By Rabbi D.B. Ganz
The timeless wisdom of the Talmud speaks to current issues with clarity and relevance. Citing different Talmudic sources, my new book, "Talmudic Wisdom for Today," advocates eliminating all U.S. government entitlements such as Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security and welfare. It takes the position that government should be a protector, not a provider.
However, even if Social Security and Medicare were terminated, the commitments to those who already contributed money for future benefits should be honored. Doing otherwise would be theft, according to the Talmud's refined definition of stealing. Therefore, those who have completed half of their expected work years before the program's end should receive half of the promised benefits upon retirement; those who worked 15 percent of their work years should receive 15 percentof the benefits; and retirees who have completed all their payments should continue receiving 100 percent of their benefits. This way, all citizens will receive what they paid for. (Future government-funded medical coverage should be in the form of vouchers for private-sector medical insurance. This will lower costs and eliminate most of the Medicare bureaucracy.)
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For the United States at present, this Talmudic approach is also common sense. The ever-expanding entitlement programs comprise over 50 percent of the U.S. budget. And though it must borrow 40 cents of every dollar it spends, the government nevertheless undertakes major new programs like Obamacare. Estimates of U.S. future entitlement debt run as high as $70 trillion. Without question, any entity remaining in this situation will soon face financial Armageddon. As such, the choice before the American public is between preventing a national economic collapse by quickly stopping the entitlements, or doing nothing and waiting for the breakdown that will end this and almost all other government spending.
Very obviously, this policy being advocated would create terrible hardships, at least initially, for the many millions of people who have come to depend on government largesse. Though I believe this approach is Talmud-based and just, I nonetheless feel uncomfortable about advocating a policy that would cause so much human pain, if ever adopted. Therefore, to further support the position being articulated, I am presenting the following idea.
The Talmud (Bava Metzia 62a) discusses a hypothetical case. Two people were traversing an arid desert, and one of them had a flask with just enough water to enable him to reach civilization and survive. If, however, he shared the water, both people would die of thirst. A scholar named Bar Petura taught that the man cannot stand by doing nothing as the other one is expiring. He must therefore give his fellow traveler some of the water and temporarily save him, even though as a result, both will eventually die. This view was accepted until Rabbi Akiva, one of the greatest of all Talmudic sages, came and pointed out that the Bible writes: "And your brother should live with you" (Leviticus 25:36). The words "with you" indicate a hierarchy. First, one must secure his own life. Afterward, he must allow his brother to live with him. Rabbi Aviva therefore taught, "Your life is first." The man should not share his flask – this way, at least he will live. It is, after all, his water.
The Talmud's conclusion is that Rabbi Akiva's position should be accepted. It is not that Rabbi Akiva disregarded the plight of the other traveler who will die of thirst. Rather, he inferred from the Bible that it is a higher morality for the owner of the water to keep what is his and survive.
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This text speaks volumes to the situation now being faced by the U.S. That government should be a protector, not a provider, means that even if a country has a great deal of surplus cash on hand, it should not involve itself in major distributions of charity. Things now, however, are very different. As already mentioned, the U.S. is almost hopelessly in debt, and the cost of its entitlements is growing exponentially.
Clearly, the nastiness associated with modern politics and election campaigns has no Talmudic antecedent. Nevertheless, a component of the liberal view on this topic echoes the thinking of Bar Petura, while the opposing view is closer to Rabbi Akiva's view. One group exclaims, "We must nevertheless continue helping the indigent, come what may!" Others feel, "Slash the spending right now or else the entire economy will crash, and we will all require charity to survive."
At present, America must opt for one of two choices. It can continue sacking its remaining wealth in order to support those in need and complete the destruction of the economy. Alternatively, it can sharply curtail its entitlements (and other spending as well). This way, at least much of the country will survive economically. What Rabbi Akiva taught 1,900 years ago addresses this 2012 conundrum – which approach is ethical and correct? To paraphrase his immortal perspective, "Our country's survival comes first!"
Rabbi D.B. Ganz heads the Jewish Heritage Initiative of Cambridge, Mass. He recently published "Talmudic Wisdom for Today," a volume that presents ancient Jewish Talmudic ideas and their relevance to many contemporary political issues. The preceding is excerpted from Rabbi Ganz's book.