Thursday, January 06, 2022

It's Not About the Money


The Brother Haggadah was produced in 1350 - 1374 CE in a style attributable to Catalonia, Spain, and in the collection of The British Library. The Bottom frame on this page is a
depiction of borrowing of silver and gold.
On January 7th, the date of the Knesset vote, Begin organized a rally in Jerusalem attended by tens of thousands. In an angry, impassioned speech, Begin challenged Ben-Gurion directly and said: “That is why I say to Mr. Ben-Gurion: There will be no negotiations with Germany; and for that we are all ready to sacrifice our lives… Mr. Ben-Gurion has sent policemen, and in their hands - according to information we have just received - they have tear gas grenades made in Germany, the same gas that suffocated our ancestors… And so I declare: Evil now stands against justice - and will shatter like glass against a rock. So too this ugly attempt will shatter in the face of popular opposition.” The crowd followed Begin up the street to the Knesset, and threw stones through the Knesset windows. The police fired tear gas to disperse the crowd, and the odors of the gas wafted onto the Knesset floor.
In the end, the Knesset voted 61 to 50 to negotiate an agreement. In September 1952, Israel and Germany signed the Luxembourg Agreement. Germany agreed to pay reparations to the State of Israel, and to establish a Claims Conference to distribute reparations to Holocaust survivors.
Ben-Gurion argued that the Germany of 1952 was now part of the family of nations and needed to be treated differently. Furthermore, not to take the money offered would allow the Germans to benefit financially from their crimes. Justice demanded that the Jewish people receive payment for Jewish property seized during the Holocaust; practicality demanded that the new Jewish State pursue all avenues of economic development.
Begin saw reparations as a betrayal of the 6 million. To allow Germany to pay its way out of guilt was nearly as horrible as the Holocaust itself. He mocked the argument that this was a new Germany, led by “good Germans.” (Parenthetically, Begin was correct. Only 5% of Germans at the time felt any sense of guilt for the Holocaust.) Begin declared that reparations were blood money that violated the memory of the six million. In his opinion, Israel needed to be a proud and independent state, and Ben-Gurion was selling Jewish self-respect for “money, money, money.”
Prominent rabbis debated the reparations agreement as well. At the time, Rav Joseph Ber Soloveitchik publicly opposed the reparations agreement. This was "ransom money," a violation of the Biblical commandment not to accept a payment from a murderer to escape guilt. How could one take money from Amalek? Most of the rabbinic establishment agreed with Rav Soloveitchik. However, Rav Yoseph Eliyahu Henkin was very critical of Begin’s stance, and supportive of the reparations agreement.
Germany’s offer of reparations forced the State of Israel to make a choice between Ben-Gurion’s realpolitik and Begin’s idealism. But the debate about reparations is ages old, and goes back to the Torah. God informs Moshe that the Exodus is imminent, and immediately instructs him: “Speak now in the ears of the people, and let every man borrow from his neighbor and every woman from her neighbor, articles of silver and articles of gold.”
When the Jews leave, they take the Egyptian gold and silver with them, and the borrowed items are never returned. Since ancient times, antisemitic polemicists have used this text to question the morality of the Jewish people. The Talmud imparts that the Egyptian leadership brought a claim against the Jews before Alexander the Great, and demanded that the Jews return all of the borrowed silver and gold. This passage has clear historical roots. As Peter Schafer points out in Judeophobia: Attitudes toward the Jews in the Ancient World, ancient Egyptian antisemites often focused their attention on the Exodus narrative. Josephus cites the claims of an Egyptian priest, Manetho, who lived in the 3rd century BCE. Manetho concocts a revisionist version of the Exodus, in which the Jews are marauders and lepers who were expelled from Egypt; the story in the Talmud probably has a similar context. Over 2,000 years ago, the borrowing of valuables during the Exodus caught the attention of antisemites.
This trend continues into the Middle Ages. The Rashbam, writing in the 12th century, notes that Christian polemicists used this passage to portray Jews as cheats who swindle their neighbors.
However, a serious ethical question stands at the center of this slander: How could the Jews abscond with the borrowed silver and gold when they left the country? In response, many medieval and modern commentaries focus on the meaning of the Hebrew word sha’al, which is usually interpreted as “borrow.” Many commentaries offer a new definition of sha’al. The root of the word actually means to request; and these interpreters explain that in this instance, the request was for a permanent gift, not a temporary loan. Therefore, the Jews never cheated their neighbors; they had actually asked for the items to be gifted to them.
There are multiple theories to explain why the Egyptians would offer the Jews gifts. Josephus says the Egyptians offered the gifts on the night of the Exodus, “some in order to get them to depart quickly; and others on account of neighborly friendship they had with the Jews.” Saadiah Gaon says the gift was a partial repayment for unpaid wages.  Chizkuni says it was offered as compensation for property the Jews were leaving behind in Egypt. (See here for a comprehensive review of the commentaries on this). All of these commentaries are concerned about preserving the ethical reputation of the Jewish people.
But not everyone worries about the morality of this text. Some commentaries embrace deception and theft as a form of vigilante justice; after 400 years of slavery, the Jews had every right to claim what was rightfully theirs. Ibn Ezra believes that this deception was ultimately meant to lead the Egyptians to their deaths. When it became clear that the Jews were fleeing with the borrowed gold and silver, the Egyptians gave chase; and that chase ended at the bottom of the Red Sea. The former slaves were standing up for themselves and righting 400 years of wrongs; they shouldn’t have had any ethical concerns about lying to their tormentors.
In reading these commentaries, you can once again hear the push and pull between pragmatism and idealism; what is more important, ethical perfection or self-determination? Do we prioritize political and economic challenges, or communal virtue? Reparations from a despised enemy forces one to consider serious moral dilemmas, whether they are seized or offered willingly.
All of the discussions about ethics of reparations still leave one question unanswered: Why were these reparations so important? The Torah makes it clear they are not a mere afterthought; when God informs Avraham that his descendants would be in a 400-year exile, He immediately adds: “and in the end they shall go free with great wealth.” Reparations were part of the original plan of exile. One has to wonder how this seemingly small detail stands at the foundation of the entire Exodus.
Rav Avraham Yitzchak ha-Kohen Kook offers a fascinating answer to this question in his commentary to the Talmud. He explains the Jews were anxious to leave Egypt immediately, and had no interest in obtaining wealth; a slave only wants freedom, and nothing more. But this is a barren freedom, unable to nurture any dreams. Requesting gold and silver would transform the perspective of the former slaves, training them to pursue their aspirations and hopes. The reparations in Egypt weren’t about money, they were about ambition.
Ambition can be beaten out of a man. Last Shabbat, a congregant mentioned to me in conversation Bontshe Shvayg, the Y.L. Peretz character. Bontshe is a man who lives a life filled with abuse, uncared for and unnoticed. When he arrives in the heavenly court, he is received as a holy man, lauded for his faith and forbearance in the face of suffering. When Bontshe is asked to name his own eternal reward, he meekly answers: “What I'd like most of all is a warm roll with fresh butter every morning.” Brutal life experiences had beaten the ambition out of Bontshe, and now he couldn’t even appreciate the heavenly award that awaited him. Bontshe teaches us why leaving Egypt with material wealth was so important; these slaves had been beaten for 400 years and had lost all ambition. Now, they needed to learn how to dream again; a warm roll with fresh butter would not suffice.
All of the opinions regarding reparations, ancient and modern, share a common motivation: greatness. Despite sharp differences, these rabbis and politicians advocated for important goals: economic development, Jewish pride, ethical refinement, and self-determination. These debates are evidence of spiritual vitality, and that’s precisely the point. Reparations are not about the money; they are about ambitions. A mediocre freedom is not enough. One must always aspire to something greater, even if it's just a silver platter.

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