halachah · judaism · social justice

Are Jews allowed to lend money at interest?

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.

Shabbat shalom.

sermon · social justice

It could be you

A woman passes her baby over the fence to an American soldier. She does not know the soldier. She does not know if the baby will be safe. She does not know whether she will ever see the baby again. But she knows that she must give the baby to someone, anyone, so that he doesn’t grow up there.

A sixteen year old boy with a promising career as a footballer grabs on to the side of a plane. He begs. He hopes the plane will take him too. The plane takes off, flinging him to the ground. He dies instantly.

An elderly woman with nothing to her name takes off on a long journey across desert mountains by foot. If she is lucky, she will arrive in a squalid refugee camp and spend the rest of her days living in white tents managed by the UN. She probably will not be so lucky.

Today those people are Afghans. 

Only a few generations ago, they might have been you. 

Most of the people here have ancestors who fled just as these refugees do today.

The great migration of Jews into England came at the end of the 19th Century. They had been living in the Pale of Settlement in Russia and Eastern Europe for centuries. Under Tsarist persecution, Jews were confined only to certain parts of the Russian Empire. They worked as peasants and in menial jobs, building their own communities in the shtetls.

When the Tsar’s power was threatened and the Russian Empire began to crumble, his supporters blamed the Jews. For decades, state-backed mobs rampaged through the villages. They torched houses, massacred people, stole property and made life unbearable. We call these waves of antisemitic violence pogroms.

So, our forebearers fled. Most did not make it. Some arrived in England. When they did, they were met by hostility, racism, cramped housing and sweatshop jobs. 

Not long ago, the hordes of fleeing refugees were you. You know what it meant to be a stranger. Even if you do not remember. 

The Torah asks you to remember. According to our narrative, thousands of years ago, we were strangers in the land of Egypt. We were refugees from a famine in Canaan. We were wandering migrants with no home. We were enslaved and confined to one part of the Nile and worked hard labour building garrisons for the Pharaoh. We were mistreated and judged with prejudice. We are instructed by Scripture to remember how that felt.

This week’s parashah sets out the rights of migrants. Never abuse them. Do not exploit them. Pay them upfront. Don’t hold their property hostage. Give them dignity. Don’t mess them around. Make sure they have food and shelter. Look after them.

Why? Over and over again, Deuteronomy repeats: “Always remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt. That is why God enjoins you to observe this commandment.”

You have to support strangers because they are you. When you look at migrants and refugees, you are not allowed to see them as different. You have to look at them as you. It is the most-repeated commandment in the whole of Torah: to know what it is like to be a foreigner in a foreign land. Remember what this means.

Not everyone remembers. 

Last week, Danny Finkelstein wrote in The Times praising border controls. He took his family story of fleeing as refugees from the Nazis to advocate for keeping some foreigners out.

He wrote, and I quote here: “strongly believe in immigration control. And I am not in the slightest bit put off by the suggestion that this would have prevented my grandfather from becoming a British citizen […] yes, I would deny immigration to some very deserving and worthy people I would be quite happy to live next door to. Even people I would be happy to be related to. Just because I favour immigration for someone, that doesn’t mean I favour it for everyone.”

Personally, I cannot share Mr. Finklestein’s flippant disregard for immigrants, or join him in championing border controls. Like his, my family also fled the Nazis. Most did not make it out. Only a few, who were children, or who could prove they would be useful as nurses, were permitted entry. Under the current system, I doubt they would have been allowed. If I were a refugee today, I would not fare so well as my grandfather did.

But the reason I object to Danny Finkelstein so strongly is not selfish pragmatism. It is religious. It is because I truly believe what the Torah teaches about the rights of strangers. Those refugees are my ancestors who fled persecution. They are my progenitors from millennia ago who were strangers in the land of Egypt. Those Afghans, gripping onto planes and handing their babies to soldiers and walking for miles in the sun… they are me.

And they could be me again.

The only thing that stands between a comfortable citizen today and a desperate refugee tomorrow is luck. 

We in this room do not have to think about what we would do if our corner of the world was faced with famine or war. We do not have to imagine where we would go when faced with our own version of the Taliban.

But if ever I did have to think about this, I would pray that somebody, somewhere, had taken to heart the message of the Torah. I would want somebody to say that no number is too many, that their homes were open, and that my life mattered, no matter what I could provide.

Thankfully, there are people in Britain today, making precisely this case. 

The Jewish Council for Race Equality has put together a Jewish community response to the Afghan refugee crisis. It sets out clear actions the government must undertake to meet its moral obligations.

It must scrap its anti-asylum seeker legislation. It must stop deporting Afghans back to certain danger. It must allow more refugees into this country. 

I urge you all to sign this petition in support of these very reasonable demands.

These are really the minimum standards we must meet. The Torah never even thinks to introduce border controls or to police citizenship. Our Scripture assumes that migration is natural and inevitable. God’s instruction is that, once strangers are with you, you give them all the rights and compassion you would show to someone you have known all your life.

Torah repeats itself so many times to drill home this message.

Always remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt. That is why God enjoins you to observe this commandment.

Shabbat shalom. 

I delivered this sermon at South West Essex and Settlement Reform Synagogue on 21st August 2021 for Parashat Ki Teitzei.

judaism · sermon · social justice

How much should I give away?

In 2013, a survey revealed that Jews were the second biggest charitable donors in the UK. 

Muslims were first. 

Ever since, I’ve been trying to recruit Jews into competition so that next time a survey is run, we will win.

Coming second is fine, I guess. But if we’re going to be a light unto the nations and take moral responsibility for the world, we should be coming first no problem. 

They didn’t win because there are more of them than us. That wouldn’t be a fair comparison. Muslims outdid us on both how much each person gave on average, and how much they gave as a proportion of their income.

I’m not really advocating getting into a competition between the religions. There’s enough of that going on in the world.

But I do think there is something important we can learn from Muslims. One of the reasons they do so well on charitable giving is because of how seriously they take the messsage from this week’s parashah. 

Here, we read Reeh. This part of Torah introduces the concept of tithing. Tithing is an old English word, meaning ‘taking a tenth.’ And that is exactly what is prescribed here. Every Israelite must take a tenth of their produce and give it to the priests for redistribution. 

The priests then use some of it for upkeep of the community; some for orphans and widows; some for the poor; and some for supporting migrants passing through. 

This is the basis of Ancient Israelite society. The world of the Bible was very unequal, and living conditions were particularly harsh, so they truly saw the importance of a basic welfare system. 

In the Ancient Near East, almost everyone was a subsistence farmer. Each extended family had a small plot of land, which they would use for harvesting crops, rearing animals, and general living. One bad year on the farm could render an entire family destitute.

The Torah introduced social provision, so that everyone contributed and anyone who needed it could benefit. Richer people did pay additional levies on their crops, so that a tenth was the minimum, but some could give much more. The earliest tzedakah was probably much more like modern taxes for the welfare state than charity. 

But that should not excuse us taking seriously our obligation to give to charity. I’m sure we all agree that the welfare state is a wonderful thing, and that it is impressive that it has a biblical basis. I don’t need to tell you to pay your taxes. You don’t have much choice in that.

What you do have control over is your tzedakah. Your charitable giving. It is a mitzvah doraita, a commandment from Torah, that we are supposed to give 10% of our take-home income to charity. 

Now, who actually gives 10% of their income to charity? Anyone here? I am embarrassed to admit that I don’t. I have regular standing orders that go out to causes I care about, but when I look back on the year, I never actually make it to a tenth of my income.

I feel especially ashamed to admit this, because that tenth is supposed to be the bare minimum. Maimonides teaches that people should give more if they can, as long as they are not consequently rendering themselves in need of charity. 

But my motto is never to lead perfect be the enemy of good. All of us can start by taking charitable giving seriously as a spiritual practice and building it into our daily lives.

Muslims do this with what they call “zakat.” At the end of every week, they give at least 2.5% of their earnings to charity. They’re big donors because they make this a consistent practice and see it as a fundamental part of their religion.

It is also a fundamental part of Judaism. Charitable giving is supposed to be essential for us all. Some older members may remember that, not long ago, every home had a pushke, or tzedaka box, which would collect whatever spare change a person had. Giving has been heavily integrated into some people’s Jewish lives, and it should be again.

Elul is coming. It is the last month of the Jewish year. It is our time for reflection. We use this time to look inward and assess our deeds. 

In Hebrew, this process of introspection is called “cheshbon hanefesh” – auditing the soul. We weigh up our good deeds with our bad, and put our own morals on the scales of judgement. A part of this must surely mean re-examining our giving. A cheshbon is a bill, a record of how much you owe. We owe many things: deeds, love, kindness and study. But we also do literally owe money to those who need it more than we do. 

Now is the time to redouble our efforts at donating and to make sure we do fulfil our sacred requirements. The synagogue will be sending round its High Holy Day appeal soon, and I encourage you to give it a good look.

Giving to others is good for us. It strengthens our soul and sense of self-worth. It is good for others. It means people less fortunate get the support they need. It means great causes can continue to thrive.

And, of course, giving is good for the Jews. Especially if it might mean we win a competition. 

Shabbat shalom.