The Economy, Krugman, Healthcare, Pesach – and Power, Ethics & Ecology in Late Jewish Antiquity

March 18, 2021 | 5 Nissan 5781 

Dear All,

The whole world we live in, right now, is “both/and” rather than “either/or.”
Everything happens simultaneously.
Everything and its opposite is true.
Things overlap and repeat, fold in upon themselves.

I feel this strongly in relation to the economy, as well as so much else.

It is good that the federal government has learned some of the (negative) lessons of 2008, and before that of Herbert Hoover. Paul Krugman has argued repeatedly that it’s wrong to fear inflation in a deflationary environment. If the government were not printing money – had not printed money this last year – then millions and perhaps tens of millions would be out of work, perhaps homeless, perhaps hungry. And it is always those who already have the least who suffer the most.

So: printing money is good. And the American Rescue Plan is especially commendable because, for the first time since perhaps Lyndon Johnson, there’s a (somewhat) focused attempt to get the most help to those who are poorest. This is what the Torah enjoins.

And yet one other consequence of this is that all sorts of bubbles are developing. From GameStop to the art market to baseball cards, asset prices are (over-)inflating all over the place. This game of musical chairs may last for years rather than months; but the further things go up the further that (some at least) will have to fall.

It is my nature to think about things like this in relation to Jewish tradition; in relation to the Torah, the Jewish holidays, the calendar; in relation to norms and ideals implicit within Jewish teaching.

I’m struck that in recent years a chunk of American Jewish life has aligned itself firmly with the progressive left; and another, somewhat smaller chunk has aligned itself, no less vociferously, with the right. In each case there’s an implicit (sometimes explicit) presumption that such-and-such is enjoined or prohibited by the Torah.

I’m not persuaded that this is either useful or valid. It’s not useful because I don’t need Jewish tradition to validate progressive or conservative positions. Each can be argued for in its own right.

What’s much more interesting to me is to understand Jewish tradition as something different, strange or challenging. It is ancient, certainly in its origins, and it comes from a world that we can barely imagine; and yet, at the same time, human beings are human beings; and so its teachings are grounded in presumptions about human behavior that are entirely recognizable today.

If you want a really fun read, over Pesach, as a follow-on to the last John Grisham you read, I strongly commend Rabbi Dr. Julia Watts Belser’s Power, Ethics and Ecology in Jewish Late Antiquity. It’s a close reading of masechet ta’anit, and a worthy companion to the superb 8-part online Hazon series that Rabbi Yedidya Sinclair recently completed. One of the things she writes, early on, is:

“In contrast to approaches that assert straightforward, proscriptive ethical conclusions I suggest that the key ethical contribution of the Bavli’s aggadah lies precisely in its tendency to avoid a single, moralistic response to complex questions. Instead, the Bavli’s aggadah reveals the power of story to convey moral complexity, to facilitate a deeper, more compelling engagement with ethical questions, and to emphasize the importance of self-critical reflection as a central ethical obligation.”

This quote is one small part of a (frankly) somewhat obscure academic book.

I’m fascinated that Rabbi Belser and Rabbi Sinclair have I think fairly different outlooks on the world, and yet,  independently, have read ta’anit in remarkably similar ways. They see it as richly valuable in offering multiple and complex frames with which to complexify and confuse and challenge our sense of relationship with the world that, ultimately, sustains all of us.

That quote, above, from Rabbi Belser; that’s not just about ta’anit, in my view. Applied more broadly I think it’s a key insight into Jewish tradition overall.
Jewish tradition overall is often resistant to a single moralistic response to complex questions.
And Jewish tradition overall “reveals the power of story to convey moral complexity, to facilitate a deeper, more compelling engagement with ethical questions, and to emphasize the importance of self-critical reflection as a central ethical obligation.”

So I offer all of this in the run-up to Pesach, and in relation to this moment in America and in the West.

Giving money to people in need at a time of great dislocation is a necessary act of help.

But wouldn’t we be a stronger, healthier, and calmer society if every person in this country – every single person in this country – had free health-care from cradle to grave? Health outcomes would be better. Life expectancy would be greater. Inequalities would be reduced. The overall cost of health would go down. But at a still deeper level: the absence of a societal safety-net, including a sufficient health-care safety net, itself is a spur to needless competition, stress, to needing more money, because money functions to protect people, given how scary this postcapitalist world has ultimately become. In other words: not having proper health care worsens health outcomes; but it also, in a far deeper sense, makes people insecure, and in turn helps drive what becomes – in due course – the overconsumption of the world.

So: I realize there’s a lot going on in this email :-).

The connections between these various topics seem obvious to me – this is, to me, one single train-of-thought. I get that it may not seem that way to you.

But I leave you simply with these four questions, for your seder table – whatever kind of seder table it is for you this year:

  • In what ways do you think that Jewish tradition endorses key developments in contemporary life, and in what ways do you think it critiques them?
  • Is being a good Jew the same as being a good person? (If yes: why bother being Jewish? If no: how is it different, and how do you relate to those differences?)
  • As you read the Torah – or the Pesach story – in what ways does Jewish tradition most challenge America right now? And how does it most challenge you?
  • Finally: if seder night is (as indeed it is) “freedom from…. [want/oppression/slavery etc.]” and then Shavuot is (in due course) “freedom to… [choose to self-limit; do or not do certain things; etc.], what do these distinctions mean to you right now? How might a year of Covid helped you to clarify and disentangle these two kinds of freedom?

Shabbat shalom – and chag kasher v’sameach,


PS: Isabella Freedman has a small number of spots left for the intermediate days and for the end of Pesach, and I think maybe room for one more family for the first weekend. If you would like to join us, email

PPS: We’ve now launched The Shmita Prizes. Pass along the link to the artists and creatives amongst your friends and family. And pencil in Sunday, May 2 for a half-day online Limmud Day of Learning on the topic of shmita. 11am-noon ET, and then 5-8pm ET. Details to follow.

PPPS: And, speaking of health, here’s Prince Charles in a just published short essay on the relationship between Western medicine and complementary health.