Ethical Economics: Behar-Bechukotai Leviticus 25:1 – 27:34

Ethical Economics: Behar-Bechukotai Leviticus 25:1 – 27:34


Howard Adelman



Ron Atkey will be buried today in a private family service. But a public memorial service will be held at the Metropolitan United Church on 58 Queen Street East at 11:00 a.m. this morning. I will be in attendance. I am also sure that the church will be packed, not only because he had a wide group of friends and acquaintances, but because there will be many Indochinese Canadians in attendance.

Ron was my Member of Parliament for St. Paul’s Riding during the period of the Indochinese refugee movement into Canada. He was first elected in 1972. I never voted for him, but he was an outstanding representative of our riding. He was also the Minister of Employment and Immigration in the Joe Clark cabinet in 1979. He, along with Flora Macdonald with the support of Prime Minister Joe Clark, pushed the decision through cabinet to allow the entry into Canada of 50,000 “Boat People,” refugees fleeing Indochina.  He continued to be a supporter of refugee causes the rest of his life; his family has asked that donations in his honour be made to Operation Syria.

Ron was a few years younger than myself and taught law at Osgoode Hall Law School when I was a professor at York University. But I only came to know him well when we worked together to foster the private sponsorship of refugees into Canada. It was he who sent the instructions to the civil service to attend a meeting (to our surprise) on a Sunday afternoon after church in June of 1979 to introduce us to the idea of privately sponsoring refugees. That was the beginning of Operation Lifeline, the Canadian private sponsorship organization for Indochinese refugees.

Ron was a lawyer in practice at Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt. He was also the first Chair of the Security Intelligence Review Committee. In juxtaposition, he was also a board member of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association for years. Support for refugees, support for human rights and a commitment to Canada’s national security were for him complementary political commitments. Ron also happened to be a very accomplished musician, a humourist with a very dry wit, and a wonderful father to his children and grandchildren. A product of a very enlightened New Brunswick Tory family, he demonstrated the best and the brightest that Canada has produced and that allowed this country to become as great as it is.


Let me begin with the Haftorah portion read after the reading of the Torah. The selection is from Jeremiah at his thundering best. God is in despair. God exclaims, “I will destroy my people, for they would not turn back from their ways.” “I will bring down suddenly upon them Alarm and Terror.” And why? Mainly because they fail to keep the sabbath. On that day, they are not allowed to work.

Economics is about the days Jews are permitted to work. Does that mean that the other six days belong to a dog-eat-dog world? Does it mean a world that rewards the nasty, brutish and strong?

Not according to the Torah.

כִֽי־תִמְכְּר֤וּ מִמְכָּר֙ לַעֲמִיתֶ֔ךָ א֥וֹ קָנֹ֖ה מִיַּ֣ד עֲמִיתֶ֑ךָ אַל־תּוֹנ֖וּ אִ֥ישׁ אֶת־אָחִֽיו׃

When you sell property to your neighbour, or buy any from your neighbour, you shall not wrong one another. (Leviticus 25: 14)

Economic contracts are intended to constitute a positive sum game in which both parties benefit.

Further, if someone borrows money from you and is unable to pay, you may foreclose, but you also must use your best efforts to ensure that he or she can redeem that land and property.

כִּֽי־יָמ֣וּךְ אָחִ֔יךָ וּמָכַ֖ר מֵאֲחֻזָּת֑וֹ וּבָ֤א גֹֽאֲלוֹ֙ הַקָּרֹ֣ב אֵלָ֔יו וְגָאַ֕ל אֵ֖ת מִמְכַּ֥ר אָחִֽיו׃

If your kinsman is in straits and has to sell part of his holding, his nearest redeemer shall come and redeem what his kinsman has sold. (25:25)

וְאִ֕ישׁ כִּ֛י לֹ֥א יִֽהְיֶה־לּ֖וֹ גֹּאֵ֑ל וְהִשִּׂ֣יגָה יָד֔וֹ וּמָצָ֖א כְּדֵ֥י גְאֻלָּתֽוֹ׃

If a man has no one to redeem for him, but prospers and acquires enough to redeem with, (25:26)

וְחִשַּׁב֙ אֶת־שְׁנֵ֣י מִמְכָּר֔וֹ וְהֵשִׁיב֙ אֶת־הָ֣עֹדֵ֔ף לָאִ֖ישׁ אֲשֶׁ֣ר מָֽכַר־ל֑וֹ וְשָׁ֖ב לַאֲחֻזָּתֽוֹ׃

he shall compute the years since its sale, refund the difference to the man to whom he sold it, and return to his holding. (25:27)

Further, you may only accumulate wealth (then held in land and property) for a generation. The land is not yours; it belongs to God. In your life, you are merely a trustee.

וְהָאָ֗רֶץ לֹ֤א תִמָּכֵר֙ לִצְמִתֻ֔ת כִּי־לִ֖י הָאָ֑רֶץ כִּֽי־גֵרִ֧ים וְתוֹשָׁבִ֛ים אַתֶּ֖ם עִמָּדִֽי׃

But the land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me. (25:23)

Further, excess land acquired must be returned to the commons every fifty years. Inheritance taxes were very steep.

בִּשְׁנַ֥ת הַיּוֹבֵ֖ל הַזֹּ֑את תָּשֻׁ֕בוּ אִ֖ישׁ אֶל־אֲחֻזָּתֽוֹ׃

In this year of jubilee, each of you shall return to his holding. (25:14)


וּבְכֹ֖ל אֶ֣רֶץ אֲחֻזַּתְכֶ֑ם גְּאֻלָּ֖ה תִּתְּנ֥וּ לָאָֽרֶץ׃

Throughout the land that you hold, you must provide for the redemption of the land. (25:14)

This is a social justice ethos. Economics is not a matter of losers and winners, but striving to ensure as many as possible are winners and that when you are down you get a helping hand. This is not anti-capitalist. Private ownership is not only recognized, but encouraged. However, as practiced and organized today, our system has shown itself to be very fragile and sometimes dysfunctional. The economic crisis of 2007-08 was a case in point.

Though the causes were building up over the previous decade, this deepest and longest recession since the Great Depression was a warning, but without the thundering voice of Jeremiah that there was an underlying deeper crisis. Why? Because the economies of most of the Western world – in Europe and Japan – are just finally getting out of that dramatic downturn and posting significant growth. However, even in the pre-crash period, during a period of strong expansion, living standards for the majority had stagnated and, in some cases, even declined. And that is almost still the case even though unemployment is now very low.

Further, in Canada, in the major cities, there is now a housing bubble. The Bank of Canada is trying to ensure that the air seeps out of the bubble rather than bursts by gradually increasing interest rates both by small increases and by interspersing those increases intervals of several months to prevent a sudden shock to the system.

We are not free of crisis and dangers. Further, the inequalities between the rich and the poor, between the rich and the middle class, continue to expand exponentially. Young people, who cannot hope for a capital infusion from parents and family, begin to despair of ever purchasing a home. And overshadowing this fear is the huge anxiety about climate change and our collective failure to take care of the earth as proper and responsible trustees should.

Classical economic policies are not working. And when the most powerful leader in the world believes that he invented the expression “priming the pump,” we are in deep trouble. However, even an infusion of an economic stimulus, or a bailout package in a period of a greater crisis, is not adequate. These are only stopgap measures. Must one choose the alternative – fiscal austerity as now practiced in Greece with its corresponding political instability that follows from cutting social spending in the effort to reduce public debt. Going further and backward, the resurrection of a mercantilist system to replace our global one, of protectionist economies and mobility barriers in place of increasingly open borders with enhanced trade and human mobility to foster a free flow of goods, services and people, are steps into a backward dead end and even greater calamity.

Nor is an economy run on ethical principles the right choice, an option Karl Polanyi had proposed. However, an economic system not guided by and framed with ethics is even worse. Just war doctrine does dictate how or when wars are fought. It merely tries to civilize a horrific pattern of humans coming together in violent conflict. Ethics in economics can go further, for, unlike war, economics can be a positive sum game. Without intervening in economic fundamentals, taxation policies, inheritance restrictions and a whole host of measures can be taken to even out the odds against those in weakened positions.

This does not mean evading understanding the fundamentals of economic growth. These must be grasped. As much as we congratulated ourselves in the past for accomplishing this task, we have not done so adequately. Why is there economic inequality that continues to grow? Why do we continue to threaten the very planet that has treated us so well? Why do we elect leaders who counter the massive scientific evidence and consensus about human instigated climate change and are climate change deniers? Why do we not ensure steady if sometimes a bit bumpy economic growth alongside wealth redistribution?


With the help of Alex Zisman


Shira Herzog, Cynic

Shira Herzog, Cynic


Howard Adelman

One of the difficulties of writing a blog in the early morning hours is that I write at an hour that Windows chooses to take over your computer to reconfigure and update windows automatically. A nice service, but it wipes out what you have been writing. I write fast so I do not save as I go along and, if fifteen minutes have not passed, I lose everything for the past fifteen minutes when windows goes to work on my computer. I vow to reprogram the computer so that everything is saved every five minutes, but I have never managed to figure out how to do that, or most other clever things a computer can do.  Further, recovery only seems to work if I have saved the file already. So this first page is the second version of my blog rather than the original version that I send out with all its errors and typos.

Last night at the Donalda Club in Toronto I attended a tribute evening in honour of Shira Herzog with the proceeds to go to the New Israel Fund of Canada (NIFC), a fund which was represented on the program by Joan Garson, its Canadian national chair, and by a recorded video and written tribute by Rachel Liel, Executive Director of NIF. A number of friends said that they would feel uncomfortable attending a tribute dinner to honour someone when the person was no longer alive; the evening should have been renamed a memorial tribute.

In fact, Shira was present. She had set the agenda, not just the overall agenda, but the details of what was to be said and when. And also what was to be sung. As Aviva Chernick said when she introduced the last song of the trio she sang near the end of the program, it was a song Shira asked her to sing but she had first declined since she had not yet worked it into her repertoire. But she had changed her mind and sang with the music on a lectern – not exactly her usual style. The song was taken from the words of a Jewish mystic at the time of the first century. Not only was the song beautiful and haunting, not only was it sung in the unique style of an outstanding Ladino/Spanish singer whose two previous songs for the evening came from those two sides of her repertoire, but this final song made Shira’s presence all the more acute because Shira’s controlling hand was at the till even after her death. The song chosen allowed her to be fully present.

So fears of the evening being uncomfortable because Shira had passed away and would not be at a dinner honouring her were mistaken because she was there. Her voice was there as, in part of the program, a recorded tribute to the National Israel Fund by Shira was played in which Shira described how the fund was born at the same time as she entered the philanthropy field in the mid-eighties with the Kahanoff Foundation. She described the philosophy she had adopted and, in partnership with the NIFC, had introduced into Israel of using charity to enable people to stand on their own feet rather than to receive hand outs. Shira was there in the slide show, “A Life Well-Lived”, in pictures of Shira’s aristocratic Jewish family, for her grandfather had been chief rabbi of Ireland (we visited his small home in Dublin in June), her uncle had been the President of Israel and her father had been the first ambassador to Canada.

Shira had a commanding presence that was not very evident in the pictures of her as a baby, as a young girl and as an awkward teenager. But as those pictures progressed through her life and showed her – often smiling though her projects and philosophy of life always remained serious – as a strong commanding presence as she consorted with the mighty titans of Israel and on the international stage. She grew in stature and the aura she gave off. And, as her cousin, the Honourable Yitzhak “Bougie” Herzog said in his tribute speech to Shira, it was because her roots were so steeply based on love of family. So the slide show of her life ended appropriately with pictures of her with her son, Kobi, his wife, Shelby, and Shira’s two grandchildren, Olivia and Ethan. She beamed with sheer joy and happiness as basically someone who, in the end, was a mother and a savta at heart.

And heart was the central image of a tribute movie sent from Israel of people who threw around a balloon heart from one to another representing the wide range of causes in which she had been involved, from equal rights for Arab academics to Bedouin women and Ethiopian immigrants and, in the last slide, young children who represented the future of Israel. Shira, with all her management skills and micromanagement to the finest details of what she accomplished, always brought heart to an enterprise, a compassion for the underdog married with a strategic sense of how to make the world a better place.

Whether it was the Consul General of Israel, D.J. Schneeweis quoting from the Torah in an Australian-accented Hebrew and complementing Rabbi Baruch Frydman-Kohl’s very secular tribute, even though Shira in her last years had returned to her grandfather’s love of Torah scripture as she studied with Rabbi Friedman-Kohl, everyone spoke to the same characteristics and virtues Shira exhibited in her life. She did so always with more than just a trace of Jewish mysticism, Though the highlight of the evening was the long and very personal tribute of Shira’s cousin, “Bougie” Herzog, leader of the Opposition in the Israeli Knesset, the message that ran through the evening was that realistic strategic planning, private and public partnerships, could be and should be married to a sense of justice and enhancing the lives and experience of those in need. Hence D.J. commentary on the Torah portion for the week Shira died on “Justice, Justice”.

The four themes of the evening – family, social justice, politics and communication – were all in evidence. Re the latter, Shira had been very active in the Canada Israel Committee, more as an educator than a lobbyist, had written a regular column in both The Canadian Jewish News and The Globe and Mail, had co-hosted with myself the weekly television program on CTS called Israel Today for eleven of its twelve years. She was a popular public speaker and analyst of Israel and of Canada-Israel relations. As Bougie acknowledged, with gratitude, but also with an ironic smile, Stephen Harper was a strong and steadfast friend of Israel, but, as we all also know, Shira was not a strong sympathizer of Harper’s sense of social justice.

The tone of the evening was set by Florence Minz, who was chosen from among Shira’s close group of friends, or her Council as she called them, a group of outstanding women in their own careers. In agreeing to chair, Florence brought her own extensive honours to the evening in which she modestly acknowledged she herself was honoured that Shira had chosen her. Florence might be a member of the Stratford Festival Board, Chair of the Board of Trustees of the Canadian Museum of Nature, a director and former chair on the Board of the Royal Conservatory of Music since 1999, a former director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, a member of the board of Opera Atelier, but her most outstanding contributions have been in the health field rather than her extensive involvement in the cultural life of Canada. For she has been chair and a director of the Board of Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care, a director of St. Michael’s Hospital, a director and former President of Oolagen Community Services, a member of the Fraser Mustard Task Force, more formally known as the Mustard/McCain Early Years Task Force for Ontario. All this has been the cap to her earlier career as an economic consultant and real estate developer. Most of Shira’s close friends had similar stellar lists of accomplishments.

What characterized them, and what characterized Shira, is that they are all dreamers who are also doers. They think and then they implement. They are visionaries and also strategic thinkers. They are, as Shira was, idealists who are also realists. That outlook stands in such strong contrast to many of the cynics involved in the quest for power and in politics.

A cynic in modern popular parlance is a person who believes that everyone is motivated by self-interest and they distrust anyone who claims they are not primarily motivated by such a force. These women were and are a testament to the falsity of that modern universal claim. For they are true Cynics in the Greek sense dedicated to “doggedness” – the literal meaning of “cynic” in Greek. The ancient Greek school of Cynicism founded by Antisthenes, a pupil of Socrates, was taught in the Cynosarges gymnasium in Athens. That Cynicism stands in sharp contrast to modern cynicism – without the capital.

Shira, ironically given the modern use of the term, could be characterized as a Cynic in the Greek sense who believed in living in complete harmony with nature, but it was not a nature driven by an individualist tooth-and-claw existence. She was, for a long period of her life and to the very end, devoted to the exercises (and philosophy to some extent) of the German-born (1883) Joseph Pilates who espoused naturopathy or natural healing to deal with the realization and fulfillment of the whole human being. That is why when she was given a death sentence of 3-6 months six years ago, she fought it with self-healing as well as with chemotherapy. This may explain why she outlived all the prognostications of her doctors.

Of course, wearing a constant breathing machine in her final years may seem at odds with Pilates’ belief that bad health was often due to bad posture and inefficient breathing. Pilates was an advocate of balance – of body, mind and spirit – but rooted in physical balance that combined coordination with strength and flexibility, all virtues that Shira exhibited in all of her initiatives and tried to reinforce by her dedication to her mat exercises known as “Contrology”. Her mat would accompany her on her many travels and those exercises always invigorated rather than tired her.

In that sense, Shira may have been dedicated to Israel and her Judaism, but she was also married to the tradition of the Greek Cynics. Cynics are not cynics. Happiness – eudemonia in Greek philosophy – in this school of thought is a product of discipline and rigorous training. It also entailed a rejection of any desire for wealth or power, or achieving happiness only through sensual gratification or fame. Those goals as dominating pursuits detracted from living in harmony with nature. In other words, the beliefs of the Greek Cynics were directly opposed to the inversion of modern cynicism. In fact, Cynicism developed into a secular religion of asceticism that had a powerful effect on early Christianity. As it developed, Cynicism became a parody of itself with Diogenes famously living in the streets in his bathtub.

What Shira exhibited, an every one of the speakers noted, and what I directly observed when working with Shira on the show, Israel Today, was her absolute clarity and lucidity, not characteristics I always exhibit myself. Though sometimes a bit vain, she was totally averse to being conceited and always dedicated to being serious, even about sensual pleasures, and totally opposed to folly. She was modest even though hyper-rational because she knew that deformed reason could result in false judgements with enormous negative consequences. Most of all, unlike modern cynics, the ancient Cynics believed in self-sufficiency but through dedication to all of humanity. The ancient Cynics were early cosmopolitans.

Shira’s Cynicism was of the early Greek variety and she eschewed its deterioration into a cult of asceticism and total disregard for the laws, norms, customs and social conventions. Shira respected conventions except if they imprisoned her mind and prevented her from “thinking outside the box”.  Shira was totally opposed to modern cynicism.

Shira in her life was a shooting star.

Manna as Social Justice

Yesterday: -25C in Toronto with the wind chill; the streets covered with a patina of frost.
We must melt that frost.
Tomorrow: Jews read the Biblical portion, Beshalach (Exodus 13:17-17:16).
The parashah is also known as the “Shabbat Shira,” associated with the “Song of the Sea”
sung by Moses, Miriam, and all the Israelites after Pharoah’s charioteers were drowned.

When the Israelites begin their trek across the Sinai to the borders of Canaan, in the fifth
aliyah we read that Moses obtained water in Marah. The sixth aliyah (Exodus 16:11-
16:36) focuses on the manna that God delivers from heaven. In the seventh aliyah of the
parshah, Moses strikes a rock to once again get fresh water. Between the two walls of salt
water in the Reed Sea that drowned the Egyptian army, the dark places of the earth filled
with dens of violence were deposited (Psalms 74:20). By contrast, the story of manna is
located between two tales of fresh spring water. Enemies were slain by dividing the sea;
the Jewish people are revitalized and united by receiving manna and social justice.

For the Israelites, who obtained their freedom from bondage in Egypt, must still be taught
the relationship between hard work and distributive justice. Acquired wealth is irrelevant.
Everyone must work according to their capacities to gather the manna. “They gathered,
both the one who gathered much and the one who gathered little” (Exodus 16:16).

The gatherers are not allowed to keep all they gather; what is acquired must be
redistributed so that everyone receives a minimum sustaining portion. Now, the primary
issue is not the fear of restoring oppression of the Israelites by others, but the freedom
from oppression among themselves. The people must ensure sufficiency for all! We are
commanded not to forget the life of the poor, not let “the downtrodden be forgotten”.
(Psalms 74:21) On this principle the various tribes of Israel are brought together.

That is the lesson of the recent Israeli election. Jews must ensure social justice for all
(including Israeli Arabs) as a precondition of unity and confronting enemies. Hopefully,
all 120 members of the Knesset will unite on the principles of social justice. The
Israelites did not know what the manna from heaven was (Exodus 16:15). It is the bread
of social justice, a fine bare and rare substance, a thin and delicate layer encased in hoar
frost and dew. The layer of ice covering our hearts must melt and evaporate. Social
justice is a precondition of continuity, though one omer, a token of manna needs to be
preserved as a testament for future generations. (“Let one omer of it be kept throughout
the ages, in order that they may see the bread that I fed you in the wilderness when I
brought you out from the land of Egypt.” Exodus 16:32) But, unlike the gold and jewels
with which the Israelites fled, social justice is not something you normally save up. It
becomes putrid. Social justice cannot be postponed for another day.

Except for shabbat! For on Friday we receive a double portion of manna. The second half
is held over to sustain everyone one extra day. For on shabbat, all of us, even the richest
among us, needs to receive the white coriander seed that tastes like a honey-covered
wafer from an Other and become a recipient as well as beneficiary of social justice.