Readers of the Jewish Chronicle will have seen my article in the paper last week on Shmitah; the Biblical mandate that land should lay fallow, loans should be written off and indentured servants should be released on the coming of the seventh year – a year the Rabbis calculate will begin in the coming Hebrew year.
I’ve spent part of this week at an international conference on the subject. What is capturing the interest of the extraordinary array of participants is not some arcane agricultural ritual but rather this idea, best articulated by Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin, a participant on the conference.
There are two models of economy known in Biblical and Rabbinic thought; Shuk and Shmitah. The Shuk is the market. The markets fuel growth, innovation and creativity. Without markets we would, surely, find ourselves living in impoverished squalor. But markets are built off a single test of value – money – and that commoditisation turns even the human being into a number. Markets are also insatiable and our planet cannot handle much more of our insatiable appetite for possessing more and more and more.
Shmitah is the counterbalance. It’s an economic model based on gifts; we open our fields to the poor, and the experience of finding enough in what we already possess – not what we might be able to get at some point in the future. Shmitah is also about the experience of the common good, rather than the experience of winners and losers. It’s not good for our society to be quite so unequal. Of course Shimtah on an ongoing basis would be stultifying, luddite, even. But Jewish thought has always seen Shmitah in the context of the six years of Shuk, and vice versa. One is the corollary to the other.
I believe we all know we want something more than a permanent chase for more and more. We all know there are other things to value in life aside from the bottom line. Shmitah, and its sister Shabbat, is the Jewish counter-narrative to that rapaciousness. How we should engage practically with these ideas in our post-agricultural local community at New London is a question I hope will, at least in part, be addressed by our scholar in residence, this Shabbat, Rabbi Julian Sinclair. Julian is grandson of our former member, Edna Halle of blessed memory, and a graduate of Oxford University and the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.
You can read my article in the Jewish Chronicle article at http://www.thejc.com/judaism/judaism-features/116770/the-fruits-shmittah-do-not-only-grow-trees