Category: Politics

Economics and Social Justice in Jewish Law Part 2: Halakhic Market Controls

In part 2 of the Economics and Social Justice series, Rabbi Yuter discusses some examples of market controls in Jewish Law.

Economics and Social Justice in Jewish Law – Halakhic Market Controls Sources (PDF)

Economics and Social Justice in Jewish Law – Halakhic Market Controls

Economics and Social Justice in Jewish Law Part 1: Free Market Ethics in Torah

Rabbi Josh Yuter begins his special lecture series on Economics and Social Justice in Judaism with an introduction to methodology and a demonstration of a free market ethos existing within the Rabbinic legal tradition. Audio and sources included.

Economics and Social Justice in Jewish Law Part 1 – Free Market Ethics Sources (PDF)

Economics and Social Justice in Jewish Law- Free Market Ethics in Judaism

Who’s Selfish Now?

One of the more common critiques of Capitalism is that due to its focus on self-interested incentives that it promotes a selfish society. While there are those who object to this classification, but consider that Ayn Rand herself authored a book titled “The Virtue of Selfishness which would understandably cause some confusion. However, the irony is that in order to compete with “market forces” you actually need to put a greater focus on the “other” in order to sell your product or goods. As I hope to explain, in order to succeed in a capitalistic economy, one must have a greater appreciation for the needs of other people.

RCA Press Release on Israel’s Rotem Conversion Bill

RCA Statement Regarding The Rotem Knesset Legislation Pertaining to Conversions

The Rabbinical Council of America is fully aware of the current significant and broad-ranging communal debate regarding the so-called Rotem legislation in the Israel Knesset, dealing with the charged matter of conversion to Judaism, and Jewish identity in the Jewish State.

There can be no doubt that the State of Israel is the center of Jewish life in our time. Decisions made in the Knesset relating to Jewish status in the State impact on the entire Jewish world. This includes the status of those who have emigrated with family members from other countries, as well as those who may have converted elsewhere prior to emigration.

For this reason the RCA has expended major efforts in recent years to work with Israeli authorities to facilitate acceptance of RCA conversions in Israel. This effort has borne fruit with a significantly expanded number of conversion courts and judges whose converts are fully recognized in the State of Israel. For indeed every rabbinate around the world bears the responsibility to certify or recognize those who come under its jurisdiction, according to its own processes and principles.

And what is true of the rabbinate, is true of the sovereign and democratic State of Israel. North American Jews have long embraced the principle that the duly elected leadership of the State of Israel should not be subject to outside interference or pressure by other governments, religious bodies, or communal entities.

This is especially true when, as happens from time to time, there is no consensus – either among Diaspora Jews, or within the governing political and religious leaderships of Israel. While we have noted certain statements by a number of American Jewish religious and umbrella organizations, as far as we are concerned there is certainly no unanimity, or even consensus, among American Jews on the matter of the current Knesset legislation. It should be noted that the more traditionalist segments of North American Jewry, always in the forefront of support and advocacy for Israel and aliyah, have to our knowledge not been consulted by the North American Jewish Federation leadership.

While the legislation in question may not be perfect, we who live in North America must recognize that it does contain much to commend it. It is important to note that it was proposed and is championed by a secular political party whose constituents are the ones most directly affected by its outcome, and also has wide support among many in the Religious-Zionist camp. Crucially, for the future of the Jewish state, it addresses the existential challenge posed by the presence in Israel of hundreds of thousands of non-Jews who are members of Jewish families. It does so by significantly expanding the number of local rabbinical courts for conversion, so as to facilitate conversion in accordance with the relevant requirements of Jewish law and ethical sensitivity. It also prevents retroactive revocation of conversions by third parties. And not least, it has the support of Israel’s official rabbinate.

The legislation is designed to change nothing regarding North American Jewish issues, a matter which in any event is far less significant to the State of Israel and its citizens than the undoubted benefits that the bill promises. Modifications in the language of the legislation may further alleviate the concerns of the non-traditionalists, but that should be for Israel’s religious and political leadership to decide, without outside pressures or interference. As a Diaspora community we ought all to respect the internal political process that impact first and foremost on those who live within the boundaries of Israel, and only in a derivative fashion on us who have chosen to live in the Diaspora. It ill behooves us to intrude on Israel’s democratic processes, or to threaten, even indirectly or by implication, a lessening of our full and unequivocal support for the State of Israel, if our views do not prevail. It certainly is unacceptable to involve members of the United States Congress, acting in their official capacity as Members of Congress, in lobbying one way or another regarding internal Israeli legislative processes, as some have done.

We thus call on our fellow Jews to respect Israel’s internal political processes, so as to allow Israel and its citizens to make this decision in their own – albeit imperfect, but democratic – fashion, with our unqualified support, our heartfelt prayers, and – whatever the outcome – our undiluted blessing.

Rabbi / Obama Health Care Conference Call

Yesterday morning I was one of 1,000 Rabbis listening in on a conference call with President Obama on the hot button issue of heath care reform. The call was organized by coalition of Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist organizatoins including
The Central Conference of American Rabbis, Union for Reform Judaism, Rabbinical Assembly, Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, and coordinated by the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.
Technically speaking I’m not sure I’m “supposed” to write about the call. The intent of the call was less informative on Obama’s position, but more for the Rabbis to explore how to address the health care controversy in their upcoming High Holiday sermons. (In a nice move by Obama’s handler’s he began his health care discussion by referencing unetaneh tokef). Nevertheless there were point which I took away from the call that I feel are worth sharing with the public at large.

Finding “Freedom” and Protecting “Patriotism”

Every week I write a brief “Rabbi’s Corner” for my synagogue’s weekly e-mail. With the 4th of July this weekend I decided to examine the ideas of and meaning of “Freedom” and “Patriotism”. After a little searching I found a fascinating irony – these two terms holy contested in our perniciously partisan society both have linguistic histories conveying ideas of love and brotherhood.
First, according to the Online Etymological Dictionary the origins of word “Free” are rooted in a context of “love”:

O.E. freo “free, exempt from, not in bondage,” also “noble, joyful,” from P.Gmc. *frijaz (cf. M.H.G. vri, Ger. frei, Du. vrij, Goth. freis “free”), from PIE *prijos dear, beloved” (cf. Skt. priyah own, dear, beloved,” priyate loves;” O.C.S. prijati “to help,” prijatelji “friend;” Welsh rhydd “free”). The adv. is from O.E. freon, freogan “to free, love.” The primary sense seems to have been “beloved, friend, to love;” which in some languages (notably Gmc. and Celtic) developed also a sense of “free,” perhaps from the terms “beloved” or “friend” being applied to the free members of one’s clan (as opposed to slaves, cf. L. liberi, meaning both “free” and “children”). Cf. Goth. frijon “to love;” O.E. freod “affection, friendship,” friga “love,” fri?u “peace;” O.N. fri?r, Ger. Friede “peace;” O.E. freo “wife;” O.N. Frigg “wife of Odin,” lit. “beloved” or “loving;” M.L.G. vrien “to take to wife, Du. vrijen, Ger. freien “to woo.”

The term “Patriot” finds its origins in the word patriote or “fellow countrymen”, though in political terms it evolved into somewhat of an insult:

Meaning “loyal and disinterested supporter of one’s country” is attested from 1605, but became an ironic term of ridicule or abuse from mid-18c. in England, so that Johnson, who at first defined it as “one whose ruling passion is the love of his country,” in his fourth edition added, “It is sometimes used for a factious disturber of the government.”
“The name of patriot had become [c.1744] a by-word of derision. Horace Walpole scarcely exaggerated when he said that … the most popular declaration which a candidate could make on the hustings was that he had never been and never would be a patriot.” [Macaulay, “Horace Walpole,” 1833]

But the term Patriotism was not always an insult, nor was always used as a political sledgehammer to sell flag pins. According to Harvey Chisick’s Historical Dictionary of the Enlightenment, “patriotism” could be defined as something akin social egalitarianism and justice:

Unlike the situation in the 19th century, when nationalism tended to be exclusive and confrontational, during the 18th century patriotism belonged with such inclusive and cohesive values as humanity and beneficence. In the course of the second half of the 18th century, a person who provided relief for the poor, or objected to excessively harsh penal laws, or who criticized institutions such as serfdom or slavery, was likely to be described as a good patriot.” (p. 314) [emphasis original]

My hope for this 4th of July our nation can look back to the history of these important words not be lost amongst the ever-spiteful partisan rhetoric which continues to divide our country. I hope that we can spread freedom – in all senses – to our fellow citizens of the world and that we remember the message of what it once meant to be a true patriot.
While I’m not optimistic, I am proud to live in a country where I have the freedom to dream.

30 Is The New 50

Since turning 30 last August I’ve been a little more aware of my age, making the occasional self-deprecating grizzled remarks about the old days. Age is especially noticeable in the increasingly youthful Washington Heights community where the shul is even running a single’s event specifically for people ages 22-29.
All this I can deal with, but then I get the following in the mail:
AARP Membership
On the plus side I guess this means I can cash out on social security earlier and join one of the most powerful lobbying groups in the country.
Now get off my lawn.
*waves stick*

Discrediting Subprime “Victims”

We recently mocked big business for outsmarting themselves in the subprime crisis, but it seems that there’s plenty of criticism to go around. Take for example, this powerful New York Times article of the subprime crisis’ impact on communities. To be sure, people are living scared and are understandably nervous about losing their homes and even treading financial water. And we can even grant that lenders have and still do engage in predatory lending practices, including student loans.
But just as we must hold big businesses accountable for their unethical practices, we must also examine the motivations of the affected individuals involved as well. Specifically, while big businesses are motivated by profit, many “victims” sought to maximize consumption with minimum immediate and therefore minimum visible cost. For example, the article reports that one person facing foreclosure, “bought her Bronx home for $535,000 with no cash down.” For many people, myself included, $535,000 is a great deal of money. To “purchase” a house for that amount entirely on credit demonstrates not just a lack of financial acumen, but the immature mentality of expectation and entitlement i.e. that desires ought to be satisfied immediately.
Worse is that people aren’t even learning from their mistakes. The article continues:

In some cases they cannot even work up the money to furnish their homes. Few customers have visited Boston Road Furniture, despite a handwritten come-on taped to the window that promises anyone can ?Get Up to $3,000 Instantly No Job No Credit Check.?

The proprietor adds:

?We need a government loan,? he said. ?This country is falling apart. We need customers. We need some help. So many ?For Sale? signs in this neighborhood. People just have to leave their homes and run.? [emphasis added]

The communal mentality is firmly entrenched in credit as a normal way of operation. True credit and financial liquidity are an essential part of economic systems, but here we have the epitome of short term financial thinking. Immediate interests are always satisfied, while the inevitable costs are simply ignored and disregarded – out of sight, out of mind.
Big businesses did take a hit for their own corporate greed to the tune of several billion dollars, and deservedly so. But while there are no doubt actual victims of the subprime crisis, there are also affected individuals who are now facing the consequences of their own materialism.
I refer all others to SNL’a helpful advice.

JPMC’s Fred Thomson Town Hall

This campaign season JP Morgan Chase has been holding Town Halls featuring various presidential candidates. Apparently one of CEO Jamie Dimon’s mandates was that the company become more involved politically in terms financial support or interest. Thus far the company has not only supported multiple candidates, but has assigned senior people as liaisons to various campaigns. (One would assume such support dwindles once front runners are more established). Furthermore, by holding Town Halls, we give the impression that JP Morgan Chase does not only financially support candidates, but its employees are politically interested.
The implications should be obvious that a multi-billion dollar company is attempting to gain influence in politics, no doubt to advance its own financial benefit. In fact JP Morgan Chase has its own PAC responsible for among other things donations (PDF).1 On the candidate’s side, they get more money and exposure. From the employees perspective, we get to bask in the glory of a presidential hopeful and get away from our desks for a bit.
But as the emcee pointed out, the main problem with running these events is that the candidates have more important things to be doing – like trying to get elected. As the campaign continues, the only people who will be available will be the ones who have already lost or have nothing left for which to run. A few months ago, JPMC scored Hillary Clinton – and event which I was unable to attend. This brings us to today’s event featuring Senator Fred Thompson, which didn’t quite fill the 200 seat auditorium.
Unfortunately the entire program was roughly 30 minutes. Sen. Thompson spoke for about 15 minutes followed by 3 audience questions. Given the time constraints I cannot blame Sen. Thompson for not going too in depth on any particular issue. My quick impression was that he seemed subdued, down-to-earth, and very straightforward. He outlined the main principles of his platform which sounded typically Republican (free markets, free trade, strong military, lower corporate and personal taxes). Of particular interest was his policy on social security reform which would tie benefits to inflation as opposed to wages.
Given more time, I would have liked to hear his response to William Voegeli’s pragmatic assessment of Republican policies but considering the current polls that might not be an issue.
I will say that from a personality perspective, Sen. Thomson came across as a “straight-shooter.” He calmly presented what he feels are the most important concerns of the country and what he would do differently. Perhaps it was the lack of mainstream media and celebrity, but I found the tone refreshing.
There were some requests for other candidates including Rudy Giuliani and Barack Obama, which I doubt would leave open seats. I’ll post if anything interesting come up in the future.

1. I A quick survey of the PDF shows n 2006, JP Morgan’s PAC made 820 donations nationally totaling $1,342,909.78. It seems that on a national level JPMC tries to hedge between Democrats and Republicans. Certain imbalances are due to JPMC reporting donations made by companies which were later taken over by JPMC. The largest individual beneficiary I saw was Ways and Means Chairmen Charles Rangel with a $10,000 donation.