In the seventh year we must
cease from plowing her.
This week's sedra is a stark reminder that living in a "Torah/Bible-based society" will require more than the elimination of homosexuals.God may not like gays but, based on several verses in Behar, it seems clear that He also dislikes property ownership. As per the 25th chapter of Leviticus, your rights as a land owner are severely limited. Not only are you required to sacrifice a year of productivity at the end of every shmita cycle, you're also forbidden to sell your farmland for good. Until the Rabbis worked out a loophole, you were only permitted to lease your land until the next jubilee. Then, it was returned to you.

This isn't capitalism, and its not something the typical right winger supports, or likely even knows exists. Its also hard to see how the rules in Lev 25 might work in modern society. The jubilee provisions make it almost impossible to develop land. They suppress entrepreneurship, and prevent the accumulation of large estates and fortunes. That might be okay for an agrarian society with a population kept stable by wars, infections, and disease, but how can you accommodate population growth if the farmland you'd like to turn into apartments is always due to be returned to someone? Didn't the divine author anticipate penicillin and vaccines?

The Rabbis solved the problem by creating* the loophole of a perpetual lease. Though the word of the Torah is usually considered the highest trump card, the Rabbis decided that here, at least, a contract between two people was of greater value. As a result, you can get around the requirement to return farmland to the original owner by signing a 999 year lease. Samson Rephael Hirsch claims that such a lease was only permitted after the fact, or bidieved, but I think the sources are clear that they were signed l'chatchila. Nowadays, none of this is relevant because we've forgotten the count. Because no one knows exactly when a Jubilee year falls, we collectively shrug our shoulders and say, "Oh, well."

I think that along with that shrug, there's also a sigh of relief. People understand that keeping Jubilee would be a disaster for economic progress. So rather than finding a way to rehabilitate it (as in the case of several other commandments) we've found a way to let it slide.

*Don't complain to me about the verb. Per the Rambam, there are five categories of Mesorah. Two of them are definitely from Sinai, the other three are not. The jubilee loophole is a takanah, or something imposed by the Rabbis to address issues that emerged as the world changed. In this case, they saw the problem keeping Jubilee imposed, so they developed a work-around. 

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