The Common Good
September-October 1997

Holy Economics

by Arthur Waskow | September-October 1997

A rhythm of worthy work and reflective rest.

Because the Hebrew Scriptures are rooted in a landed community that had to deal with the everyday issues of food and money, they describe in considerable detail what might be called a path of "holy economics." At one level, there is the transformational vision of Leviticus 25 and Deuteronomy 15: Every seventh year, debtors were released from their debts and the land itself was released from human control, so that it could make its own Sabbath rest for an entire year.

And in the 50th year (seven times seven plus one), a Jubilee was to be proclaimed: The land should lie restful for yet another year, while every family returned to the equal share of the land it had been assigned when the people of Israel first came into the Promised Land. Thus the rich were to be released from the extra land they had acquired, the poor were to be released from their landless status, even indentured servants, no matter where they stood in their own seven-year term of service or a life-long obligation, were to be released to return to their original family landholding. (This "release"—in Hebrew, dror—is what is encoded on the Liberty Bell: "Proclaim liberty [dror] throughout the land to all the inhabitants thereof.")

But what about the time between transformations, between sabbatical years and Jubilees? As we lead our "ordinary" lives today, we certainly need to look at the Bible's notion of ordinary economic history as well as the times of transformation.

At first glance, it seems like six years of free enterprise. For six years at a stretch, the land could be worked and the land could be bought. Some could get poor enough to need to borrow money, some could get rich enough to lend it. For 49 years at a time, some could get rich enough to hold a great deal of land and to supervise a large number of indentured workers.

Even during these ordinary years, there were two socioeconomic requirements that set limits to poverty and wealth: Everyone was entitled to work, and everyone was both entitled and obligated to rest.

Honoring Work, Promoting Equality
How did the Bible provide that everyone was entitled to work? Says Leviticus 19:9-10: "When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not complete the harvest in the corners of your field, nor shall you gather the gleaning of your harvest...or of your vineyard. ... You shall leave them for the poor and the foreigner; I am YHWH your God!"

And indeed in the book of Ruth we find this command carried out. Two penniless widows, one a foreigner from a despised community—the Moabites—arrived in Israelite society. The foreigner, Ruth, was welcomed onto the fields of Boaz, where she gleaned what the regular harvesters had left behind. Boaz knew that even this despised foreigner was entitled to a decent job at decent pay. And the work she did was not menial or undignified; it was exactly the kind of work that most people did in the world of ancient Israel.

Boaz acted with great generosity, but he was not free to act ungenerously. It was the law of his society, not his private generosity alone, that guaranteed Ruth a place in gleaning his crops. Everyone—not only one extraordinary woman—had the right simply to walk onto a field and begin to work for a decent income, begin to use the means of production of that era.

Notice that Boaz could not order his regular workers to be economically "efficient." They could not harvest everything, not what grew in the corners of the field, not what they missed on the first time around. Social compassion was more important than efficiency. No downsizing allowed.

When Ruth went one night to the barn where the barley crop was being threshed, Boaz spent the night with her and decided to marry her. With him the penniless foreigner became the great-great-great-grandmother of King David, and therefore (in both Jewish and Christian traditions) the ancestor of the Messiah.

IF RUTH CAME TO America today, what would happen? Would she be admitted at the border? Would she have to show a "green card" before she could get a job gleaning at any farm, restaurant, or hospital? Would she face contempt because she spent a night with Boaz on the threshing floor?

Through the book of Ruth, the Bible affirms that in a decent society everyone is entitled to decent work for a decent income. Everyone—even, or especially, a despised immigrant. Everyone—not just 95 percent of the people.

Ruth was entitled not only to a job, but to respect. Boaz reminded his workers: No name-calling, no sexual harassment.

And she, as well as Boaz, was entitled to Sabbath: time off for rest, reflection, celebration, love. She was entitled to "be" as well as to "do."

How do we know that Ruth was entitled to rest, as well as to work at a living wage? In both the places where the Ten Commandments of Sinai are recited (Exodus 20:8-11 and Deuteronomy 5:12-15), it is made clear that the whole family, all servants, and "the foreigner within your gates" are all to rest one day of every seven. In the second recitation, the Bible explicitly says that the reason for this Sabbath rest is to remember what it was like to be a slave in Mitzraiim (the Hebrew word for Egypt means, more generally, "the tight and narrow place"), where it was never possible to rest.

Yet America today sneers at immigrants; blames the poor for their poverty; keeps at least 5 percent of its people officially unemployed, and in fact far more (prisoners and those who have given up on ever finding a job, for example); dumps many, many more from jobs long held into jobs far beneath their abilities for the sake of "efficient" management; subjects others to exhausting overwork that leaves no time for rest, reflection, celebration, family, love, community—and drives them to alcohol or television to relax. In that America—this America—what is the obligation of those who, like Boaz, are well-off?

BECAUSE RUTH and Boaz, the outcast and the solid citizen, got together, they could bring Messiah into the world—the transformation that brings peace and justice. What does that teach us today?

It teaches us to make sure that every human being can find decent work and be decently paid for it. To make sure that every human being has time for calm and reflective rest, time to live in the midst of a loving family and community. Only through a rhythm of worthy work and reflective rest do human beings grow into moral and ethical people.

For individuals to be ethically responsible, their society as a whole must be ethically responsible. We create an irresponsible society if we tell individuals they are responsible for themselves—and then deny them the jobs, the decent incomes, and the time for rest and renewal that we all need in order to be responsible human beings.

No one offered Ruth a pile of food, free for the taking. She was both entitled and obligated to glean the food, even though she did not own the land on which it grew. That was responsibility.

Restful renewal is also an aspect of responsibility. Ruth, like every other citizen or foreigner, like every worker, even the earth itself and all its life forms, was entitled and obligated to rest on the Sabbath. Time to repose and reflect, time for family, community, and citizenship.

But today we keep millions of our people unemployed, and force others to be overworked. For millions, no gleaning. For millions, no Sabbath.

The point is not to go back to the failed policy of a "welfare" system focused on preventing the poor from either working or resting. That system failed because there were no jobs and no support for the places where people can rest and reflect on their lives and themselves—neighborhoods, families, religious congregations, grassroots politics, picnics, folk festivals, forests.

HOW DO WE PROVIDE jobs and rest for all? There is a great deal of honorable work that American society needs to get done, but has committed few resources for the doing:

  • The physical work of replacing rotting sewers, creating effective mass transit, cleaning up chemical dumps, and replacing factory-size, alienating schools with schools built on a human scale for human interconnection.
  • The person-to-person work of human interchange and learning done by teachers and teachers' aides, child-care workers, paramedics, and recreation leaders.

Universal employment can be achieved without creating swollen bureaucracies. For instance, new grassroots enterprises can lend investment capital and supply expert advice to new businesses owned and operated by the poor.

Increasing the number of jobs is only half the task, for the sharing of rest by everyone is just as crucial as the sharing of jobs. A reduction of work hours could be accomplished in several different ways:

  • Set as a new standard, for example, a 30-hour work week with little or no reduction in pay (a proposal put forth by Jeremy Rifkin).
  • Require that employers provide all workers with a certain number of paid leave hours every week to invest in community service and family support, just as many businesses now provide their executives with paid leave time to serve on university or museum boards and the like.
  • Pay large numbers of workers to spend years in self-enrichment through education, as America did in the 1940s when it had far less wealth, by providing millions of veterans with the GI Bill.
  • Allow (or even require) everyone to take a paid non-work true sabbatical year, supported by Social Security pension funds, sometime between their 40th and 50th birthdays.
  • Shut down the entire "work economy" for perhaps one day a month, one week a year, or for the official holidays that are now venues for frenzied sales and purchases. Instead, for that period of time, strongly encourage neighborhood festivals, local family outings, and similar celebrations. (The shutdown should include gasoline stations, airlines, television; life support services would of course be exempt.)
  • Require all businesses to provide time for teams of workers to reassess the role of their work in their company's production, and the role of their company and its products in the world at large.
  • Provide college scholarships in amounts and numbers proportional to those in the post-World War II GI Bill.
  • Give tax rebates to people who give volunteer time to civic organizations (another Rifkin proposal).
  • Require periodic "rest periods" (moratoria) on the introduction of new products that may have a massive impact on the environment, setting aside time for environmental impact assessments to be made and published.
  • Require periodic "rest periods" (moratoria) on technological research and development, except that focused directly on the cure of lethal diseases, while scientists and engineers join in an examination of the ethical and environmental impact of various technologies and reassess which directions are likely to be the most nurturing and the least damaging.
  • Set aside each year a focused week of reflective discussion in town meetings and in all media of one major institutional structure of American society, to assess the impact of that structure on the well-being of individuals, society, and the Earth.
  • Put the sabbatical year itself into full observance, going the whole biblical distance (as Michael Lerner has suggested).

If we did all this, Ruth the Moabite could make a decent life in America. And then, who knows? She and Boaz, and all of us together, might be able to give birth to a Messianic era.

When this article appeared, Rabbi Arthur Waskow, a leader of the movement for Jewish renewal and the author of Godwrestling—Round 2: Ancient Wisdom, Future Paths, traveled widely with his wife, Phyllis Berman, to speak, lead religious services, and do Bible-based storytelling.

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