August 20, 2009

Usury

The Torah is very definite in its condemnation of lending money for interest:

Exodus 22:24 - If you ever lend money to anyone amongst the poor of My People (says God) do not become an oppressor by lending for interest.

Leviticus 25:36 - Do not take interest (from someone fallen on hard times). Do not take interest or apply oppressive terms, but respect (the will of) God and allow your brother to live with you (in dignity)…for I am the YHVH your God who took you out of Egypt.

And, finally, Deuteronomy 23:20 - Do not oppress your brother through money or charging interest on food or anything else or any other way of oppressing him financially.

In Judaism, lending money to start or sustain a business has been regarded as the highest expression of charity, giving someone in one's community the opportunity to be self-sufficient with dignity. To take advantage of someone else's misfortune to enrich oneself was regarded as immoral. This was not a matter of being anti-capitalist; a person could make as much profit as he could. But it was to highlight the difference between commercial gain and social responsibility, and to insist that commercial activity that took advantage of poverty was unacceptable. It was not that charging interest was wrong in itself. After all, you could charge interest to those beyond your community. But it was an assertion of the need to make credit available to the poor of your society (not exclusively, but as a priority), to help them establish themselves without taking on an intolerable burden.

These rules were made in an era that was predominantly agricultural, where barter was the dominant means of exchange, and in which, as today, each society reserves special benefits for its own citizens. Over time, as commerce became more sophisticated and dominant, in trading internationally interest became the norm and Jews participated in order to survive financially (the Christian world having closed off almost every other opportunity to make a living). So a degree of flexibility became necessary.

Only in post-Medieval times did the famous Heter Iska, (Permission to Do Business), the technical contract that found a way around the usury laws, emerge. It is interesting in that it is almost identical in spirit to the way Islamic Banks deal with exactly the same issue. (Christianity ultimately turned a blind eye to the issue.) It is also interesting that only now, as Jews have so many more opportunities to make money than they did, that the use of the Heter Iska has become far more widespread than previously, particularly in Israel.

But the principle remains that there is nothing wrong with lending at interest when it is controlled and where charity is readily accessed, through societies or the individuals. Judaism banned usury only to ensure that money was available to the poor and the poor would not be taken advantage of. That’s why the Bible reiterates the link between not lending for interest and God's presence as a moral deterrent, or our being brought out of a corrupt oppressive regime in Egypt to ensure that we established a caring one.

The sadness of modernity is that it is precisely the poor who pay the most exorbitant rates of interest to loan sharks and criminals, and of course the usurious rates charged by certain types of lenders operating within the law, because they have no other access to money. This is why the new fashion for microlending is an essential element in modern charity.

Anyone familiar with the Orthodox world knows that the "Gemach", Free Loan Society, takes its name from Gemillut Chesed, Kindness, and is the foundation of lending in Orthodox, Charedi social life. Only outside of the Orthodox world is the concept almost unheard of (as indeed is the Chevra Kaddisha, the voluntary society of those who help clean the dead and prepare them for burial), so far removed from our essential values are the majority of Jews nowadays. But the principle that lending for interest has a deleterious side to it and is not the ideal needs to be reiterated particularly at a time when so much in this often dubious financial world of ours is suspect. And anyone who has the moral commitment to highlight the potential evils of usury should be praised and encouraged.

All this has been provoked by the case of Rabbi Natan Asmoucha, the rabbi of Bevis Marks Synagogue. He is charged by the Mahamad, the lay body of the Spanish and Portuguese community in London, with joining Christian and Muslim clergy in a protest against usury, permitting Bevis Marks to be the meeting place and the staging post for a multi-faith demonstration against usurious practices that targeted a bank in the city. A noble undertaking totally consonant with Jewish values as outlined above. I know and like Rabbi Abraham Levy, the Spiritual Head of the Spanish and Portuguese community in Great Britain. We were at the same school and we share many core values about Judaism and its relation to the outside world. So I cannot believe he is to blame. I do not know Rabbi Asmoucha, but like me, he was the rabbi in Bulawayo (Southern Rhodesia in my time, Zimbabwe in his). So I have an interest.

I don’t know what it is that affects perfectly normal, reasonable, and professional people when they join a synagogue board, but in each and every synagogue I have ever come across, it turns their brains into mush. It seems (for I have only secondhand information) that they wanted to make Rabbi Asmoucha redundant, but to avoid paying compensation, they decided to charge him with impropriety so they could fire him, thus hoping to circumvent the moral law of the land. Initially they wanted to use his association with an Imam as the excuse, but then discovered that the Chief Rabbi of Britain had been on the same platform with him, so they had to backtrack on that one.

You see, money usually lies at the root of most conflicts and that is precisely why the Torah warns us consistently, in these laws I have quoted, against making financial gain the primary concern. It is charity, human sensitivity, and Gemilut Chesed that should be the decisive factor in human affairs, not profit.

12 Comments:

At 9:15 AM , Blogger Don't Call Me Dave said...

Rabbi Rosen

I seem to recall an interview in the JC recently with a man who was extremely old. Asked for the secret of a long life, he explained: “Don’t get involved in Shul politics!” Wise words indeed.

On the subject of interest, we used to have a tenant who was ultra orthodox. He wanted the wording of his lease changed because it contained a standard clause about interest being due on late payment of rent. He argued that as Jews we shouldn’t be charging another Jew interest. Our polite response was that if he paid his rent on time, there would be no interest payable! In the end we compromised and altered the wording so that if the tenant was late paying rent, a supplemental rent would be due.

On the subject of your Blog, Rabbi Asmoucha, his treatment by the Mahamad is nothing short of shameful. Let us hope that the power of the Bevis Marks congregation prevails.

 
At 1:54 PM , Blogger Rabbi Jeremy Rosen said...

Don't Call Me Dave:
To be fair, there is always another side to every affair, but I always side against the establishment!!!!!
J

 
At 6:02 PM , Anonymous Leila said...

I seem to recall that Baba Batra says that"the usurer is like unto a murderer; neither can undo the damage they have caused". I suppose it hinges on the use of the word "usury" which became a pejorative term in the 17/18th centuries. I'd be interested to hear an exact translation.
It must have been very difficult for Jews after they came here with William the Conquerer, as money-lending was about the only job available to them. Guilds were barred to them. They were used, abused and sometimes killed by their debtors as a way of avoiding payment. There is little evidence that they lent money for interest to their own or that their rates were exorbitant to non-Jews. Let us hope that those of the Community who are today's money -lenders do not take gross advantage of the people to whom they lend.

Your final paragraph sums it all up perfectly and I have been really heartened to hear my local Rabbi ask our congregation to remember those of our community who need work and to use their skills for our benefit and theirs.

 
At 7:38 PM , Blogger Rabbi Jeremy Rosen said...

Thank you for that contribution. I suspect you mean Bava Metzia, which has most of the discussion about usury, etc., in the Gemara. There indeed on 61b, etc., someone who lends on usuray is compared to a murderer. But we do not usually learn law from lore.

 
At 4:45 AM , Blogger robbyn said...

The three biblical quotes condemning charging interest are less strict than a ban on charging interest to Jews whatever their circumstances. The biblical bans are restricted to causing hardship by oppressing them. Why has it been widened to a prohibition against interest to any Jew even if it does not oppress him?

Why in Leviticus 25:35 is their the assumption that a Jew would be more generous to an alien or a stranger than to a brother Israelite? I ask because the verse is making it a specific requirement to assist him in line with you would do for a stranger or alien.

I notice a reference to Israelite in the prohibition. Are all Jews Israelites?

Robin

 
At 12:07 PM , Blogger Rabbi Jeremy Rosen said...

Robin:
Yes, you are right indeed; if the Biblical context of the laws against usury is oppression, then why not allow usury where there is none? I suspect it has something to do with mindsets, creating a certain kind of climate of opinion, in the same way as 'profit' is allowed but unreasonable profit is not. It is a way of reinforcing national solidarity, communitarianism.

I understand Leviticus 25 as precisely reinforcing that idea, because the stranger, someone not Jewish who has chosen to join the community by living in it without nrecessarily converting, is given equal beneficial treatment.

I believe that the Torah regards anyone who has chosen to join in as one of the community, the mixed multitude who came out of Egypt with them for example. Of course there were tribal subdivisions and these caused problms as in the case of the man who cursed (Leviticus 24), but in general we were far more inclusive once than now!
J

 
At 2:06 PM , Blogger robbyn said...

Jeremy:

"I suspect it has something to do with mindsets, creating a certain kind of climate of opinion, in the same way as 'profit' is allowed but unreasonable profit is not."

I know the profit example is just that but note that in the case of profit it was allowed whereas interest is not allowed. I am sure there are other ways of reinforcing national solidarity. There are loads of laws that do just that so why push the boundaries on interest? As your article pointed out the banning of interest was found to be impractical and a legal device had to be used to get around the prohibition. If the plain meaning had been used in the first place I think the results would have been better. The laws against usury would have protected the borrower from hardship and the unreasonable profit rules would have stopped exploitation and greed. So why was it interpreted in a way not matching the plain meaning of the text? My Rabbi did not like it when I spoke about Aaron's sons being killed for going beyond the requirements of the law. I was using it as justification for not being ultra orthodox, but can the observation also apply to the way in which the ban against interest was extended? I understand the idea of a fence around the Torah but is it right to extend the interpretation of a command way beyond its natural meaning, especially where the Torah puts clear limits on its operation? If so where does one stop. Black becomes grey and soon it is white.

Leviticus 25 v35
"When your brother Israelite is reduced to poverty and cannot support himself in the community, you shall assist him as you would an alien or a stranger..."

I am reading it differently to you. The verse is saying treat Jews in the same way as you would treat a stranger. That means that the stranger was likely to get better treatment and so a law was passed requiring equal treatment for Jews. Its a bit like a mother ill treating her children but being kind and good to her neighbour's children. With deranged individuals that is understandable but with a whole nation it is an unreasonable argument. Usually it is the opposite: goodness for your group, badness for outsiders. So why did ancient Israel get it the other way round? Perhaps they didn't and there is a mistranslation, seems more likely. How do you translate the verse?


You missed my question about the meaning of Israelite. Does it include a Jew where ever and whenever he lives, or is it a description of a person who belonged to the Israelite nation and lived in Israel? I don't consider myself as an Israelite.

Robin

 
At 2:12 PM , Blogger Rabbi Jeremy Rosen said...

Robin:
Just because there are other laws that set out to achieve a specific goal does not mean that this one can't too. In almost every area I can think of, such as treatment of animals, to give a current example, the laws repeat, add, and reiterate.

I'm afraid there are far more authorities who side with my interpretation of the text about strangers has far more authorities than yours. That's only relevant from a halachic point of view, of course.

Also, I did say that then thy regarded the Israelite in much looser terms as anyone choosing to live within the community and associating with the community. You might think of Uriah the Hittite. But that did not mean ritual equality, only civil.

And finally and flippantly, I cannot imaging any rabbi in Anglo Jewry agreeing with you! That does not mean you are wrong!
J

 
At 6:09 PM , Blogger robbyn said...

It must be that my translation is incorrect or there is another way of reading it.

Of course I am aware of the interpretation of the verse that says it requires that the stranger be treated the same as an Israelite, but literally I am not reading that in the text, but I am using the English version. I am reading it the other way around. What am I misreading? I am sure I am wrong but at the moment I can not see where I am misunderstanding the syntax.That is why I asked you how you translate the verse. Could you give me your translation?

I find it strange that we interpret Israelite as Jews generally but that the laws relating to the Land of Israel are considered only to relate to that area.

 
At 4:01 PM , Blogger Rabbi Jeremy Rosen said...

Robin:
Thirty-six times the Torah repeats the exhortation to be sensitive to the stranger and resident (Ger VaToshav) because we ourselves suffered from unequal treatment. This is the basis on which the laws about usury, etc., are applied. There are two standards of law. The bare minimum applied universally to any Ben Noach and the higher standard applied to Jewish communities, which automatically included anyone choosing to live within the community even if not halachically Jewish.

So amongst the various texts we have talked about, in Numbers 15.16 or Leviticus 24.22 or 25.35 a similar expression is used. Mishpat Echad Yihye lachem, kaGer KaEzrach (or Ger VaToshav). You shall have one law (that will apply equally to) the stranger as well as the citizen (within your community). If there is another text youd like me translate I'd be happy to.

Finally, there is a long-standing debate between Nachmanides and Maimonides as to whether all laws apply only to the Land of Israel or not. Most accept that where it is specified as applying to The Land, this determines.

Jeremy

 
At 4:21 PM , Blogger robbyn said...

Thank you for the translation. With the added items in brackets you made your case. As you can see my translation did not say the same thing, but that is the problem of using translations.

Thanks for your help

Robin

 
At 7:41 PM , Blogger Rabbi Jeremy Rosen said...

Robin:
A pleasure, any time!
J

 

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