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A World of Kindness: Morality and Private Property in the Torah

One would think that a seminal religious document such as the Torah—the five books of Moses, the Old Testament— would limit itself to purely spiritual themes. Yet many economic socialists and redistributionists find Torah scripture unnerving because among its greatest offerings is the motif of private property. Private property and the outgrowth from it that results in the well-ordered, predictable society are necessary conditions for an enduring civilization. And it is civilized society that the Torah wishes, through its precepts, to create.

Being created in the image of God means that a human, like God, must be responsible, accountable, mature, and merciful. None of this comes about except within a construct where the individual, not the state or collective, bears the burden of human creativity. Genesis is replete with injunctions upon man to be an auto-responsible individual.

For there can be no personal growth unless someone has a personal stake in a particular enterprise. There can be no maturity absent the habits learned in tending to one's own responsibilities. Work, the Torah says, is a fundamental virtue. Leviticus tells us that “six days shall ye work” and also that virtue is manifest by an owner paying his employees on time. These and many other virtues result from a direct relationship with personal enterprises.

Certainly, a God who loves humans wants each human to excel and be the best he can be. History and sociology have shown that the human's full potential is reached in societies that are free. History's great men, be they scientists, industrialists, inventors or men of letters, have come almost exclusively from private property societies.

There has never been a free society apart from a law of enforceable contracts and private property. “Each man under his fig tree, each man under his vineyard, each family under its banner.” This is a recurring phrase throughout the Bible. Man's rootedness—his willingness to defer today's gratification in sacrifice to tomorrow's promise—comes from his attachment to that which is his today and will still be his tomorrow: his vineyard, his orchard. An individual works with a greater sense of purpose, better, knowing that after death loved ones will inherit what he produced because it is his to bequeath. The consequence: the world is a more resplendent place.

So as to keep one's holdings, the Bible kept taxation on property and land below fifteen percent. (By the way, when talking of property, the Torah uses the singular you as opposed to the collective you.) Deuteronomy calls it a severe sin when one encroaches upon the boundary of another's field. Private space has integrity. There is no warrant for the nationalizing of family land—it amounts to stealing.

“Proclaim liberty throughout the land,” says Leviticus. But there can be no political freedom without, first, economic freedom. People cannot freely express their feelings about government or policies unless their source of income is independent of state rulers they wish to criticize or oust. To the degree private property is limited, so is freedom of speech and assembly.

Also, without private property, there can be no concept of charity. “A world of Kindness builded the Lord,” says the psalmist, meaning that it is up to us, not a theoretical entity, to do acts of kindness from that which is ours. True kindness can only come from giving from that which is one's own. The gleanings of the fields that were left to the poor during Biblical times were a demonstration that true giving comes not from the state but individual enterprise. In fact, it is the direct acts of kindness that better our souls as opposed to those done through surrogates. Torah chooses the benefactor/benefactee relationship over collectivism. Exodus expresses the gratification the individual imbibes seeing success from the fruits of his labor, one of which is charity. In short, charity is personal.

Many would want us to believe that the Almighty deems unwholesome and selfish the love that one has for that which he owns. Torah says differently. When discussing the exemption of those not required for military conscription, the Torah in Deuteronomy exempts a man who has “built a new home, planted a new vineyard, and recently married.” Such a man is too preoccupied to fight in the army. Torah continues by saying that it is unnatural for man to forfeit that which has recently become his. God realizes these cravings and bonds as valid. Therefore, it is not selfish to rejoice in accomplishment; rather, as God says, it is natural.

Today's liberalism, a variant of classic socialism, is built upon the politics of envy. There are those who cannot abide that others have that which they do not. The Ten Commandments explicitly warns against this sentiment: “Thou shalt not envy your friend's field, his house, his livestock, that which belongs to him.” Torah says that if someone wants those things, he should put his mind to earning and acquiring them. If after all that, he still does not have all the possessions his friend has, then let him be happy with the other fulfilling aspects of life—study, purpose, family, friendship, the arts, or nature.

Private property provides stability to people and society, the impetus for work, sacrifice, hope, reciprocity—all being emotions that matriculate and develop into a noble value system. Unlike sloth, it brings prosperity and health. And by following the Bible, this prosperity will not degenerate into decadence.