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When it comes to Jewish politics and religion, contemporary scholarly trends broadly—if cautiously—favor the classic interpretation of modernity as a moment of rupture. When it comes to Jews and economics, however, continuity appears to be preferred. Taking up this disparity as it manifests in Jewish economic history and ethics, this essay argues that greater attention to the concept of capitalism would point back toward rupture, and that such a direction should be considered despite its checkered past.
Both poles of Jewish economic history’s essentialist/contextualist divide affirm Jewish economic continuity, albeit in different ways. Essentialists claim that Jews were ushered by historical circumstances into economic niches that prefigured capitalist dynamism and fluidity, while contextualists reinforce liberal ideological notions of an unchanging “economic sphere” even as they attempt to avoid grand narratives. Capitalism, for the former, is seen as having always existed in nuce, even though fettered by environmental, technological, and political factors; for the latter, capitalism is intentionally left underdetermined in order to avoid being drawn back into old debates. If, however, we consider capitalism (with Polanyi and others) a qualitative “great transformation,” both of these descriptive orientations appear problematic.
A similar problem appears in Jewish economic ethics, considered here through the example of the Oxford Handbook of Judaism and Economics. Biblical and rabbinic texts on topics defined today as “economic” are read in ways that suggest the perennial existence of contemporary categories. Taking a historical view of capitalism as a qualitatively determinate phenomenon might assist this field’s normative work.