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Parashat Hashavua Ki Teitzei 2009 / 5769 - Property is Theft. Or Not

27.08.2009 by

When I was a kid, back in the sixties, there were two great, popular, anarchistic, anti-capitalist slogans: "Steal This Book", the title of a work by Abbie Hoffman which, not surprisingly, didn't sell so well, and the title of this Dvar Torah: "Property is Theft". Coined (if you'll pardon the expression) by French anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon in 1840 (thank you, Wikipedia), in the sixties we understood it as a protest against the very notion of ownership, its inherent and historical inequalities and excesses. I remember it often being conflated with what we believed to be a Native American idea that land can not be owned by anyone (True? A legend? Anybody know?).

I am engaging in this bout of hippie-wanna-be nostalgia (I was a bit too young and way too Orthodox to really be a hippie) not because of the 40th anniversary of Woodstock (no, I didn't go, it's a short, sad story: I was a waiter in an Orthodox summer camp, not far from Woodstock, actually, and we had arranged to go to the festival as our official waiters' outing for the summer (pretty clever, huh?), until the powers that be figured it out (drugs, sex, rock and roll) and locked the camp down for the weekend. Three of us (not me) snuck out and went, and they've never been the same), but because of a few verses in Ki Tetse, this week's parsha: "If you enter your neighbor's vineyard, you may eat all the grapes you want, but do not put any in your basket. If you enter your neighbor's grain field, you may pick kernels with your hands, but you must not put a sickle to his standing grain."

Now, read in a straightforward manner, the Torah is clearly saying that when walking through someone's field we are allowed, within reason (don't fill your basket with the stuff, or harvest his whole field), to eat from the crops growing there. The message seems clear - property is theft, the land and its produce belong to everyone, the "owner" of the field doesn't really own its fruit, anyone can just come and take it. In other words, Steal This Fruit! Now, you could argue that, once again, I've gone too far, and that, by limiting how much the passer-by can take to essentially only what he can eat right then and there, the Torah is actually affirming the owner's ultimate claim to the field and its produce, and you would be right. However, the right of every passing stranger to at least some of field's fruit does limit the extent of ownership, and should make us pause, and rethink, perhaps, what we believe about property, and theft, and how we are all meant to share the earth and its bounty, rather than grab and hoard it for ourselves.

The fact is, however, that the Talmud rejects this reading, as clear and direct as it would seem to be, and decides that the verses only refer to someone who is working for the owner, in his fields, and not to anyone else: simple passersby have no right to take fruit from someone else's field. As the Talmudic discussion goes: "'Issi ben Yehuda says: "If you enter your neighbor's vineyard..." the verse is talking about anyone who comes into it'. And Rav says: 'Issi has left people with no way to live!'" (Babylonian Talmud, Bava Matzia, 92a). In other words, ownership, and its attendant rights, makes possible the social order needed to guarantee an orderly distribution of food, perhaps not the fairest, most equitable distribution, but one that enables just about all of us to eat. Allow anyone to just grab what they want, Rav says to Issi, and we will have chaos, anarchy, and no one will eat. The verse is therefore understood as only referring to agricultural workers, the idea being that it is mean to make people work around food and prevent them from eating (my son Sruli, who has a wedding band, is really ticked off when the band isn't given food from the wedding and the opportunity to eat it, and is usually sure to include this arrangement in the contract). But the simple reading, giving everyone a basic right to take some food as they walk through another's property, is rejected: what's mine is mine, and you can't have it.

So, the Rabbis read these verses not as a challenge to ownership (even if only a somewhat limited one), which would give everyone some claim on other people's 'property', but, rather, as a simple, reasonable kindness which the landowner should show his workers. With this reading, they opt for an orderly, capitalist society, in which property is respected and ownership affirmed, but in which, at the same time, the Torah demands that ownership be enlightened, thoughtful, and sensitive, and that we do have to share what is ours, when necessary, with those who have some particular claim to it, like the field worker. However, we need not go beyond that, and subvert the rights of ownership, as that would be dangerously anarchic.

I gotta tell you, hippie or not, I am a little disappointed; I was rooting for Issi ben Yehuda's more radical understanding. What about you?

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Shimon Felix

The Talmud rejects this reading, as clear and direct as it would seem to be, and decides that the verses only refer to someone working for the ownerRabbi Shimon

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