Saturday, March 14, 2009

The Moral Implications of Redistribution and Righteousness

In a comment to my blog entry Going Galt? an anonymous interlocuter suggests that because I am opposed to the Obama adminstration's plans for the federal government to redistribute private wealth (personal and corporate) from those who produced and earned it to those who have not, I am "standing idly by while (my) neighbor bleeds." He was quoting loosely from Yayikra 19:16, and he wrote:

"And yet "Do not stand idly by while your neighbor bleeds." Leviticus 19."

This commandment is in the part of the Book of Leviticus known as the Holiness Code in which the commandments all harken back to the statement:

"And Adonai spoke to Moshe, saying: Speak to the whole Congregation of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy* for I, Adonai your G-d, am holy." (VaYikra 19:1-2)

Hebrew digression 1: The word for holy in Hebrew, kadosh, is from the root (kaf-dalet-shin) קדש , which has the meaning of separate. So the meaning of holiness from the Hebrew is to make oneself separate from or other than the ordinary. The verse could be translated as: You shall be separate (other) because I, Adonai your G-d, am separate (other)."

The Holiness Code is therefore a series of commandments intended to instruct the People Israel on how to live a covenental life; a life that is other than or separate from the way that the other nations live. It is the way in which Israel sets itself apart as a covenental people. Here is the entire verse (in blue) in context:

"You shall not steal; you shall not deal deceitfully or falsely with one another. You shall not swear falsely by my name, profaning the name of your G-d, I am Adonai.

"You shall not defraud your neighbor; you shall not commit robbery. The wages of the day-laborer shall not remain with you until morning.

"You shall not curse the deaf, nor put a stumbling block in front of the blind; You shall be in awe of G-d, I am Adonai.

"You shall do no unrighteousness in judgement; you shall not favor the poor nor show deference to the great; you shall judge your people in righteousness. You shall not accuse your people falsely; you shall not stand by the blood of your neighbor, I am Adonai.

"You shall not hate your brother in your heart; you shall surely rebuke your neighbor and not bear sin because of him." (VaYikra 19:11 - 17).

Verse 16a has also been translated as "you shall not go about as a talebearer among your people" and "you shall not deal with your people basely." The Hebrew verb is related to the misuse of speech.

Verse 16b has also been translated as: "Do not profit by the blood of your neighbor" and "Do not conspire against your neighbor."

Verses 11-16 deal specifically with the holiness inherent in the dealings among neighbors in the court of law. The theme of these verses is that all such dealings should be imbued with justice*, which is also translated as "righteousness." The position of the part of the verse in question (You shall not stand by the blood of your neighbor), just after the commandment against falsely accusing one's neighbor, suggests that this verse means that it is a very bad thing to make false statements against one's neighbor in court because such false statements might lead to the conviction of the innocent neighbor thus causing him suffering; or to the acquittal of the guilty, causing the victim of the crime to bleed. This is a crime against justice.

*Hebrew digression 2: The Hebrew word tzedekah, which has the root tzaddi-dalet-kuf
צדק , can be translated as either "justice" or "righteousness". The sense of the root is the concept of being straight, right or fair.

In the wider context of the verse, it is clear that to favor the poor in a court of law because they are poor is a violation of justice, as is favoring those who are great simply because of their status. To act justly means to treat everyone as equal before the law, taking no regard to their actual inequality in fact.

Other verses in this discourse on the holiness of judgement in a court of law state that it violates the holiness of dealings among neighbors to steal from them or rob them. The location of these verses in the discourse suggest that it is unholy for the court to take the goods of one of the litigants by force (this is the meaning of stealing) and give it to another unjustly. That means it is unrighteous to impose fines or otherwise transfer wealth from one to another, unless it is a tort payment--that is the payment by one neighbor to another as recompense for injury--imposed by the court in order to make the relationships between neighbors right.

Given the context and the meaning of the verse, then, I would actually be "standing idly by while (my) neighbor bleeds" if I do not speak out against the injustice of the Obama administration's attempts to allow judges in US courts to change the mortgage contracts of certain people, just because they are "poor" i.e. "unable to pay their mortgages." Such an action, in which certain taxpayers and their descendents would thus be forced to pay for the mortgages of certain citizens because of their status is certainly unrighteous.

The unholiness of this action goes beyond the dealings among neighbors in court in that it violates not only the rights of the current generation of taxpayers, but also incurs debt upon future generations without their knowledge or consent. This becomes the ultimate unholiness in Jewish values, for it is slavery.

The problem with the assertion of my commenter is not only that he took the verse out of context (to the point of only quoting half of it), but further, he assumed a false dichotomy: either the federal government takes the wealth of certain citizens (namely, taxpayers) by force to pay off the houses of other citizens OR those who cannot pay their mortgages will continue to suffer (bleed).

Missing in this false dichotomy is another solution: that the "bleeding" neighbor can declare bankruptcy and start over; and that when bankrupt, he can go to family, to friends, and to neighbors, asking for help making that new beginning.

Another meaning of the word tzedakah in Jewish life, is the holiness of being neighborly by helping those in need. Tzedakah is a moral choice made by individuals, alone or in free association with others. If a person is not free to choose an action, then the action has no moral meaning. It is incumbent upon Jews by virtue of their the Covenant of Holiness to engage themselves in acts of tzedakah. Nevertheless, each Jew must be responsible for choosing those actions and how they are made.

According to the Rambam (Maimonides) there are eight levels of this kind of giving, and the most honorable is to make it unneccesary for a person to become dependent on others. This is the opposite of the socialist agenda that would make us all dependent upon the government for our health, wealth and happiness. The purpose of the socialist agenda is to put the power to decide in the hands of an oligarchy and to destroy individual liberty. The purpose of tzedakah done at the most honorable level is to build up the power of individuals to decide for themselves and thus for them to become menschen--moral human beings.

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