I ponder often the mystery of the Talmud never being cited by political thinkers today. After all, the scholars who wrote it were political wizards in navigating the treacherous governmental byways of their own time. They not only lived in peace with the rulers of Iraq and Iran (still called Babylon and Persia 1,500 years ago), they were granted enormous leeway to lead the indigenous Jewish population, fielding their own governor and court system.
Most often I conclude that the authors of the Talmud signaled their own preference for the political sidelines when they wrote (Shabbat 11a): “If all the seas were ink, all reeds were pens, the skies were paper, and all humanity were scribes, they would not succeed in portraying the breadth of governance.” The primary commentary adds: “It takes a deep heart to govern, because he must keep track of many states with different tax structures, and of many wars and legislative matters, all in one day.” This paean to the profundity of the political class doubles as a sort of surrender by the academic class.
Still, there is much political wisdom to be mined in those tomes. The most basic example of this provides a sort of overview of the entire debate between the socialist and capitalist worldviews. It is presented (Brachot 3b) in the form of a dialogue which the Talmud projects backwards into history, positing a discussion between King David and his advisors.
It dramatizes the scenario by depicting King David as playing his harp and writing poetry one early morning. His advisors interrupt him for the daily briefing. Seeking to prod him into engaging in more creative trade practices with other countries, they begin by telling him the unemployment figures. His initial response is: “Let the rich feed the poor.” In other words, levy a tax and use the money to pay unemployment benefits.
The advisors retort, “A lion is not satisfied with a handful, and a ditch cannot be refilled with its own earth.” This is accepted by King David as the last word on the subject and he acquiesces to their trade policy initiatives.
The classical commentators (11th through 14th Century) concentrate on the second half of that phrase, taking it to mean that poverty can never be fully solved by redistribution of income. Somehow, digging a ditch does not yield sufficient earth to refill it to the top. Similarly, shifting a static pool of resources around will only lead to its progressive depletion, as the process of transfer takes a toll.
This slam against socialist governing seems explicit enough, but less clear is the opening line that “a lion is not satisfied with a handful.” The commentators let that one slide without elucidation; possibly they assume it is making much the same point, that we cannot possibly give a person a welfare check that will support his gusty needs.
My own theory is that this refers not to the recipients of the public dole, but to the producers of the wealth. If we tax away their advantage in revenue, we have aborted the drive that engenders economic development. The lion, with motives more appetent than altruistic, will generate food for all the carnivores in his area. Thus, Bill Gates wanting a yacht is a boon to the entire society, catalyzing salaries for thousands, profits for millions and products for billions.
This insight is replicated in a legal decision of the Talmud (Bava Kama 85a). In cases of assault, the injurer must pay for medical care even if a free clinic is available. The victim may demand to see a paid doctor, because “a doctor who heals for nothing is worth nothing.”
This legal principle, and the dramatization of King David’s cabinet meeting, seem to place the Talmudic worldview squarely in the Republican camp. Indeed, by setting up the dialogue as interrupting David’s poesy, and by presenting his first inclination as tax-and-spend, the authors acknowledge that the redistributionist impulse has a sort of dreamily poetic appeal. It is the hard-headed long-range vision that calls for freeing up ambitious achievers to expand the economy for all.
Little wonder, then, that Yeshiva students, almost to a man, were fervent devotees of Ronald Reagan and continue to be a solid Republican constituency.
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