“If one’s means do not suffice for two turtledoves or two pigeons, that person shall bring as an offering for that of which one is guilty a tenth of an ephah of choice flour for a sin offering; one shall not add oil to it or lay frankincense on it, for it is a sin offering.” (Leviticus 5:11)
When I began teaching college ethics, my class met on Las Olas in downtown Ft. Lauderdale, close to the fancy shops and restaurants. I raised the issue with my class about redistributing income. About three miles east of our classroom were some of the most expensive homes in the area, with luxury cars and yachts right on the waterway. About three miles west of our classroom was one of the poorest, most high crime neighborhoods in our area. Should we take some of the money from the rich people to the east of us and give it to the poor people to the west of us, making life fairer?
The issue is known as distributive justice. Wealth should be redistributed in the name of fairness. What is fascinating is that my students, many of whom came from poor homes, were almost universally opposed to such wealth redistribution. They felt that the rich have the right to keep what they have and the poor have to work harder to raise their standard of living. Perhaps the reason is that my students, many of whom were in school to better their careers, were working hard to better themselves. They felt others should do the same, not depend on handouts.
This week’s portion, which centers on animal sacrifice, recognizes the gap between the rich and the poor. If a person sins, they need to bring an offering to the Temple to find atonement. The rich could bring a cow or similar large animal. Those with less could bring a sheep or goat. Those with less could bring a bird. And the poorest, who could not afford any animal, could bring a handful of flour. Nobody should be turned away from a sin offering because they do not have the means.
Why did the Torah not call for a redistribution of wealth? There certainly are many verses that speak of tzedakah or giving charity to the poor. But ultimately the Torah recognizes the social reality, that some people will be rich and some poor. The Torah seems to believe in equality rather than equity, equal opportunity rather than equal results. Later in Deuteronomy, the Torah says that there will always be poor among us.
Putting the Torah’s view aside, should we redistribute wealth? I share the thoughts of various philosophers with my ethics class, ranging from the extreme socialism of Karl Marx (no private property, but “from each according to his abilities and to each according to his needs”) to the extreme conservative views of Ayn Rand (even altruism is wrong, making both the giver and receiver weak.) In the end, I prefer the writing of the late professor of philosophy from Harvard John Rawls and his important book A Theory of Justice.
Rawls asks what kind of economic system we would develop if we had to design it behind a veil of ignorance. Suppose we did not know in advance if we would be born rich or poor, white or black, male or female, able-bodied or disabled. What kind of economic system would we design? He presents two requirements of such a system.
The first requirement is that people’s basic social needs would be covered in such an economic system. No one should have to live without the basic necessities of life – food, clothing, shelter, medical care, or education. There would need to be some level of taxation to provide for these basic needs for everyone.
The second requirement is what he calls the difference principle. Everyone, particularly the poorest members of society, would have the ability to become wealthy if they have the opportunity, skills, and luck. According to Rawls, there is nothing wrong with wealth, even great wealth, as long as the opportunity to become wealthy is open to all. Rawls defined justice as fairness. He believed such an economic system as fair.
Many others disagreed with him. On the left, people claimed that allowing great wealth would lead to inequality in society. On the right, people claimed that taxing working people to provide for a social safety net was unfair. In spite of the criticism, there is much I admire in Rawl’s description of distributive justice. In some ways, perhaps, it is closest to the Torah.