06/12/2013 10:55 am ET Updated Aug 12, 2013

Torah vs. Libertarians: Round 1

The libertarian view of economic justice is approximately this: Eliminate coercion and deception from the marketplace; let people make whatever purchases, gifts and contracts they like; and the result will be a fair distribution of economic goods. If people freely agree to exchanges, then they are fair by definition. Restricting people's freedom in order to bring about or maintain a certain pattern of wealth distribution is unjust.

The Torah disagrees!

Land Distribution

When the Israelites conquer the Promised Land, the land is initially divided up more-or-less equally among clans. Since this is divinely ordained, it is presumably a fair starting point. As the Israelites begin buying, selling, giving and receiving, they drift away from the initial distribution. Inequality increases. But God does not accept that this is OK as long as it is done freely. Instead, God installs a reset requirement.

"You shall hallow the fiftieth year. You shall proclaim release 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 25:7-10).

After seven cycles of seven years, all land is to revert to its original owners (or their heirs), and all indentured Israelites are to be freed so that they may return to their homes. The point of the jubilee year is to restore the initial land-distribution pattern, no matter what agreements people have freely made with each other. Every 50 years the society is supposed to return to its roughly egalitarian distribution. Justice consists in the preservation of this pattern of distribution and justice trumps freedom of exchange.


This jubilee year passage is not a fluke. The doctrine that economic justice consists in preserving a pattern of distribution appears elsewhere, too. The Torah's general practice of inheritance is that wealth passes from fathers to sons, perpetuating the just distribution pattern into the next generation. However, the daughters of Zelophehad call attention to a complication:

"Our father died in the wilderness ... and he has left no sons ... Give us a holding among our father's kinsmen" (Numbers 27:3-4).

Clearly, the daughters of Zelophehad are objecting to the practice of transferring a dead man's land to collateral male relatives if he has no sons. God endorses their objection.

"The plea of Zelophehad's daughters is just. You should give them a hereditary holding among their father's kinsmen ... If a man dies without leaving a son, you shall transfer his property to his daughter" (Numbers 27:7-8).

God tells the Israelites that property should pass from fathers to sons or (in the absence of sons) to daughters. Notice that God denies that people have a right to pass their inheritance to whomever they like. Presumably, the reason is that freedom to choose an heir who is not one's child would dramatically distort the pattern of wealth distribution. People can't simply do anything they want with their estates; instead, they are constrained by the principle of economic justice.


The saga of the daughters of Zelophehad is not over. They are members of the tribe of Manasseh. The elders of the tribe of Manasseh raise the following objection.

"If they marry persons from another Israelite tribe, their share will be cut off from our ancestral portion and be added to the portion of the tribe into which they marry" (Numbers 36:3).

Clearly, the elders of Manasseh are objecting to the possibility that some of their tribal land could be lost if the daughters of Zelophehad marry someone outside of the tribe. Again God endorses the objection.

"They may marry anyone they wish, provided they marry into a clan of their father's tribe. No inheritance of the Israelites may pass over from one tribe to another" (Numbers 36:6-7).

God severely restricts the pool of eligible mates for Zelophehad's daughters. To prevent property transfer from tribe to tribe, they may marry only fellow members of the tribe of Manasseh. The preservation of the pattern of wealth distribution is more important than the freedom to marry whomever one likes. Again God indicates that economic justice trumps personal freedom.


Of course, our society does not limit marriage or inheritance so dramatically. People are now free to marry whomever they like (sic), and free to pass their estates to whomever they like (except for multi-millionaires who must pay estate tax on bequests more than $5 million).

I am not suggesting a return to the Torah's severe restrictions. We do not live in the ancient world. Thus, remaining true to the Bible does not consist in following its detailed prescriptions, but rather in implementing its general principles in ways suitable to the modern world.

I have shown that the Torah rejects the libertarian view. God denies that whatever people freely agree to is fair. Instead, God says that economic justice consists in maintaining a roughly egalitarian distribution of wealth. And justice is so important that it trumps basic liberties in conflict cases.

The way to implement this general principle today is not to celebrate a jubilee year, dictate heirs and restrict marriage. How should we implement this general principle? Well, modifying the tax code so that it reduces inequality would be a start.