Buber, Gandhi, and Rabban Gamliel: Human Dignity Over Absolute Ownership


Every year around this time I begin to look forward to the holiday season here in America: spending Thanksgiving with my family, the familiar sounds of ubiquitous holiday tunes on the radio, the crispness in the air after the fresh snow. As I reflect on recent news, social trends, and the thought of admired leaders in justice and Judaism, the spirit and reality of consumerism gives me pause. Perhaps this feeling of ownership the holiday season brings out in us is not the ideal we, as religious people and thinkers, should strive for.

Austrian-born Martin Buber believed in and promoted the idea and reality of Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel, although his brand of political Zionism was distinct from most. He opposed the arming of Jewish settlers in Palestine even after they had been attacked, and opposed the creation of a Jewish majority after the Arab boycott. Mohandas Gandhi, on the other hand, was keenly aware of the violence of European colonialism and the resultant poverty afflicting Asia and Africa. He employed a religion-based strategy, satyagraha (“soul force” or “truth force”), in India as the means to challenge the racist colonial powers and their belief that Western civilization was superior to anything else. Gandhi’s followers followed nonviolent civil disobedience, in spite of beatings and shootings, as a way to force the British (and the outside world) to confront the immorality of their colonial rule, and eventually bring independence to India. Buber and Gandhi, born on different continents and representing different religious traditions, each had strong religious conviction that mandated a moral emphasis on political positions; each rejected violence to achieve political goals; and each strove (unsuccessfully) for a bi-national state that would have included their Muslim populations. They differed, importantly, on the question of land ownership rights and how to approach them.

In the late 1930s, Gandhi opposed the imposition of a Jewish state in Palestine. While his rationale was not fully stated, it appears that he was concerned that the British would use this issue in order to reestablish their colonial power in the region. He believed that anti-Semitism was a stain on European civilization, and wondered why all Western nations did not welcome Jewish refugees. True to his principles, he would have advocated a nonviolent civil disobedience campaign in Nazi Germany. To Buber, however, the situation went beyond the colonial machinations or racial prejudice of Europe and America—it reflected the threat of imminent annihilation.

In a powerful letter dated  February 24, 1939, Buber respectfully but fiercely critiqued Gandhi for deeply misunderstanding and opposing the Jewish struggle for survival, security, and peace: “Jews are being persecuted, robbed, maltreated, tortured, murdered. And you, Mahatma Gandhi, say that their position in the country where they suffer all this is an exact parallel to the position of Indians in South Africa at the time you inaugurated your famous ‘Force of Truth’ or ‘Strength of the Soul’ (Satyagraha) campaign.” In this letter, explaining why Gandhi misunderstood the Jewish yearning for national sovereignty, Buber made a broader ideological point: “It seems to me that God does not give any one portion of the earth away so that its owner may say, as God does in the Holy Scriptures: ‘Mine is the land.’ Even to the conqueror who has settled on it, the conquered land is, in my opinion, only loaned – and God waits to see what he will make of it.” Buber challenged Gandhi’s claim that the land should merely be reserved for the surrounding Arabs, excluding a Jewish presence, and explained that even though the Jews have a right to live on their land, no human has an absolute claim to land ownership. We are all merely temporary residents.

This point, that while we have clear property and land rights we must at the same time value the human dignity of physical ownership, is expressed time and time again in Jewish thought. One’s body is merely a temporary attachment that one must be prepared to separate from, as we see from Rabban Gamliel’s actions in this truly humbling talmudic passage: “It used to be that funeral expenses were harder for the relatives of the deceased than the death itself. This was to the extent that the relatives of the dead would abandon the body and run away from it. Until Rabban Gamliel treated himself disrespectfully, being buried in cotton garments. The people followed him, adopting the practice of being buried in cotton garments” (Moed Katan 27b).

In contemporary society, property rights have been perverted to the status of a cult. The dangerous spirit of Ayn Rand capitalism has taken hold, the political culture has become more elite, and the clamoring for gun ownership and gun rights to protect property has become a religion for some. During the 1980s, credit rules were eased, and credit cards flooded America, leading to a frenzy of consumer spending at shopping malls. (The coining of the term “shopaholic” in 1983 attests to this trend.) Surveys showed that, apart from home, work, and school, Americans spent more time in shopping malls than anywhere else. Credit card debt peaked at $976 billion just before the Great Recession in 2008. In April 2012, it stood at $931 billion, nearly $8,000 per household. The period before the December holidays has become particularly associated with rampant consumerism.

The Walmart chain, with its emphasis on low prices, has had several notorious episodes illustrating what happens when people value the accumulation of consumer goods over any other value system. In 2008, a crowd gathered outside the Walmart in Valley Stream, New York, long before the 5 a.m. opening on Black Friday, and police were called for crowd control. Nevertheless, at 4:55 AM the crowd pushed its way in, trampling one worker to death and sending four other people to the hospital with injuries. Even when customers were told about the death and informed of the need to clear the store, many “kept shopping,” as one witness said, and were upset only because they had waited on line so long and had not finished shopping. 

In 2011, the store hours included Thanksgiving evening. In southern California, a woman pepper sprayed about 20 people as videogames were being put out for purchase. A detective stated: “Once the wrapping came off the pallets, there was total pandemonium.” A customer noted that people began pulling the plastic off the pallets themselves, and then people began “screaming, pulling and pushing each other, and then the whole area filled up with pepper spray.” The next day, in Little Rock, Arkansas, video footage attests that people fought each other over $2 waffle makers.

Tirdad Derakhshani, a reporter who has lived in Iran, Great Britain, and the United States, compared this behavior to the crowd frenzy that has resulted in deaths at European rock concerts and soccer matches, or at the annual hajj to Mecca: “Consumerism, no less than any cult or religion, has the power to level individual difference and independence and render citizens into a homogenous mass. Advertising companies… conspire to render the consumer object… into a fetish imbued with magical, if not downright divine, powers.” Indeed, Black Friday and other specific sale days constitute a ritual of shopping, with set holidays. Derakhshani saw a new principle, that consumerism equals pleasure, superseding the teachings of religion and philosophy. However, since consumerism is its own value, the shopper is never satisfied: “The pursuit of this sort of happiness creates a vicious circle of growing anxiety and dissatisfaction.” Spiritual values must offer an antidote to this modern trend.

Jewish law provides very clear principles for property law, defending one’s rights to ownership and rights of consumption. However, a right does not equal a good. We do not spend whatever we wish merely because we can and we do not make eternal claims to ownership. In death, we are taught to remember that we leave our bodies and the garments around them behind. So too, while Israel may be our temporary land of dwelling, we do not make eternal claims to absolute ownership. God owns the land and our bodies, and it is blasphemous to claim otherwise.

One of the primary aspirations of religious life is to strive to learn to prioritize our spiritual goals over our physical goals. We have seen how destructive to society it is to fixate on ownership without understanding that we do not have an eternal hold on things. As the upcoming holiday season comes in, these lessons are important to remember and internalize.

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder and President of Uri L'Tzedek, the Senior Rabbi at Kehilath Israel, and is the author of "Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century." Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America!"