Turning a blind eye to economic evil
Ekev | Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25
The good news is our parsha’s promise, “If you obey these rules…God will love and bless you.” The bad news is that “these rules” include the commandment to destroy the Canaanites, “showing them no pity.” Does God really revel in the wholesale destruction of others?
“Yes,” say biblical literalists, “the Bible is inerrant.” But the Bible is “errant,” since as much as it is God talking, it is also us hearing, and the people who wrote it down couldn’t hear more than their age allowed. The point of ongoing Jewish commentary is to help later ages hear better — and commentators disassociate “these rules” from their original military context — insisting that what God really wants is love.
The Malbim quotes Rambam, who differentiates between two kinds of love. Love of God is exemplified with mitzvot that have no earthly use, like putting a mezuza on our door. True, a mezuza may remind, perhaps, of the sanctity of home — but we affix it because God commands it. This love, says Rambam, gains us nothing on earth; we are rewarded in the world to come.
The second kind of love is what human beings owe each other. Not all that long ago, it was the norm for people in power to enslave or even slaughter others without compunction. Rambam reminds us that God rejected that behavior by prohibiting murder, rape, and even just ripping off an anonymous customer who wanders into our store. God rewards this love also in the world to come, but unlike the mezuza kind of mitzva, showing love to human beings benefits us in the here and now, with a just and safe society.
So some mitzvot show love of God, others love of neighbor. Neighborly love gets subdivided into prohibitions that entail physical pain (torture) or death (murder) and those that entail only monetary damages (cheating customers). The first category enters our awareness sooner than the second.
Increasingly, that is to say, countries of conscience recognize slavery, torture, and murder as inhuman.
The evils of financial sin, by contrast, have barely dented our awareness. When we heard that Chinese workers making items for export to the United States are being brutalized, do we protest their conditions by boycotting their goods? Hardly. Other than degree, there is no difference between an average citizen saving money by buying merchandise made by slaves, and an unscrupulous business ripping off billions from the public.
How fascinating, then, to find Rashi calling economic moral prohibitions “light commandments that we walk all over,” because compared to murder and mayhem, they seem minuscule.
The literal reading of Torah to allow mass murder and torture was put to rest with rabbinic interpretation centuries ago. But we still “walk all over” the prohibition against immoral commerce. And the two are related: If it cuts consumer prices and raises corporate earnings, even “ordinary” torture in China will start looking not so bad.
Turning a blind eye to economic moral shortcuts contaminates society; relaxing our fight on the moral frontier of finance threatens the moral heartland with erosion.