Continuing discussion.

EPS Blog

This is the blog area for the Evangelical Philosophical Society and its journal, Philosophia Christi.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Judaism, Commerce, and Free Markets: An Interview with Joseph Isaac Lifshitz

Jewish economic thought is a rich tradition that Christian philosophers, theologians and economists can learn from and utilize in different ways.

In an interview with me, Acton University faculty member Professor Isaac Lifshitz articulates some of the main economic concepts of the Jewish tradition, the development of those concepts in Medieval Jewish thought, and how such thought might contribute to Christian attempts at economic theory. We also talk about the interesting and fruitful collaborative work between Christian and Jewish philosophers at the Shalem Center. 

Joseph Isaac Lifshitz is a Senior Fellow in the Department of Philosophy, Political Theory and Religion in the Shalem Center. His areas of research include Jewish philosophy and theology, Talmud, Jewish law, Jewish history, and Political Theory. In his study of Jewish Philosophy and history, his main focus is on the philosophy and history of Ashkenaz in the high Middle-Ages.

Here is an excerpt from our interview:

In brief, what are some concepts from the Jewish political and economic tradition that are the basis for helping to make sense of commerce, freedom and markets in a society?

There are several values that stand on the basis of Jewish politics and commerce. Among them the most important is the spirit of God that is given to every human being. The second but very important value as well is liberty. I see these two intertwined. As I understand it, the only justification for liberty is this portion of God that is given to man. When man expresses his spiritual portion, his needs and wishes as well as his needs for dominium are justified. In my opinion, Jewish political thought is based upon a strong idea of property rights that express these ideas of liberty. The polity is an ensemble of many that have a linkage to property. These many generate a political body in a spontaneous way. I believe that at the same time, in the case of the Jewish nation, there is a common faith that unites them. With a common faith in God they form the spiritual Israel.
Sometimes Jewish and Christian thought-leaders have argued that Judaism should be identified with some notion of a redistribution of wealth, given how “the poor” centrally figure in Judaism’s vision of life and society and given the challenges of wealth inequality. But you have argued that this is “alien to both the laws and the spirit of Judaism as reflected in the Hebrew Bible and the rabbinic tradition” (from “Foundations of a Jewish Economic Theory,” Azure [Autumn 2004], 34-66). Can you briefly explain your argument?
For Jews and Christians alike, charity is one of the most important values. Through charity one expresses an imitatio dei of God's grace. The last thing I wanted to say is a reduction from the utmost importance of charity. My main claim is though that charity is a moral value and not a legal value. The needy do not own a portion of the property of the reach. The solution of the problem of poverty will not be solved by a systemic distribution of the wealth, but rather by encouraging caring and giving to others. Therefore, one must not exchange charity with concepts of justice. This is a moral commandment that applies to human beings, and they are made responsible to their fellow people. Society has a whole bears the responsibility of encouraging the individuals to give from their money to charity, and even to force them to fulfill this commandment – but not to take the money and redistribute it.
To read the full-text of this interview, please click here.

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