Of course, I am Jewish, but I also consider myself very English. I am English in the very parochial sense that I love canal boats, think provincial churches are beautiful, will definitely barbecue on the only day of summer, and put mayonnaise with everything. But, last autumn, I did the most English thing I have ever done.
I wrote a disapproving letter of correction.
I had never done it before. I’ve never written in to the BBC or a newspaper. To the best of my knowledge, I’ve never sent a letter of complaint about anything. But this one was too important to simply ignore.
Someone in a play had misrepresented a complex point of Jewish law.
Now, this may seem trivial. But, six months later, I am still so incensed about this common misconception of halachah, that I feel the need to preach on it.
In September, last year, I got a real treat: to go see one of our members perform at the Royal Court Theatre. Rachel Hosker, who will be getting married under our auspices in the summer, was performing in a play called ‘Jews. In their Own Words.’ Written by Jonathan Freedland, the play interviews famous Jews, including Tracy-Ann Oberman, Luciana Berger, Margaret Hodge, and Howard Jacobson, trying to give a sense of antisemitism, past and present.
I’m not a theatre critic, but let me tell you: Rachel acted fantastically. She and the rest of the cast did a fantastic job of bringing the characters to life.
But there was a line, really a throwaway comment, that stuck with me. The play was attempting to explain the trope of the money-hungry Jew, and how Jews had come to be associated with money-lending. An actor representing CST’s Dave Rich said: “the rulings of the church forbade lending money at interest, which was considered usury, whereas Jewish law allowed it.”
This, to me, is alarmingly inaccurate. It shows not only a misunderstanding of Jewish law, but also of antisemitism, and how it works. It places the responsibility for Jews as medieval money-lenders onto Jews, and our religion. Nothing could be further from the truth.
If it was the case that Jewish law allowed money-lending at interest, you would be hard-pressed to explain the commandment in this week’s Torah portion: “You may not act as a creditor to your people. You may not exact interest from them.” You would also have to reckon with the same commandment, given in the Holiness Code: “Do not exact advance or accrued interest, but fear your God… Do not lend your money at interest, and do not give your food at interest.” The same commandment is repeated again in Deuteronomy: “do not deduct interest from loans to your kindred.”
Of course, you might say, the Torah is not the only source of Jewish law. Perhaps these commandments are amended in the Mishnah, or the Talmud, or the Codes. No, no, and no. The Mishnah says charging interest is so reprehensible that it involves breaking six commandments. The Talmud says that even scribes and witnesses who participate in such contracts are guilty.
In the defining law code for most of the Jewish world, the Mishneh Torah, Rambam looks at the word for interest – neshech – which is the same as the word for a snakebite, and says it is called as such “because it bites, it causes pain to a fellow human being, and consumes a person.” He repudiates it completely.
Be in no doubt: Jewish law does not permit money-lending at interest.
So, how did it happen that Jews nevertheless ended up associated with money-lending, despite its very explicit prohibition?
In the 4th Century CE, Church Father Augustine of Hippo declared that Jews would be permitted to survive as “living witnesses” to the truth of the Bible, but must be kept in a degraded state, with the mark of Cain, for their refusal to accept Jesus. This became the official policy of Christian Europe’s primary institutions: its churches and monarchies.
Jews were allowed to live in England neither as citizens nor serfs. They could not own land or participate in the nation. They were excluded from universities, and cut out of the professions. They were only allowed to live in the country on condition that they did the dirty work of the ruling class: tax collecting and money-lending.
Now, most Jews did not do such jobs. They did the work that was needed for their community, as bakers, vintners, stonemasons, and millers. But, as long as some Jews fulfilled these functions for the monarchy, all Jews could live in European countries as “treasured subjects” – effectively pets of the king.
This had a profound impact on the lives of medieval European Jews. They were forced to wear humiliating clothes to mark them out. Associated with tax collecting and money-lending, many of the local peasants associated the Jews with all the financial problems they faced.
The local lords actively exploited this division. They drummed up hatred against Jews, and treated them as a pressure valve, so that, in times of economic crisis, peasants would attack their local Jews rather than turn their ire on the landowner class.
That is why the worst pogroms that we have recorded came in times when the monarchy was in financial straits. In England, these came when the country was bankrupted by its military Crusades to capture Jerusalem. Jews, the perceived cause of money problems, and naturally associated with the Holy Land, had all the anger and resentment of impoverished people poured out on them.
If the monarchy or the Church were struggling with their own debts, they had an easy way out: they could simply expel the Jews and confiscate all their property. In 1290, Edward I expelled the Jews from England to cancel his debts and win back the support of the knights and lords in parliament, who were also heavily indebted.
This put the rabbis, the arbiters of Jewish law, in a very difficult position. If they permitted lending at interest, they would turn their backs on their entire religious inheritance. If they insisted that Judaism forbade money-lending at interest, they would effectively force their community to leave where they were. And, since all of Christian Europe had adopted the same policy, they would have nowhere to go.
So, the rabbis had to find a way. They looked at the laws, which said such lending was only prohibited to their kin. Rabbi David Kimchi, writing in medieval France during pogroms and expulsions, said that Jews were not permitted to lend at interest to people who respect Jews. The corollary was that if people would not treat the Jews as full human beings, then they, in turn, could lend to them at interest. In England, the Christians had estranged them and made them explicitly not their kin.
This is why correcting this point on the understanding of Jewish law is so important. It is not just because we are sticklers for getting the halachah right. It is so that we understand what antisemitism is and how it works.
We Jews did not create this system. We did not allow it, nor have the power to stop it. For over a millennium, European powers embedded and promoted antisemitism to prop up their system. As Rabbi Lionel Blue, of blessed memory, so pithily wrote: “The problem of the Jews in Europe was never the Jews. It was Europe.”
Now, we are citizens in this country. With Emancipation, we might have hoped that it would bring an end to cultures of debt and division. True, most of the banks and money-lenders are now not owned by Jews, and very few Jews today engage in such work.
But that is not because we are living closer to the laws of the Torah or our rabbis. It is because the whole of our society is caught up in loans. All of us are more indebted and more divided than we ever were. We are pitted against each other by a media eager to see us all fighting.
Combating antisemitism does not only mean counteracting myths and biases against Jews. It is also about dismantling the material realities that created antisemitism. The hatred of Jews erupts when we are scapegoated for economic problems in society. We must not only contradict the myth that we are responsible, but also fight to ensure that the problems people face of economic hardship and drowning in debts no longer exist.
When we realise that the world has enough for all of us, and distribute it so that everyone can prosper, we will be far closer to a world without prejudice and fear.