From all this, many wish to derive that the Torah is socialistic, or at least, that it is social-democratic, and would permit (if not demand) a government-instituted egalitarian redistribution of wealth. But there are two mistakes with this:
According to RambaM's Shemonah Peraqim, all of these agriculture laws that I have listed, are not meant to provide for the poor, but are only meant to incline the individual towards the side of generosity. According to RambaM's general theory of the Mean/Middle, an individual should always be situated between two extremes of character; for example, he should be generous, which is between miserliness and spendthriftiness; he should be kind and friendly and easygoing but stand up for himself when necessary, which is between being rude and brazen and easy to anger, on the one hand, and being so soft that one is walked all over by others, on the other. But, says RambaM, humans are naturally inclined slightly to the side of selfishness, and so they are more likely to be slightly rude or slightly miserly, than they are to be perfectly in the middle. On the other hand, RambaM says, when men try to be pious and righteous, they often overcompensate and incline too much towards the side of selflessness, and become too charitable and too soft and easygoing. Similarly, a person will naturally be slightly gluttonous, while a pious person will usually be too abstentious. The purpose of the ritual mitzvot of the Torah, says the RambaM, is to incline us very slightly towards the side of selflessness, to counteract our natural selfishness. Therefore, for example, a person, who is naturally slightly selfish and unwilling to give tzedaqa, will be corrected by the agricultural laws, and become situated in the perfect middle, the sweet spot between miserliness and spendthriftiness. To counteract the opposite danger, that the pious man will be too selfless and give away too much money to tzedaqa, RambaM says that men must do exactly what the Torah says; he quotes the Yerushalmi's criticism of excessive stringency and piety, saying (as if G-d is speaking), "It was not enough what I forbade you, that you had to forbid yourself more?", and also Hazal's saying, "A man should not say, 'I hate pork', but rather, 'I love pork, but what can I do, for my Father in Heaven has forbidden it.'" That is, a pious person should be content with what the Torah has mandated and forbidden, and not try to innovate new pietistic customs and prohibitions. This way, says the RambaM, a man will be inclined from selfishness towards generosity, but not too far.
What this means for us, now, however, is that the agricultural laws of the Torah are not meant to provide for the poor. They are merely an ethical corrective for the personality of the farmer himself. Actual provision for the poor must be provided from voluntary tzedaqa, entirely aside from the agricultural tithes. In fact, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch agrees completely with the RambaM. Rabbi Hirsch does not get into so involved a philosophical-psychological treatment as does the RambaM, but he briefly states that mathematically, leaving a small corner of one's field could not possibly be sufficient for the welfare of the poor, and therefore, he says, the purpose of these laws is to teach the farmer an object lesson, to demonstrate to him the principle that one must give tzedaqa, and to demonstrate to him that in essence, his farmland belongs to G-d, not to the farmer, and that the farmer must be a charitable and humble person in general. The purpose of the agricultural tithes, he says, is pedagogical and symbolic, not practical.
So the agricultural tithes cannot possibly serve as a justification for egalitarian redistribution of wealth. The Torah's agricultural tithes are symbolic and educational, not practical. They cannot serve as a model for the institution of egalitaritan redistribution of wealth, because such redistribution is meant to actually solve the plight of the poor, whereas the Torah's example is merely symbolic. This does not mean that the egalitarian redistribution of wealth is prohibited by the Torah, but it does mean that one cannot derive warrant for it from the Torah, either. It is floating in the air, without basis, with neither assent nor dissent by the Torah, at least insofar as we have seen yet.
This begs the question, however: is egalitarianism merely not warranted by the Torah, or is it actually prohibited by the Torah. To answer this question, we must consider this: the Torah's laws are explicitly mandated by G-d, and are binding only on the individual. This means two things:
(1)It is the individual's obligation to leave the tithes, not the government's;
(2) We cannot innovate new laws that G-d has not given.
G-d has commanded man precisely which tithes to give. What right does the government have to create new obligations that G-d has not? And even the tithes that G-d did institute, the Torah commands individuals to leave them, not the government. A man can sue his fellow only when he has caused direct harm. If I owe a definite someone a definite amount of money, then he can sue me. But if I have failed to give tzedaqa to the poor in general, then no poor man can sue me, for no individual, specific poor man can claim I have harmed him. So even the tithes G-d has instituted, if one fails to give them, what right does the government have to intervene? Who is going to sue the farmer? All the more so, then, the tithes that the human government invented, the government has no right to punish violators.
Now, I am not learned in Jewish civil law and criminal. Perhaps, in fact, a man who fails to leave the proper agricultural tithes, with two witnesses present, has in fact performed a crime against society, similar to a Shabbat violator. Perhaps, in fact, the negligent farmer can be brought to court, and given lashings for general disobedience of the Torah, for violating a negative prohibition of the Torah. I am not sure, because I am not sufficiently learned in Jewish civil and criminal law. But even if he can be so punished, it is certainly the case that the government cannot institute new tithes. The specific tithes that G-d instituted, maybe the government can punish one for failure to leave them, or maybe not - I do not know. But it is certain that the government cannot punish one for failing to leave tithes that it, not G-d, innovated.
And it is absolutely, positively certain that the government cannot punish one who merely fails to give tzedaqa in general. At no one moment can any witnesses say that a sin has been committed. The obligation to give tzedaqa is one that applies at all times, in all places. The only sins in the Torah that can be punished by the government, are those that involve some definite and concrete act of commission or omission. For example, if one bows down to an idol, then he has committed a definite sin of commission. If one fails to put on tefillin by sundown, then he has committed a definite sin of omission. But with tzedaqa, one can never point to a specific moment and say to the sinner, "You have sinned right now." All sins in the Torah must have two witnesses and a warning by the witnesses, in order to be punishable. But when can the witnesses warn our miser? At no one specific moment in time can they blame him for anything!
Update: It became clear in the comments section below (specifically, in this and this reader comment), that I did not make clear enough the following: this entire post is arguing whether the Torah can be used as a source for socialism and egalitarian redistribution of wealth. So when I say the government cannot do such-and-such, I mean that it cannot do it if it claims its warrant is the Torah. My point is simply that if one claims the Torah is one's source, then one cannot justify socialism or egalitarian redistribution of wealth. I am not trying to deal with other sources and justifications for that economy. Nevertheless, however, I will note that we should not underestimate the magnitude of the Torah's authority. That is, we should not underestimate how decimitating it would be for socialists if the Torah did not agree with them. When Rabbi Meir Kahane augmented his swearing-in-oath to the Knesset, adding that he would put observance of the Torah above loyalty to the state, he cited Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "Letter from a Birmingham Jail":
One may want to ask: "How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?" The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that "an unjust law is no law at all"Similarly, James Otis, one of the most important and celebrated of the Revolutionary War-era patriots, famous for his agitation against the Stamp Act, wrote, in his "The Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved", that
Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality.
The parliament cannot make 2 and 2, 5; Omnipotency cannot do it. The supreme power in a state, is jus dicere [to declare the law] only;—jus dare [to make new laws], strictly speaking, belongs alone to God. Parliaments are in all cases to declare what is parliament that makes it so: There must be in every instance, a higher authority, viz. GOD. Should an act of parliament be against any of his natural laws, which are immutably true, their declaration would be contrary to eternal truth, equity and justice, and consequently void: and so it would be adjudged by the parliament itself, when convinced of their mistake.It should be added that Otis's work was extremely influential, and carried significant weight in Revolutionary America. And then James Wilson, one of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention, and a deist (so he was the American equivalent of a hiloni!) said, in his law lectures at the College of Philadelphia in 1789 (so the following words were part of lawyer's curriculum at a university),
That law, which God has made for man in his present state; that law, which is communicated to us by reason and conscience, the divine monitors within us, and by the sacred oracles [i.e. Scripture] the divine monitors without [i.e. outside, external to] us...So the principle is firmly established: governments are bound by a Higher Law. This has been acknowledged at the Nuremberg trials, it was acknowledged by Martin Luther King, Jr., and it was acknowledged by colonial Americas across the board, even by deists. So if even if it were the Torah alone that posed a challenge to socialism, i.e. even if nothing but the Torah opposed socialism, we should not underestimate how formidible and significant that opposition would be, and how disastrous it ought to be to the socialist cause. Nevertheless, the point of this essay is to argue about the Torah alone, whether or not the Torah alone is a warrant for governments to engage in socialism. Any other sources for socialism are beyond the scope of this essay. (Interestingly, King himself was in favor of a social-democracy. But we learned the desired principles from his letter, that the law of G-d takes precedence over all else. If King did not suitably apply this principle to economics, then that is another matter that does not affect us. The words of his we quoted stand, regardless of whether King himself applied them practically in a way that would satisfy us.)
As promulgated by reason and the moral sense it has been called natural; as promulgated by the holy scriptures, it has been called revealed law.
As addressed to men, it has been denominated the law of nature; as addressed to political societies, it has been denominated the law of nations.
But it should always be remembered, that this law, natural or revealed, made for men or for nations, flows from the same divine source; it is the law of God. ...
Human law must rest its authority, ultimately, upon the authority of that law, which is divine.
(In fact, there is yet another reason I am skeptical that the government can punish one for failing to leave tithes. I already said that there is no claimant to sue the farmer. But another reason is found in Mesekhet Makkot. There is a general principle of lo ta`aseh she'yesh bo qum `aseh, a prohibition that contains a positive prescription. What this means is, some negative commandments contain a way to rectify the violation. For example, if you violate the prohibition of taking bird's eggs without shooing away the mother, one can fix this by putting the eggs back. If one repairs his sin, then he cannot be punished. Now, the Gemara has two opinions regarding when one is able to avoid punishment: either he must rectify his sin immediately, post-haste, or face punishment; or else he faces punishment only when his sin is impossible to be fixed anymore. According to the first view, one must return the mother's eggs without delay, or else face punishment. According to the second view, however, one can be punished only when he has not only failed to return the eggs, but furthermore, when the eggs or bird's nest have come into such a state that it is impossible to ever return the eggs, ever again. According to the second view, it is only when the eggs are eaten, for example, making it impossible to return them, that one can be punished. According to this second view, punishing a violator of the agricultural tithes would be very difficult, because Mesekhet Peah contains many prescriptions for what to do if one neglects to leave the tithes. There is almost always a way to rectify one's sin, making it very difficult for the government to punish anyone. Now, maybe the halakhah is like the first view, but my point is that the mere existence of the second view, even if it is not the halakhah, inclines us yet further away from the possibility that the government can institute new tithes and punish violators. If it is so difficult to punish violators of the Torah, G-d's law, surely it must be nearly impossible to punish violators of mere human law!)