Robinson Crusoe, Just Distribution, and the Image of God

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On January 5-6, 2011, IDI convened a Conference on People with Disabilities in the Jewish and Democratic State, as part of the activities of IDI's Judaism and Human Rights project. In the following article, IDI Senior Fellow Prof. Shahar Lifshitz, the project's co-director, shares his thoughts on social justice and the just distribution of resources.

In the 20th century, an intense debate took place in Western thought. On one side were supporters of the welfare state, who held that it is the responsibility of modern states to care for the weaker members of society. According to these thinkers, redistribution of a society's resources is necessary in order to achieve the goals of social justice and equality. On the opposite side was a school of thought called "libertarianism," which emphasized the rights of the individual to their person and property. The libertarians claimed that the state is required to protect the physical welfare of its citizens and their property, but may not initiate redistribution of wealth or adopt social welfare policies that appropriate the private property of citizens and infringe on their rights.

In order to sharpen the claim that the redistribution of wealth is not legitimate, Robert Nozik, one of the leading libertarian thinkers, offered the following parable: Robinson Crusoe and Friday came to a deserted island, and neither was aware of the other's existence. Each one lived on his respective half of the island and grew a vegetable garden for sustenance. After some time, Robinson Crusoe and Friday met, and discovered that Crusoe's garden was much more developed than Friday's. According to Nozik, it would be absurd to argue that Friday has any legal and/or moral claim that would enable him to demand that Robinson Crusoe share the produce of his garden with him. Similarly, argued Nozik, there is no basis for weaker members of society to demand that its stronger members share the fruits of their success.

There are three counter-arguments to the Robinson Crusoe analogy:

  • According to one line of reasoning, had Robinson Crusoe and Friday met before arriving on the deserted island without knowing who would have better luck in farming, they would both have preferred to employ a model of just division of resources rather than a model of survival of the fittest. According to this opinion, the distribution of resources in a given society must be based on the hypothetical agreement that would be expected of people while they were still behind the veil of ignorance, before they knew what was in store for them.
  • According to an alternative line of reasoning, there is a difference between Robinson Crusoe and Friday and members of a given society: Whereas Robinson Crusoe and Friday were strangers, communal life in a state or a society is a basis for mutual responsibility. As such, just distribution would be warranted within a given society.
  • A third line of reasoning argues that opposition to redistribution of wealth seeks to freeze the situation as it currently exists, without considering that sometimes, the current distribution of resources was attained through thievery, larceny, and a history of exploitation. Taking these factors into consideration could affect one's understanding of who has the rights to the resources.

In the sections of the Torah that discuss its social commandments (e.g. workers' rights, the Sabbath, the sabbatical year, the jubilee year, the redemption of property, the laws of collateral, and the prohibition against taking interest), one can find three lines of reasoning that parallel the three arguments presented by supporters of the welfare state:

  • The first line of reasoning can be derived from the verse "And you shall remember that you were slave in the land of Egypt." This verse appears in the context of compensation payment given to freed slaves (see Deuteronomy 16:16), in the context of the obligation to give servants a day of rest (Deuteronomy 5:14), and the context of the prohibitions against perverting judgment in cases involving strangers and against taking a widow's garment as security (Deuteronomy 24:18). The remembrance of the Egyptian bondage in these contexts, in my opinion, is designed to illustrate the vicissitudes of fate and to point out that the wheel of fortune is spinning in the world, and to remind us that if we happen to be enjoying good luck, we should conduct ourselves in the manner in which we would want to be treated if the tables were turned.
  • The second line of reasoning points to the term "your brother," which appears frequently in verses that deal with social commandments, and serves as an indication of the special solidarity that we should have with those who are close to us. Examples of the use of this term can be found in the verse "Do not shut your hand from your needy brother" (Deuteronomy 15:7), and the prohibition against lending with interest to your brother: "You shall not lend upon interest to your brother, interest of money ..." (Deuteronomy 23:20).
  • The third line of reasoning, which denies the validity of the pre-existing allocation of property rights, finds unique expression in the substantiation that the Torah provides for the law of redemption of land. In the book of Leviticus, God explains that the reason why "the land may not be sold in perpetuity" is because "for all of the land belongs to Me" (Leviticus 25:23). Similarly, the Torah provides the following rationales for the law of redeeming slaves: "for they are My servants, whom I liberated from the land of Egypt" (Leviticus 25:42) and "for the Children of Israel are My servants—they are My servants, whom I liberated from the land of Egypt, I am the Lord your God" (Leviticus 25:42). In other words, God's ownership of all land and all people undermines any claim to ownership by human beings, and thus prevents the sale or subjugation of land or people in perpetuity.

It seems superfluous to point out that there are important differences, both moral and practical, between the three lines of reasoning found in the Torah. For example, the first line of reasoning reflects a universalistic concern for weak members of society, while the second and third are particularistic, focusing on the weak members "among your brothers" and "among your people." The relationship between the universalistic and nationalistic aspects of the Jewish tradition's position on these issues warrants a detailed discussion that is beyond the scope of this article.

Last week, a unique conference on the topic of "People with Disabilities in the Jewish and Democratic State" was convened by the Israel Democracy Institute as part of the activities of its "Human Rights and Judaism" project. It is unnecessary to point out that the treatment of people with disabilities evokes the three lines of reasoning presented above, which demand that people place themselves in the shoes of the other, and relate to the other as their "brother." In addition, the conference sessions at which the demand of people with disabilities for equal access to a variety of social resources was discussed made it clear that what is often seen as a demand by a minority group that the majority give them special consideration can also be seen, in many cases, as a demand by the minority group that the resources of society be distributed justly at the outset.

The treatment of people with disabilities in society, however, is connected not only to issues of welfare and just allocation of resources, but also to the more fundamental issue of respect for the dignity of humankind. A society that excludes the Other just because of his or her "otherness" assails the human dignity of the Other.

Judaism and Jewish law provide a unique explanation of the need to respect the dignity of every individual—an explanation that is connected to the creation of people in the image of God. The Talmud tells the following story: 

"Once Rabbi Elazar son of R. Shimon was coming from the house of his teacher. He rode along the river on his donkey, and was feeling happy and elated because he had studied much Torah.

 He chanced to meet an exceedingly ugly man.

 He [the ugly man] said to him: "Peace be upon you, my master!" He [Rabbi Elazar] did not reply.

He [Rabbi Elazar] said to him: "Worthless one. How ugly this person is! Are all the people of your city as ugly as you?"

He [the ugly man] replied: "I do not know, but go to the craftsman who made me, and say to him: 'How ugly is the vessel that you have made!'"

 - Babylonian Talmud, Taanit 20a 

This story effectively demonstrates that offensive, exclusive, and disenfranchising behavior toward another human being deeply undermines the Jewish belief that "beloved are human beings because they were created in the image of God."

Moreover, an assault on the image of God of the "Other" is likely, in the end, to have a boomerang effect and to diminish the image of God of the person who originally committed the offense. The following poem, which conveys the horror of the Holocaust in six short lines, illustrates this point in a powerful manner: 

"Written in Pencil in a Sealed Railway-Car
here in this carload
I am eve
with abel my son
if you see my older son
cain son of man
tell him I"

- Dan Pagis

 Tell him I what? That I am here in the railway car ... This poem is cyclical. Eve is in the railway car with her murdered son. Her older son, Cain, who destroyed the image of God of his brother Abel, also killed his mother in a metaphorical sense, and as such, damaged his own humanity!

The way in which people relate to individuals with disabilities, therefore, like the way in which people relate to the Other in general, involves not only issues of fairness and just distribution of resources, but the most profound questions of human dignity and humanity. IDI's conference on People with Disabilities in the Jewish and Democratic State, which was the first annual conference of its Human Rights in Judaism project, was a first step in researching these questions, both from a Jewish perspective and a universal perspective. 

Prof. Shahar Lifshitz is a Senior Fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute and is a Professor of Law at Bar Ilan University. He heads IDI's Judaism and Human Rights project, together with Prof. Yedidia Stern and Prof. Hanoch Dagan.