Thursday, September 22, 2016

One Nation, under God, with Liberty and Justice for All

Feel free to download and print the Parashat Ki Tavo sheet and share it with your friends and family.

One Nation, under God, with Liberty and Justice for All

The issue of who can be seen as a full member of the community arises at the beginning of this week’s parasha and is revisited at the outset of the next. In the opening of Ki Tavo, we read of two mitzvot that apply when a person harvests the produce of the land: the mitzvah of bikkurim, or first fruits, and the mitzvah of viduy ma’aser, the declaration made when a person distributes what remains of his tithes at the end of three years. In both, the farmer gives thanks to God for the harvest and knows that he must share this divinely-granted bounty with those who are less fortunate: the Levite, the ger (the stranger), the orphan, and the widow (26:11-2).
As a landowner, the farmer’s privileged position in society is implicit in these mitzvot. The Levite and the stranger do not own land, a serious economic disadvantage in an agricultural society, and the widow and orphan do not have an adult male to protect and provide for them. This privilege extends beyond wealth to status. In the society that the Torah imagines, one’s land is primarily inherited, not purchased (see Vayikra 25). To own land, then, is to be a fully entitled citizen, a descendant of those who originally entered the land, exactly as the person bringing the first fruits narrates: “I declare today that I have come to the land that the Lord swore to our fathers to give to us” (26:3). He recites the story of the Exodus and declares that he is part of the sacred history, that his life as a part of the people is a culmination of God’s promise to the forefathers. The stranger and the widow are unable to make such a declaration. As outsiders, minors, or women, they have not inherited land; they do not figure as primary actors in the nation’s history; and they are not seen by society as having the same rights of belonging as others. It is the mandate of the landowner to protect and support them, but they remain at a distinctly lower social stratum.
The opening of next week’s parasha presents a different picture: “You stand this day, all of you, before the Lord your God ... all the men of Israel, your children, your wives, and the stranger within your camp ... to enter into the covenant of the Lord your God” (29:9-11). Here, the Torah implicitly recognizes that children, women, and strangers are not seen the same way as the men. It is for this reason that they must be identified explicitly, but it challenges such social stratification at the same time. The Torah is saying, while society may place you at different levels, today you all stand on equal footing to enter into the covenant with God. Although you have not inherited land and are not a recipient of that divine promise, you are part of the sacred history reaching back to the forefathers, “So that God may establish you this day as his people, and He shall be your God, as He spoke to you and as He swore to your forefathers, to Avraham, to Yitzchak, and to Yaakov” (29:12).
We are presented with two competing models: one of social stratification and one of religious and covenantal equality. How are these two models to co-exist? One answer is that each one inhabits its own distinct sphere. In the public and political spheres, the societal hierarchies remain, but in the private and religious spheres, all are equal members of the covenant. This solution will only go so far; in the end, the two spheres will necessarily intersect. To take one example, if a ger is unable to make the bikkurim declaration because he does not have a portion in the land, he is then placed in a lower position socially and religiously.
Another possibility exists: We can read the equality of the covenant as a critique of social hierarchies and a mandate to not only protect the ger, the widow, and the orphan, but ultimately, to remove the social inequities that place them at the margins. This point can particularly be seen in the case of the ger, for the Torah commands us multiple times, “one law you shall have for you, for the stranger, and for the citizen alike, for I am the Lord your God” (Vayirka 24:22). The ultimate goal is to achieve true equality of status.
This dynamic actually played out in halakha, in the case of whether and how a ger-understood by the Rabbis as “convert”-may bring the first fruits. The Mishna Bikkurim (1:3) declares that “A ger brings bikkurim but does not recite [the Biblical passage], because he cannot say, ‘that You, God, swore to our forefathers to give to us.’” While allowing the ger to participate in the ritual and give thanks to God, this ruling excludes him from connecting with the history of the people. The problem here is not limited to the issue of inheriting the land; it extends to one’s very relationship with God. The Mishna continues: “When he prays by himself he declares [in place of ‘our God and the God of our fathers’], ‘[our God and] the God of the fathers of Israel,’ and when he prays in the synagogue he declares, ‘the God of your fathers.’” To recite his prayers in such a way must result in an acute degree of felt exclusion. Having joined the faith and identified with the people, the ger must now, on a daily basis, pray to a God with whom he has a personal relationship (“our God”), but a God who remains the God of another people. The ger remains forever an outsider. The move in this Mishna from recitation of bikkurim to prayer between the ger and God is the trumping of the social hierarchy over the covenantal equality, even in purely religious matters.
The story, thankfully, does not end there. The Yerushalmi quotes an opposing position of Rabbi Yehudah, who states that a ger does recite the bikkurim declaration and also recites “God of our fathers” when he prays, just like everyone else. Rambam explains this movingly in a letter to a convert by the name of Obadiah (responsum 293, translation by Isadore Twersky):
You ask me if you, too, are allowed to say in the blessings and prayers you offer alone or in the congregation: “Our God” and “God of our fathers”....In the same way as every Jew by birth says his blessing and prayer, you, too, shall bless and pray alike....The reason for this is that Abraham our Father taught the people, opened their minds, and revealed to them the true faith and the unity of God....Ever since then whoever adopts Judaism and confesses the unity of the Divine Name, as it is prescribed in the Torah, is counted among the disciples of Abraham our Father, peace be with him... 
Therefore you shall pray, “Our God” and “God of our fathers,” because Abraham, peace be with him, is your father. And you shall pray, “The land that You have bequeathed to our fathers,” for the land has been given to Abraham....Since you have come under the wings of the Divine Presence and confessed the Lord, no difference exists between you and us, and all miracles done to us have been done as it were to us and to you. 
Here we have the reverse of what we saw in the Mishna. The ger refers to God as the God of his fathers in his prayers, and the miracles of Exodus were wrought to his fathers as well. He is now one of the people and their forbearers are his own. It goes further: The ger may even declare that the land has been bequeathed to his fathers, and-following the Yerushalmi-he may make the bikkurim declaration, proclaiming that God has taken him from Egypt and given him the land of Israel, although he in fact never truly owns the land as part of the original inheritance. Covenantal equality has trumped the societal hierarchies.
This is emphasized in other mitzvot as well. The Torah commands the ger to bring the Pesach sacrifice to share and affirm his participation in the foundational history of the people, and he has the mitzvah to recite the story of the Exodus on the Seder night-which takes the text of the bikkurim declaration as its point of departure-and to make himself part of that story. And when it comes to his ability to stake a claim to the land, the ger has the mitzvah of birkat ha’mazon, thanking God for the food after one eats and for the land-the land of Israel-that God has given us.
The Torah presents us with two competing models of belonging for the ger, the orphan, and the widow. One places them as a protected, disadvantaged class, and the other represents the rejection of class distinctions and the embracing of covenantal equality. Hazal have shown us that it is our responsibility to embrace the latter, to ensure that everyone is an equal member of the covenant and an equal member of society.
Shabbat Shalom!

Thursday, September 15, 2016

A Rabbi and a Scientist Walk into a Room...

Feel free to download and print the Parashat Ki Teitzei sheet and share it with your friends and family.

A Rabbi and a Scientist Walk into a Room...

Can new discoveries in science and advances in technology bring about changes in halakha? The question is not whether halakha can address phenomena that did not exist in the time of the Talmud, such as electricity, surrogate motherhood, and organ transplants; that is the regular work of halakha. The question, rather, is whether a halakha formulated on certain scientific or technological assumptions can change once those assumptions are proven incorrect. The Gemara, for example, states that a baby born in the eighth month of pregnancy is not viable and that her mother cannot even nurse her on Shabbat because the baby is "like a stone" and will definitely die. This is in contrast to a baby born during the seventh month, which the Gemara considers to be viable. In another case, the Gemara makes it forbidden to eat meat and fish cooked in the same oven because it poses a health hazard. Since we now know it to be otherwise, should the halakha change to reflect our current knowledge?

A number of people would object to the notion that the Rabbis of the Talmud could make errors in science. Rambam was certainly not bothered by this; he wrote that the Rabbis possessed scientific knowledge no more advanced than the scientists of the time (Guide to the Perplexed, II:8 and III:14). Others not prepared to concede this point but unable to deny that their direct experience of the world ran contrary to statements in the Talmud argued that nature had changed since the time of the Talmud: nishtaneh ha'tevah (see, for example, Tosfot Avoda Zara 24b, s.v. parah). Either way, once it was accepted that reality was not as the Talmud described, the question arose: Will halakha change as a result? The answer has implications for many halakhot and mitzvot, two of which appear side by side in our parasha. The Torah admonishes us regarding a number of people who cannot enter into "the congregation of the Lord," that is, who cannot marry another Jew. One of these is the petzuah dakah, the man with crushed testicles; another is the mamzer, the person born from an illicit union (23:1-2).

In February 1963, Rav Moshe Feinstein was asked about the case of a man who had a testicular biopsy so that the doctors might determine why he had been unable to have children (Iggrot Moshe Even Ha'Ezer 2:3). If any part of the testicle was removed, the man would be considered a petzuah dakah according to the Gemara, and he would be forbidden to continue living with his wife. Rav Moshe noted that the procedure in question could quite likely help-and it certainly would not hurt-the man's fertility. Thus, he concluded, if it could be established, first, that the Gemara's determination was not based on the physical condition of the organ alone but on the assumption that such a condition made the man sterile and, second, that the Gemara's ruling could be reassessed based on current scientific knowledge, we could then conclude that the man would not be a petzuah dakah.

This led Rav Moshe to analyze at length the question of whether halakha can change with new scientific knowledge. This had actually been discussed extensively through the centuries with the issue of treifot, animals with injuries considered to be fatal. Rambam ruled that the list of injuries cannot be updated based on new medical knowledge, even to be more strict (Laws of Shechita 10:12-13). This point was passionately reiterated by Rashba in a responsum (1:98), as it has been by many poskim since. But Rav Moshe argued that the case of treifot was an exception to the rule, being that the treifot were ultimately known and concretized through tradition and not science. For other halakhot, the matter was different:

[F]or we find in many other cases that the Torah relied on the Rabbis' assessment of reality, regarding absorption and transfer of taste [of foods in vessels], and when a planting takes root, and similar issues....[And when it comes to matters other than treifah,] the determination is based on the assessment of the doctors of any given time....We thus see that unless we are compelled otherwise, we should assume that matters that are dependent on nature should be based on the assessment of the rabbis of every given time.

For Rav Moshe, any halakha based on an assumption relating to science or the natural world can be reassessed as our knowledge changes.

Does this mean every halakha should be reassessed on this basis? The answer is no. The process of changing halakha based on science can be threatening and disruptive; acknowledging error can serve to undermine faith in the authority of the Rabbis or the divinely-binding nature of the system. Allowing science to dictate halakhic change also locates ultimate authority outside of the system, with science and scientists and not with the Rabbis; this is why Rav Moshe spoke about the determination of the Rabbis and not scientists. Beyond all of this, change is disruptive. Any legal system must be fundamentally conservative: the law must be stable so that it can support, guide, and direct behavior. No posek worth his salt is interested in doing a wholesale audit of halakha to determine which halakhot are out of sync with science to then change them accordingly.

The opposite-that no halakha should ever be revisited-is equally not true. A good posek knows that sometimes the law must be flexible; it must be able to respond to the human condition. The ability to reassess a halakha based on science can be an effective tool in finding halakhic solutions to challenging cases. Thus, Rav Moshe used his principle to rule that the man is not a petzuah dakah, but he did not use it to reassess the laws of kashrut, which he could have easily done, and with good reason. Today's pots are made from stainless steel, and they don't absorb the taste of non-kosher food. If we were to reassess the laws of absorption of taste, we would wind up jettisoning half the laws of kashrut. Rav Moshe wisely lets that possibility lie dormant. (Interestingly, just this week Rav Eliezer Melamed of Yeshivat Har Bracha reawakened that possibility, arguing that after the fact, food cooked in a clean stainless steel pot is always kosher, regardless of what it was used for in the past!)

The balance between stability and responsiveness can also be seen in the cases mentioned at the outset. In the case of a baby born in the eighth month, with a human life at stake, almost all poskim state that the ruling of the Gemara is no longer operative; the baby is considered viable and Shabbat must be broken to protect his life. However, there is no major need to reassess the prohibition of cooking meat and fish in the same oven, so that halakha remains.

This brings us to the second mitzvah, the prohibition against a mamzer marrying anyone who is not a mamzer. In July 1977, Rav Waldenberg dealt with the question of child support: In a case where the paternity of the child was in doubt, could a blood test be used to demonstrate that a particular person could not be the father? Rav Waldenberg argued that halakha could not recognize the results of such a test, inasmuch as the Talmud states that the red matter in a person, including the blood, comes from the mother and not the father. To argue this way seems nonsensical: the Talmud passage in question isn't a halakhic ruling, and there is no question about the science behind a blood test. But Rav Waldenberg knew what he was doing. To have allowed a blood test to be used in halakha would mean that we could determine that someone's father was not the man married to his mother, in other words, that the person was a mamzer. This would be highly disruptive to the system, which goes to great lengths to minimize cases of mamzeirut, and disastrous in terms of the human cost.

The introduction of change into the system brings about consequences, both seen and unforeseen, and it is just as likely that it will make things worse rather than better. The ability to reassess halakha based on science is a powerful tool in the hand of a posek, and it must be wielded responsibly. A good posek is one who knows that halakha must be as responsive as possible to human needs and that it must remain stable, consistent, and true to our mesorah. While different poskim will strike this balance differently, it is on every posek to ensure that our Torah remains both a Torat emet and a Torat chayim.


Shabbat Shalom!

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Says Who?

Feel free to download and print the Parashat Shoftim sheet and share it with your friends and family.

Says Who?

What is the basis for Rabbinic authority? Why do we follow the Talmud? Why is the Rabbis' interpretation of Torah mitzvot binding on us? The Talmud tells us that the answer to some of these questions can be found in our parasha. 

Much of Parashat Shoftim is devoted to institutions of authority: the court system, the king, the prophet, and the high court, the supreme legal authority of the land. The role prescribed for the high court is similar to that of the United States Supreme Court today: it has the right to interpret the legally binding meaning of our canonized text, here, the mitzvot of the Torah. The Torah states that if there is a matter "of dispute in your gates" and "the matter of law is hidden from you," then "You shall arise, and get thee up into the place which the Lord thy God shall choose." It continues:

And you shall come unto the priests, the Levites, and unto the judge that shall be in those days and enquire; and they shall tell you the sentence of judgment. And you shall do according to the sentence, which they shall tell you from that place which the Lord shall choose, and you shall observe to do according to all that they inform thee. According to the sentence of the law which they shall teach you, and according to the judgment which they shall tell you, you shall do. You shall not deviate from the sentence which they shall tell you to the right, nor to the left (Devarim 17:8-11).

The Torah is investing this body with the power to interpret a law whose meaning is unclear. Anyone who deviates from their interpretation violates both the positive mitzvah to follow the law that they shall teach, and the mitzvah to not deviate from it, to the right or to the left. While the basis of the Rabbis' legislative power is best saved for another discussion, this would seem to serve as a basis for Rabbinic authority in matters of interpreting Biblical law. But the matter is far from clear.

First, in this case, the court is not analyzing the meaning of a law for its own sake. Rather, it is responding to a case brought before them. Just as the Supreme Court cannot rule on a law until a case is brought before it, there is nothing in the Torah giving this body any authority to initiate a ruling on their own accord. Moreover, the Torah does not describe an individual bringing a question to the court, say, on the scope of a melakha on Shabbat, but rather, a case of litigants, "a matter of dispute in your gates." The litigants might turn directly to the high court, or a lower court-the judges situated "in your gates"-could refer a case because the scope or application of the law was unclear. Because each side is demanding justice, the matter must be referred to a higher court for an authoritative decision. This is how a court that oversees the law of the land operates; it does not make proactive rulings or respond to inquiries of individuals. But this is not how the Talmud operates. The Talmud's ruling regarding Shabbat, kashrut, prayer, torts, and even murder all emerged from a group of rabbis discussing the issues among themselves-a far cry from "a matter of dispute in your gates." 

Even if we were to assert that the court could initiate such rulings and decisions, we would still have a long way to go to connect the body described in these verses to the Rabbis of the Talmud. According to these verses, this body consists of a single judge and kohanim. The "judge" may refer to a sage or to someone knowledgeable in the law, but it may also refer to a political leader, typically referred to as judges in the book of Judges. Thus, the Talmud comments on the phrase, "the judge that you will have at that time": "Yiftach in his generation should be like [i.e., treated with the same respect as] Shmuel in his generation" (Rosh HaShannah 25b). While Shmuel did indeed judge the people (Shmuel 1, 7:15-16), Yiftach was only a political leader, and yet the Rabbis see this verse as referring to him as well. More significantly, the kohanim are not sages. Their role here seems to be that of God's representatives, hence the location of this body on Temple grounds. It is true that the kohanim are entrusted with the responsibility of teaching Torah to the people later in Devarim (33:10), but there is no indication that this is their function here, or that a sage who is not a kohen would be eligible to serve on this body.

Finally, as this body is the supreme judicial authority of the land, it is singular and centrally located. While there did exist a single, central Sanhedrin in the time of the Second Temple, only a tiny fraction of Talmudic rulings comes from that body. The vast majority come from the post-Temple, post-Sanhedrin period, when there was no single authoritative body. What, then, is the basis for the authority of the Rabbis of the Talmud?

Of course, it could be argued that none of these details matter, that after the Temple's destruction the Sages replaced the kohanim as the religious leaders of the people, and the verse applies to them as well. It could also be argued that these verses support the idea that a local body can have authority for those who turn to it in the absence of a central body. While it is possible to interpret the verses this way, it will not solve our problem, for what would make such a reading authoritative? The answer cannot be that the Talmud says it is so, for this is obviously circular: How do we know that the Rabbis have the right to interpret the Torah? Because they interpret the Torah to say that they have that right!

While this is clearly begging the question, it is worth noting that we find a similar instance in the history of the Supreme Court. The right of the Court to determine if a law is constitutional is, in fact, not explicitly granted in the Constitution. It was only in Marbury v. Madison (1803) that the Supreme Court ruled that it has this authority, which they ruled was implicit in the Court's duty to uphold the Constitution. While a somewhat circular argument, there was at least never any question as to which body had the right to make the final legal decisions of the land. In contrast, there is nothing that obviously leads from the verses in the Torah to identifying the Talmudic Rabbis as such a body.

So we are back where we started. What is the basis for Rabbinic authority to interpret Torah law? Ultimately, an explicit answer cannot be found in the Torah, as history makes clear. Going back to the time of the Second Temple, there were sects that rejected Rabbinic authority while fully accepting the authority of the Torah: the Essenes, the Sadducees, and later the Karaites. So much of what distinguished these groups from Rabbinic Jews lay in who they believed to hold the ultimate authority to interpret and apply Torah law. Their respective answers were not found in verses; they were found in the practitioners' beliefs. A Rabbinic Jew believed in Rabbinic authority. This was an a priori belief; it was his point of departure. 

In a way, this is no different than belief in the Torah itself. Why does a person believe that the Torah is from God? The answer can't be that the Torah says so. That's circular! (An old yeshiva joke: "How do you know that God exists? Rambam says so, and Ra'avad doesn't argue." So much for yeshiva humor...) If one steps outside the system, there is no objective evidence which proves a person's beliefs. One is a Torah Jew because she believes that the Torah comes from God and is binding on us. And one is a Rabbinic Jew because she believes that the Rabbis were invested with the authority to interpret the Torah.

Our parasha is largely devoted to laying the foundations for a system of authority-the king, the courts, the judges, and the prophet-and to severely punishing those who would challenge it. Of all these, the one that remains today, the authority to interpret the Torah, that is, rabbinic authority, is the one that is ultimately rooted in those who believe in it and accept it upon themselves. This parallels our contemporary condition: We live in a world in which, for the majority, religious practice is not imposed by the state but is fully voluntary. We live in a world in which the only power that rabbis comes, in practice, from those who turn to them. Some may bemoan this state of affairs, but for many, it is the ideal. It helps prevent-to some degree and in many but not all cases-gross abuses of power. And it helps create a dynamic wherein rabbis must be attuned to the needs of the populace if they hope to have people turn to them for their rulings and leadership. Such is the nature of an authority that emerges from belief, acceptance, and choice.

So who says the Rabbis have this authority? I do.

Shabbat Shalom!

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Friends, Romans, Countrymen: Lend Me Your Money

Feel free to download and print the Parashat Re'eh sheet and share it with your friends and family.

Friends, Romans, Countrymen: Lend Me Your Money
If asked which mitzvah obligates us to help the poor, we would immediately respond, "The mitzvah of tzedakah." There's only one problem: no such mitzvah exists in the Torah. Nowhere in the Torah does it say that if a poor person asks us for money, we must give it to him. But wait, you say, that can't be right. In this week's parasha it says explicitly, "For you shall surely open you hand to him and you shall surely give him sufficient for his need, in that which he lacks" (15:8)! But that's not really what the verse says. The Hebrew word (mis-)translated here as "give" is ta'avitenu. The root of the word is avot, collateral, and it doesn't mean to give money but to lend it.
It is true that by bracketing the key word "lend," the Talmud uses our verse to refer to a mitzvah to give tzedakah: "It is a positive mitzvah to give tzedakah... as the verse says, 'You shall surely open your hand to him'" (Rambam, Laws of Gifts to the Poor, 7:1). But in the simple sense of this verse, there is not a mitzvah to give a gift of money, only to loan it. The context makes this clear. After commanding us to release debts during the shmitta year, the Torah turns to the loans that are the source of that debt. It tells us that we must lend money to a poor person and that we cannot refuse the loan because we know that it will be annulled when the shmitta year arrives. The Torah is clearly dealing with loans, not the giving of alms.
Why would the Torah focus on loans and ignore tzedakah? Isn't it better for a poor person to receive a straight-out gift? He could use the money to feed his family and pay the rent without having to worry about how he will repay it. And lending money is problematic for another reason: the lender has power over the borrower. When the Torah states that a creditor cannot exact payment from a borrower during the shmitta, the word it uses is "yigos." This comes from the same root as the word used to describe the Egyptian taskmasters in Shemot (5:10,14). The reason is obvious: exacting payment from someone is exerting power over that person. Thus we are told, "You shall lend unto many nations, but you shalt not borrow; and you shalt reign over many nations, but they shall not reign over you." The parallel to lending money to someone is reigning over them. Perhaps Mishlei said it best: "The borrower is servant to the lender" (22:7).

Why then the focus on lending? We can begin to answer our question by looking at the nature of lending in the Torah. First, no interest could be charged. This eliminated one of the biggest problems with borrowing: getting deeper and deeper into debt because of interest. This restriction makes no sense from an economic perspective. If I can charge rent when I lend out my car, why can't I charge rent when I lend out my money? While it may not make economic sense, it does make sense in terms of our moral obligations. In an agricultural society, people are not borrowing money to invest it; they are borrowing money because their crops failed and they can't feed their family or buy seed for the next year. Indeed, in our parasha the Torah assumes that the only people borrowing money are poor, and if there were no poor, then we would never have to lend money (15:4)! In that reality, charging interest would only drive desperate people deeper into debt. The Torah therefore tells us that one must give up the interest that could have been charged and the money that could have been made; this is our obligation to the poor among us. This type of lending is actually a form of tzedakah.

The other significant aspect of lending in the Torah is what we find in our parasha: the annulment of debts every seven years. In combination with no interest, this meant that a poor person could not lose money by taking a loan, and if he couldn't pay the money back, eventually the debt would be annulled. This would effectively convert the entire loan into a gift, that is, into tzedakah in the classical sense. But then why not just give a gift outright? There are two reasons, one moral and one financial.

The moral reason is that lending allows a person to keep his dignity. When a person is reduced to asking for alms, he is immediately seen-by himself and others-as someone living off the generosity of others, someone who can't pay his own way, a ward of society rather than a member. The Talmud recognized this and cautioned against it: "Better to treat your Sabbath like a weekday," that is, to go without any special food or special clothes for Shabbat, "than to be dependent on your fellow-beings" (Pesachim 113a). More to the point of prioritizing loans over alms-giving is the statement in Shabbat (63a): "R. Abba also said in the name of R. Simeon b. Lakish: He who lends [money] is greater than he who performs charity; and he who enters into a partnership is greater than all." Quoting Rashi, Beit Yosef (Yoreh Deah, 249) explains that loans are preferable to gifts because of the embarrassment that comes with accepting a gift. He then explains why entering into a partnership is ideal: "In such a case [of borrowing money], the borrower is embarrassed, for he benefits from his friend in a matter from which his friend does not benefit at all. But if one does business with him, in such a case he is not embarrassed at all, since both of them benefit."

There is real irony here. The benefit of lending money is that it preserves the borrower's dignity. But the Torah's mitzvot regarding lending make loans more like tzedakkah, and this means that even loans will entail some compromise of dignity for the borrower. This dynamic was recognized by the founders of the Hebrew Free Loan Society, which was established at the turn of the century to help the immigrant Jewish population. Some local chapters decided to charge nominal interest as a way of making the loan a business transaction rather than an act of charity. While their practice was not consistent with halakha, the same result can be achieved halakhically through a heter iska, a device that frames a loan as a partnership and thus allows for the collection of interest. A heter iska is normally understood to serve the interests of the lender; here we see that, by making something a business transaction, the interests of the borrower may be served as well. It is clear, then, that a person's dignity and full membership in society is an immediate concern of the mitzvah to loan money.

 The second reason to prefer loaning money is a financial one. There are multiple reasons why it makes good financial sense to emphasize loans over gifts. First, because of concerns over dignity, people will ask for a loan well before they will ask for straight out charity. A mitzvah to loan money will translate into help for people whose businesses are faltering by giving them the critical support they need before it is too late. Rashi (Vayikra 25:35) gives a colorful metaphor for this: "To what can this be compared? To a burden on a mule. While it is still on the mule, one person can hold on to it and allow the mule to stand, but once the mule has fallen, even five people will not be able to raise it up."

Even when giving to the truly poor, there is also a difference between the economic impact of lending money and giving it. Gifts of money address an immediate need but not deeper systemic problems. The gift does not incentivize the person in any way. However, if a person takes a loan, even if it could eventually be annulled, she feels a legal and moral responsibility to pay it back, and this incentivizes her to find ways to invest it and generate new income. This is indeed what happened with Hebrew Free Loan Societies: the majority of loans were borrowed for entrepreneurial purposes, and this led to tremendous economic growth for the entire community. And there is one final benefit: if the money is paid back, the same money can be lent out again and again.

We have all internalized the Jewish value of giving tzedakah. We now need to internalize the value of lending money. There are many excellent gemachs, or free loan societies, that a person can give to, and if there isn't one in the immediate area, a new one can always be started. More broadly, a search of the web will reveal many ways to be involved in micro-lending, the practice of making small loans at low interest to allow individuals to invest the money and fund new businesses (halakhic issues would of course need to be addressed). The opportunities are there. It is for us to "open our hands and lend what is needed."


Shabbat Shalom!