As one of the world’s oldest monotheistic religions, Judaism has accumulated a wealth of knowledge about human affairs over several millennia. Whether it is in the Oral Torah, the Talmud, or the commentaries written by the great twelfth-century Jewish Rabbi, philosopher, jurist, and physician Moses ben Maimon (otherwise known as Maimonides), there are few areas of human endeavor that Jewish religious thinkers have not thoroughly explored as part of their effort to understand the truth about the divine and its implications for the things of this terrestrial world.
Although Judaism did not produce explicit economic texts as we are used to thinking about such things today, Jewish religious figures—especially those spelling out the meaning of the Law for issues touching on property, exchange, economic justice, and the duties associated with charity—did examine in some detail how the tenets of Jewish belief, especially as expressed in Jewish legal thought, applied to activities such as commerce. Closer examination of these questions soon reveals that the contemporary tendency to identify the economic implications of Judaism with modern social democratic principles and priorities is, at least historically and theologically speaking, somewhat difficult to reconcile with many sources of Jewish tradition.
Judaism and Jewish religious, legal, and moral principles are often regarded as translating into support for broadly social democratic economic positions. Looking, however, at the Jewish treatment of themes such as property rights, social welfare, charity, generosity, competition, and concepts of order, Joseph Isaac Lifshitz demonstrates that Judaism’s view of the market is more complicated—and favorable—than most people suppose.
Joseph Isaac Lifshitz is a senior fellow in the Shalem Center in the Department of Philosophy, Political Theory, and Religion. He studied at the Hebron Yeshiva and received his PhD in Jewish thought from Tel Aviv University. His areas of research include Jewish philosophy, 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. He is also a Rabbi of a community in Jerusalem.