Whatever field you work in, and whether you are Jewish or not, this book will give you an insight into how we as human beings should go about our lives as working people. This review was originally published in the Jewish Press Book Supplement, June 2015
“…economics is not a value free discipline similar to the physical sciences, but rather a branch of moral philosophy.”
Meir Tamari opens this new edition of his book: With all your possessions: Jewish Ethics and Economic Life with the view that economics, both for Jews and non-Jews alike, needs to be approached in a fresh way in the 21st century. To put it in context, this new preface was written in response to the post 2008 global financial crisis.
In March 2012 the National Fruad Authority in the UK published the “Annual Fraud Indicator” and stated “This year’s Annual Fraud Indicator has put the loss to the UK economy from fraud at £73 billion. This level of loss impacts every part of society, including the most vulnerable. It represents money that individuals, businesses and Government can ill afford to lose ending up in fraudsters’ pockets.”
For those unfamiliar with how Jewish law works, Tamari begins the book with a useful overview of the history of Halakhic (legal) texts from the Bible up to the present day. Whilst this is a clear review of key texts and history, it would have been useful to include references in this section, as some of the traditional dates used by Tamari have been questioned by academics in recent years. However this is a small gripe in an otherwise well written and referenced work.
Tamari deals with some fascinating issues such as, The Challenge of Wealth, Money, Banking and Interest and Taxation. However, one of most interesting sections is the one dealing with Environmental Issues and the Public Good. This is an area which is rarely written about in the religious Jewish literature. The section is divided into a discussion about damage caused by one individual on another individual, public health and town planning.
According to Tamari “..the most important issue involved in contemporary environmental problems…striking a balance between urban growth and the ecological needs of society.” Whilst this is a short section of the book it highlights the, possibly little know, Jewish approach to the creation and maintenance of green belt land and the prohibition on changing the use of land. It may be impossible for us to imagine a world without huge cities, gridlocked traffic and pollution, however Rabbi Hirsch is quoted from his commentary on the Torah as teaching us that any growth in population or mobility that necessitated the construction of homes, factories, and offices would need to be managed by constructing a new city, with its own fields and common land.
According to the British government “Good population health outcomes, including reducing health inequalities, rely not only on health protection and health improvement, but on the quality and accessibility of healthcare services provided by the NHS (National Health Service)(1).” However the cost of running the NHS has increased to astronomical levels. “When the NHS was launched in 1948, it had a budget of £437 million (roughly £9 billion at today’s value). For 2015/16, it was around £115.4 billion(2).” So what is the Jewish approach to the provision of Public Health?
Interestingly, Tamari notes that, as in the case of the obligation to teach Torah with no charge, “the physician’s work was considered to be a service that was to be provided free of charge; after all, it was an obligation placed on the doctor by a divine source.” Whilst it is acknowledged that doctors can charge for their time (if not their expertise) the question remains, what is the Jewish approach to the provision of medical services to the poor? Yehuda ibn Tabbon told doctors that “while you take your fees from the rich, heal the poor gratuitously. The Lord will requite you.” Another option would be to raise tzedaka (charity) specifically to provide health care to the poor.
This leads us to the issue of taxation (dealt with in an earlier chapter of the book). Whilst many will enjoy the custom of booing the name Haman in the Megillah on Purim, one of my favourite customs is to boo at the mention of the word מס (taxes) in the final chapter of Megillat Esther. However, Tamari paints a clear picture for us that taxation (even if it is often not named as such) is a very real part of the halakhic (Jewish legal) framework and has been present throughout Jewish history. Whilst the details may not be relevant to this review, the underlying message is clear. “Perhaps the most Jewish of the underpinnings of taxation is the now universally accepted concept of society’s responsibility for the needs of its members.” In fact one of the book’s earliest chapters deals with the “problem of wealth” however, its overriding message is that we must, of course look after ourselves, but just as importantly our neighbours, the orphans, the widow and the poor.
The book is well written and very readable. It tackles subjects which may not be easily accessible to the English reading public. I very much hope that the author is planning a second volume in which he can expand on some of the key areas which he only touched on in this fascinating volume.