Rabbi David Segal
Aspen Community United Methodist Church
Sunday, 11 May 2014
“Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.” (Leviticus 25:10)
For all you American history buffs, this verse should ring a bell (sorry…). It was inscribed on the Liberty Bell in 1751, based on the King James translation of Leviticus. The Liberty Bell wasn’t known by that name until a group of abolitionists named it in the 1830s. The bell’s symbolism resonated with their mission to abolish slavery and thus “proclaim liberty throughout the land.”
It’s a beautiful message and a powerful symbol of our nation’s values. Only one problem: it’s not a very good translation of the verse in Leviticus. It is rather an example of something we are all probably guilty of in one way or another: taking a Bible verse out of context to express an idea we care about, with little sensitivity to the original intent of the text.
The verse appears in Leviticus in this past week’s Torah portion (B’har), which we just read in my congregation on Shabbat. It’s part of the description of the Jubilee year.
First we hear the rule about the farming Sabbath: just as we must rest on the seventh day, so too shall our fields rest in the seventh year. It’s a Shabbat for the land, known as Shmita. No reaping allowed, although whatever grows naturally may be eaten by us, our servants, our laborers, and our animals. It feels like letting the land return to a state of nature, living for a year as gatherers who depend on the land rather than as farmers who dominate it. Perhaps it’s a way of expressing gratitude to the land for its sustenance, and to God.
One commentator I came across finds another message in this Shabbat for the farmland: “Sometimes the wealthy don’t believe that poor people are actually suffering, suspecting that they are just too lazy to provide for themselves. Let the wealthy undergo the experience of not knowing whether there will be enough to eat, and their attitudes will change.”
This economic justice context frames the appearance of the Liberty Bell verse. Moving from the Sabbatical year to the Jubilee year, the text tells us to count off seven weeks of years –seven times seven, or 49 years. Then in the 50th year, on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), sound the shofar and observe the Jubilee. (The word Yovel, Jubilee, comes from the word meaning ram’s horn.) In that special year, not only is there no sowing or reaping, but there is also to be d’ror proclaimed throughout the land. The King James and Liberty Bell translate it as “liberty,” but that’s not exactly right. More accurate would be, “release.” The text continues: “Proclaim release throughout the land… and each of you shall return to his holding and to his family” (Leviticus 25:10).
So what is this “release” and “returning to holdings”? It refers to people “evicted from their homes and farms due to foreclosure” (Etz Hayim, p. 740, note on Leviticus 25:10). In other words, every 50 years there is to be a radical release from debt, a systematic loan forgiveness program, and an undoubtedly inconvenient process of people moving back to their original homes.
Jewish tradition has a complicated relationship with this law, because it presents a hardship for farmers, not to mention landlords and lenders. It throws real estate into confusion every 50 years – can you imagine instituting that rule here in Aspen! To make it simpler, the law has been interpreted as applying only in the Land of Israel. The rabbis found other ways around the hardship, for example by permitting Jews to sell their farmland to non-Jews during the seventh year so it could continue to be plowed, and then to buy it back after the shmita year ends.
These laws and loopholes got me thinking about the conversation going on in our country now about the economic challenges we face. In particular, there is a hardening of opposing views in an increasingly divisive political arena. On one extreme we have liberty being defined as getting the government out of our lives and out of the economy; on the other extreme, there’s a call for radical redistribution by government intervention. Not only do we disagree on how to alleviate poverty, but it seems like we can’t agree on whether it’s even our responsibility to address it.
On this question – if you’re a religious Christian or Jew, if you take the Bible seriously – then there’s not much room for argument. Our traditions and our God demand that we care for the poor and address economic injustice. I know we are gathered here in a Methodist Church being addressed by a rabbi, but Pope Francis has much to teach us in this regard. He has been a godsend by refocusing the Catholic Church back on the authentic biblical legacy of care for the poor. He even tweeted last month, in Latin, Inequitas radix malorum – “inequality is the root of evils.” Since his election, he has been pushing an anti-poverty agenda and criticizing capitalism to a surprising degree. The point is, you can disagree with his proposed solutions, and even with his diagnosis, but not with his emphasis. We should be talking about this problem, of the great disparities in poverty and wealth, of systemic inequity and economic injustice. These are global problems, moral challenges that confront us as Christians, as Jews, as Americans, as citizens of the world.
It is possible to rise above the partisan bickering, hard as that is to imagine. For one example, let us turn to Israel, and new Member of Knesset Ruth Calderon of the Yesh Atid (There is a Future) party. Calderon is a Talmudic scholar and founder of a groundbreaking “secular yeshiva” – a place for Israelis of all religious backgrounds and beliefs to come study Torah, to learn the tradition, to benefit from its wisdom. Calderon is applying the spirit of the law of shmita and jubilee, of letting the land rest and releasing debts, to contemporary Israeli society. She has called on other Members of Knesset to make the Shmita year 5775 (starting September 2014) a year of meaningful activism, awareness, and responsibility.
She is advancing an economic recovery program, in which Israeli families in dire financial need are selected for help. Then, through a public-private partnership, the families will get debt forgiveness and help with loan restructuring and repayment. Banks will cut interest rates, government subsidies will provide some aid, and the families will be required to pay off part of the remaining debt themselves. It’s a practical and compassionate solution, rooted in biblical values, and transcending the usual mire of left vs. right politics. I started to do a thought experiment about the US Congress undertaking a similar initiative… but it got so depressing I had to stop. Still, I believe there is hope, as far off as it may seem at times.
A few verses after the jubilee, we read God’s words: “the Land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me”(Leviticus 25:23). What would our politics, our business, our everyday lives look like if we lived as if we were merely sojourners here? If we saw ourselves as stewards of this place, responsible to an eternal presence much greater than ourselves?
This perspective doesn’t dictate any one political solution but rather an attitude, a spirit in which we should approach our neighbor, and our social problems. In the end, the Bible doesn’t call us to be a Republican or a Democrat, or to support the nuts and bolts of one economic policy over another. It charges us to be responsible, humble, and grateful. It demands that we care, and that we act.