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Parashat Behar-Behukotai

May 17, 2017

A Society of Free Landholders
by Rabbi Len Levin

“You shall proclaim release [liberty] throughout the land for all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: each of you shall return to his holding and each of you shall return to his family.” (Leviticus 25:9)

Three years ago I discussed how the Jubilee law served as a beacon to both the American republic and the reborn Jewish homeland, informing their visions of liberty and economic opportunity for all citizens. (See Levin, Dvar Torah Behar 2014.)

To review: “In order to have a chance to remain free, people needed to have a material sufficiency to earn an independent livelihood. Hence, at periodic intervals — every fifty years — the primary source of wealth, the land itself, was to be redistributed to the ancestral families to which it had presumably been apportioned at the original Israelite conquest.”

The Israeli philosopher Eliezer Schweid, in his book, Philosophy of the Bible: Philosophy of Biblical Law (Academic Studies Press, 2008), sees the guarantee of individual landholding promised in the Jubilee law as a basic condition of the ideal of ancient Israelite citizenship:

“When they enter the covenant, [its members] must be granted recognition as individuals who are able to maintain themselves at a decent level in their society by standing on their own, with the ability to support themselves as well as the ability to demand their just rights from their fellow-covenanters and their community. The covenant is not enacted among beggars dependent on others, but among free individuals who stand on their own [entitled to such goods as] are identical with life (the right to one’s own body and soul), or a precondition of life (air to breathe, water to drink, food, dwelling-place, spouse)…It is proper that the society that establishes the “garden” should guarantee that these goods will not be withheld from its members, nor should they become the private property of individuals who have managed to capture the power to rule” (54–55).

Jacob Milgrom, in his commentary on this passage (“Jubilee, the Priestly Response to Economic Injustice,” in Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus, Continental Commentaries, Fortress Press, 2004, 298–316), notes that Chapter 25 traces the progression of decline from economic independence through successive stages: loss of land, reduction to wage-laborer status, falling into debt, and finally selling oneself into slavery. The socioeconomic reset every 50 years undoes all these successive impoverishments by restoring all individuals to their original status as independent landholders (the ancient equivalent of what we would call “middle class”).

In the United States, the political promise of equality of citizens was given material substance in the 19th and early 20th centuries through the Homestead Acts, granting free land (originally 160 acres, in the 1862 Homestead Act signed by Abraham Lincoln) to those who were willing to work it by their labor. (See Wikipedia: Homestead Acts).

Milgrom points out that the biblical Jubilee law was emulated in the 19th century in Tonga, by the king who retained titular ownership of all the land by himself but granted it in landholds to ordinary Tongans for them to work the land to support themselves. The 2011 Submission to the Royal Land Commission of Tonga, which recalls this history in support of updates to Tonga’s land distribution policies, cites Isaiah 1:17 and Amos 5:24, grounding Tongan land policy in the biblical injunction to seek justice. It goes on to quote the 1839 royal edict:

“You [the chiefs] should show love to the people you have under you…and…you should divide to each one of them land for their own use, that each one may have means of living, of supporting his family, procuring necessities, and of contributing to the cause of God.” (Appendix 4, p. 5)

(See also Executive Summary and Index of 2012 Tonga report.)

In today’s post-industrial age, the means of subsistence are most often to be found not in land ownership but in other assets: job opportunity, home ownership, availability of health care, and especially education unencumbered by debt. The availability of these assets to all society’s members, without discrimination on the basis of race, religion, or national origin, is crucial to maintaining the promise of true freedom today.

Let us all stand together to proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all its inhabitants.


Rabbi Len Levin teaches Jewish philosophy at AJR.