UBI and Jewish Traditions

There is no single Jewish economic ethic that one could say is plainly authorized by the traditional sources of Judaism. Jews, religious and secular alike, have been capitalists and communists, liberals and conservatives, propertarian minarchists and libertarian socialists. They have found support for these positions in Jewish sources when they wanted it, rejected such support when it seemed unnecessary or unwelcome, and rebelled against the tradition when it seemed to authorize an opposing position from their own.

Nevertheless, the Tanakh, the Talmuds, and the commentators continue to offer both spiritual sustenance and profound frustration to Jewish thinkers who seek guidance from them for contemporary economies. Ancient Israelite institutions such as the Sabbath, Sabbatical, and Jubilee intrigue with their economic ambiguities; the same is true of rabbinic halakha, which seems to nurture a robust conception of personal property, while at the same time empowering rabbis and other communal officials to set prices and enforce mandatory charitable giving.

To account for these traditions in a convincing presentation, in the terms of contemporary political-economic thought, would require a massive, interdisciplinary project, paying detailed attention to the socioeconomic contexts in which the sources originated, as well as their literary features, intended purposes, and reception. Economic history, intellectual history, political economy, ethics, and hermeneutics all have necessary roles to play in such a task. 

Public life, however, often demands that one take a position before the results of such an ambitious research agenda are in. One cannot proclaim with absolute certainty that Judaism (or Christianity or Islam) “says” that a person living in a twenty-first century capitalist democracy should argue on religious grounds to implement a universal basic income (UBI), or a federal job guarantee, and so on. Weighing the relative merits of such programs involves specialized knowledge that seems beyond the purview of traditional sources, such as whether a UBI would cause inflation. Nonetheless, religious citizens sometimes desire guidance from tradition on such matters, and they wager—essentially placing a bet on religion as approving of unregulated markets, or rather preferring strong government regulation of the economy in favor of workers, etc.

Widespread disagreement is conducive to skepticism. Any good-faith observer can see that different ideological actors prefer to cite different texts. Such an observer might reasonably conclude that “the devil can cite scripture for his purpose,” and therefore that religion has little to contribute to political-economic debates. Or, they might return to the ideal of my aforementioned long-term research agenda, in the hopes of one day being able to refer to a presentation so well-grounded that it transcends the skepticism of “proof-texting” in politics. By contrast, the possibility of a persuasive wager on the basis of a brief presentation may seem to be ruled out from the start. And yet, I will offer one, since I have been invited to do so and since I believe we cannot escape the pragmatic necessity of such wagers. 

The normative question at the forefront of discourse about UBI, the answer to which does not depend on resolving implementation questions (e.g. inflation, etc.), has to do with the nature and value of work and the connection between work and the means of subsistence. Jewish tradition begins by offering two distinct terms for work, as seen in the commandment to observe the Sabbath: “Six days shall you labor [ta’avod] and do all your work [melakhetekha], but the seventh day is a Sabbath unto YHVH your God” (Exodus 20:8). 

Both roots, ayin-bet-dalet (עבד) and lamed-alef-kaf (לאך), describe the activity of the six days of creation, in contrast to Sabbath rest. Rabbinic tradition nonetheless distinguishes between them. The former gives us avodah, which comes to mean “worship” in the sense of “service,” and eved, variously translated as “servant” and “slave.” The latter gives us melakha, which the rabbis designate as the term for all categories of task prohibited on the Sabbath (as well as malakh, a task-doer, translated both as “messenger” and “angel”).

This distinction is not merely motivated by the rabbinic notion that scripture is omni-significant and therefore that any two apparent synonyms must have distinct connotations. It is overlain by Jewish theological understandings of the nature of the human being, as a creature who cannot be reduced to the status of worker. The inclusion of the eved within the Sabbath commandment, whether we render eved as “slave” or as “servant,” combined with the increasing tendency to treat avodah as denoting primarily divine service, arguably forms a trajectory that leads to the fundamental denial that one human should be eved to another, rather than to God. 

These theological understandings are connected in popular historical memory to the Torah’s treatment of the Egyptians, who set upon the Israelites “hard labor” [avodah kasha] (Deut. 26:6), and who made them serve “with rigor” [b’farekh], a term that recurs as a negative commandment regarding the treatment of one’s Hebrew eved (“You shall not rule over him b’farekh, but fear your God” [Lev.25:17]). The medieval commentator Maimonides (1138-1204) defines “rigor” in this passage as referring to any work “that has no definite time or limit, or needless work designed only to keep the eved working and occupied” (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Avadim 1:6).

Jewish sources thus do not value work for its own sake, but only needed work. Passages dealing with human labor relations are not connected, as in some understandings, to the account of the Fall, in which drudgery and toil are portrayed as just punishment for sin. Idleness is no sin for its own sake, but only if one has agreed to perform a certain task for a wage and then neglects to do so (a form of theft), and it has its parallel in the employer’s attempt to pay less than the agreed-upon wage or to demand more work than initially stipulated. This is not to say that the rabbis do not have an idea about what one should do with one’s time: Torah study is superior to gossiping about celebrities. But this spiritual hierarchy is not linked to material subsistence.

Thus, Jewish tradition furnishes grounds for de-linking subsistence and work in the manner of the UBI. If automation renders some work unneeded, it is a theft of human time to force anyone to do it anyway, out of some conviction that individuals must earn the means of life through work. The point as I have made it here is narrow, and does not touch on the issue of charity, on which Jewish literature comments extensively. Nor does it address the relationship between work, dignity, and fulfillment, that arises more naturally in discussions of the federal job guarantee, nor on any of the implementation questions that arise in comparing the two policies. But it is an intuition that I believe would be borne out by a fuller study.

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