Shabbat Talmud Study: Does the Torah Have a Position on Socialism vs. Capitalism?

If you have a child or grandchild in their 20s, and you talk to them about economic inequality and what to do about it, you are likely to discover that words that were dirty in my generation are no longer dirty to many in the rising generation; and that words that were sacred are no longer sacred. Case in point: Socialism and capitalism.

I was raised to believe that socialism equals communism equals fascism equals injustice. That childhood equation was refreshed in adulthood: socialism equals Venezuela equals death. Any American candidate that would attach themselves to the word socialist would earn unremitting opposition.

By contrast, capitalism evoked what Winston Churchill famously said about democracy itself: “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Capitalism is not perfect, but it is the best principle on which to build a society. That was axiomatic.

But what was axiomatic for me growing up is no longer axiomatic for many thoughtful young people. In my conversations with 20-somethings today, these paradigms-socialism bad, capitalism good-are no longer so clear to them. Many are not repulsed by, but are attracted to, candidates who attach the word socialist to their identities.

Tomorrow is Shabbat Shekalim, by which we read the Torah’s explicit acknowledgement that there is such a thing as rich and poor.

This is what everyone who is entered in the records shall pay: a half-shekel…the rich shall not pay more and the poor shall not pay less than a half a shekel (Exodus 30: 13-15).

How does the Torah regard the reality that there are rich and poor? Is this reality inevitable? How should we see it, and what should we do about it? What does the Torah’s posture on economic inequality mean to us today? In considering these questions, we will consider the wisdom of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks and Rabbi Shai Held.

Economic injustice has been a problem for a long time. How might our past inform our future?

Shabbat shalom,