Pirke Avot chapter two, verse seventeen: property
1 August 2009, 12:18 PM
The third of Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai’s disciples is Rabbi Jose the Priest (yosay ha-cohen), who he described as a pious man, or a saint. A chasid, in the Hebrew. I’ll use Judah Goldin’s translation, because I am in the mood for some thees and thous. It’s amazing to me how the KJV totally dominated our idea (my idea, but let’s say the English-speaking world’s idea) of what constitutes religious language for hundreds of years. When the JPS wanted to make an English translation of the Scriptures, back in the first part of the twentieth century when there was no English Bible for Jewish use, the one thing they all agreed on was that they needed to stick to the majestic KJV style, while of course being more accurate as translators.
Rabbi Yose says: Let thy fellow’s property be as dear to thee as thine own. Make thyself fit for the study of torah, for it will not be thine by inheritance. Let all thine actions be for the sake of heaven.
Obviously, he’s not suggesting that you should covet your fellow’s property. Although, you know, that is the clear meaning of the words. No, this is interpreted as being something closer to the Golden Rule, or at least as being an exhortation to fellowship. The Machsor Vitry adds that if you should search just as hard for a neighbor’s lost possession as you would for your own; Joseph ben Judah Ibn-Aknin adds a bit about never badmouthing a competitor’s goods.
This is the sort of thing that makes R. Travers Herford refer to this wisdom as “excellent but not inspiring”. And yet, if you think about it, this is a startling idea: let thy fellow’s property be as dear to thee as thine own.
Here’s one way in to that advice: don’t let yourself get any more attached to your own stuff than you are to someone else’s stuff. You have, let’s say, a standing lamp that is just behind your reading chair. Comfortable chair, good light. You are, I would guess, rather fond of that chair and that lamp. When you visit a friend’s house, you can’t read as comfortably. The light isn’t as good, and there’s nowhere to put your feet. You come home and there they are: your chair, your lamp. And yet… is that a bad thing? Have you become just a little dependent on the thing? And then you start using CFR bulbs, and then suddenly the light isn’t quite right. And then you start to think, well, I can still get those incandescent bulbs, and seriously, it’s one bulb, and I really am more comfortable with the light that I like. Let somebody else switch bulbs and save the world.
And then, just as advice, you know, things do break. You can’t count on them. Don’t (this line of thinking goes) be the sort of person who has to have just exactly the right skillet for frying up bacon, and spends time, energy and money on making sure that the skillet is perfect. There are more important things than that. Think of your stuff as being useful to you, rather than being yours; don’t like it any more than you like your neighbor’s stuff, only it happens to be yours.
Or, as a different path in: don’t make the mistake of thinking that your stuff is important, but other people’s stuff isn’t. The other guy probably likes his chair and his light just as much as you like yours—or maybe he has a lousy lamp and he hates it, and that also is just as important as your happiness with yours. There’s a trap of thinking that it is really important that I have the thing that I want—the right car, the right phone, the right album—and that the world should arrange itself so that it is possible for me to get it. Not that I should steal it, no, just that it should be affordable. And often that’s right, or at least not wrong: we should arrange the world so that you can afford a place to live, a way to get to work and back, medicine, food, entertainment, news, a comfortable chair. But not just you. Everybody. And if we arrange it so that you get what you want, but your neighbor doesn’t get what he wants, well, that’s not right. Nor even if you get what you want and your neighbor also gets what you want.
And another way in: what conceptions of property can we have so that this advice is real and practical? What do we mean by property in the first place? The term is not altogether easily defined. Oh, there is lots of stuff that is easy enough to put in the category of mine or thine; my toothbrush, your wallet, his socks, her house. But there are also lost of things that are difficult to categorize: the air I breathe, the song you made up, her job, his reputation. When we talk about property rights, and we do (eminent domain, pollution, zoning, defamation, copyright, etc, etc), perhaps it’s worth keeping in mind this verse. Not that it will give us any clear answers, but it might frame the way we go about looking for them, and keep some of the worst answers out of that frame.
Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,