Thursday, 19 May 2016

Written by Daniel Lichman

This Pesach some of us chose to add a key to the seder plate as a symbolic reminder that while we celebrate our freedom, thousands of people in our country are held in detention centres, without knowing when they will be freed. Just prior to Pesach, Tzelem UK, the group of British rabbis campaigning for social justice, organised a parliamentary briefing to urge the government to place a time limit on detention. At this event Jewish, Christian and Muslim faith leaders and parliamentarians heard a young man called Ajay describe how he survived the earthquake in Nepal only to experience daily earthquakes in his head when he was imprisoned in the migrant detention centre, not knowing when he might be released.

It’s at moments like this that the world as it is – with its injustices, inequalities and oppressions – feels unchangeable to me; my idealised vision of the world as it should be feels pointless. Yet Jewish tradition persistently breaks any downwards spiral of helpless despair by insisting on the hope in a redeemed world where, to use one of many examples, ‘each person shall sit under their vine and fig tree and no one will shake them’ (Micah 4:4).

This week’s specific interruption of hope is particularly interesting because it is a suggestion of how to reach this idealised vision.

You shall count off seven weeks of years – seven times seven years – so that the period of seven weeks of years gives you a total of forty-nine years…and 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. That fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you: you shall not sow, neither shall you reap the after growth or harvest the untrimmed vines, for it is a jubilee. It shall be holy to you. (Vayikra/Leviticus 25:8-12)  

The jubilee year, pressing the reset button on land ownership, is a radical economic policy.

One commentator, the anthropologist Mary Douglas, explains the impact of this:

The jubilee doctrine, if it could have been enforced, would mean much for the welfare of the people. Effectively, it prohibits private accumulation and even accumulation by the temple treasury. It ensures that there will be no gross inequality of earth-holding. No permanent underclass of enslaved families will feel aggrieved by the lineal transmission of private land. Solidarity will not be undermined by resentment of perceived injustice.

A society without resentment and envy between people sounds ideal. Yet if social harmony requires a redistributive law this radical, I find it difficult to imagine how it would be enacted in contemporary society, aside from by means of a violent revolution. Indeed, as Douglas points out, it is unlikely to have been carried out in biblical times either.

Yet, perhaps, its ambitious, unrealistic, scope is the point. The jubilee year, every forty nine years, which interrupts the ownership of the land itself, might be difficult to enact but the shemittah year (Vayikra/Leviticus 25:2-7), every seven years, which interrupts the ownership of the produce of land, is easier to imagine. And then Shabbat, every seven days, which disrupts how we relate to all production, is achievable.

The Shabbat of years (shemittah) and the Shabbat of the Shabbat of years (jubilee) reveal to us a radical aspect of Shabbat itself. A day where we take a break from all material production enables us to have a taste of the society-wide break that would be enabled by the more ambitious jubilee year. The ambitious aim is maintained as an ideal, whilst the more modest aspect of it is achieved as a reality. Shabbat, this more modest achievement, thus enables us to hold onto hope for the greater vision of society-wide transformation.

I realise that it is when I see only the greater ideal vision that I feel demoralised. Focused only on the world as it should be, I miss the more modest but important achievements within the world as it is.

Whilst the overall aim of the campaign to end indefinite detention has not yet succeeded, the government have accepted some important changes to this policy. They are introducing automatic bail hearings after four months of detention and a 72 hour limit has been placed on the detention of pregnant women. This is a move in the right direction.

Pesach called on us to campaign for freedom and we can be proud to know that the Jewish community contributed to the pressure on the government that helped to make these changes pass.

Student Rabbi Daniel Lichman