Leveling the Field

Behar By :  Arnold M. Eisen Chancellor Emeritus; Professor of Jewish Thought Posted On May 24, 2019 / 5779 | Main Commentary
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This is the fourth in a series of commentaries linking Parashat Hashavua, the weekly Torah portion, with parashat hashavua, a Modern Hebrew idiom for the event or story that dominates the week’s news.

Growing up in Philadelphia, I often went with classmates to Independence Hall, where I swelled with pride to see that the Liberty Bell bore engraved words from the Torah:

 “Proclaim liberty throughout the land, to all the inhabitants thereof.” (Lev. 25:10)

Recent translations prefer, instead of liberty, the more precise (but less stirring) word release; Etz Hayim notes that the Hebrew word deror derives from the Akkadian anduraru, and that the custom of proclaiming “a moratorium on debts and indenture, thereby releasing those bound by servitude” has its likely source in the edicts often issued to this effect by Mesopotamian kings upon ascending to the throne (740). Jacob Milgrom’s monumental three-volume commentary on Leviticus informs us (quoting scholar Dietz-Otto Edzard) that Ancient Near Eastern monarchs, like the Torah, aimed to “prevent the collapse of the economy under too great a weight of private indebtedness.” But whereas the kings’ forgiveness of debt was subject to royal whim and generally restricted to royal retainers, Leviticus makes the release from debt at the Jubilee “immutable and periodic” (the Jubilee takes place every 50 years), and imposes its laws upon every Israelite (Milgrom, Leviticus 17-22, 1407).

Reading Parashat Behar this year, my mind was drawn to an item in the news that on the face of it bears little relation to the matters discussed in the Torah, but which upon reflection highlights very similar concerns. “Actor Pleads Guilty to Felony in College Admissions Scandal,” the New York Times announced last week. Felicity Huffman is one of “50 celebrities, business executives, sports coaches and others who have been charged in the nation’s largest-ever college admissions prosecution,” the article says. The actress admitted paying $15,000 to arrange for her daughter’s SAT exam to be corrected by its proctor before submission. Another parent charged in the case pleaded guilty to paying the mastermind of the admissions scheme $250,000 so that his son would be recruited to the men’s water polo team at the University of Southern California, despite lack of ability in that sport. News accounts in recent days have indicated that more parents and coaches may soon be indicted. So far, no students have been charged, and it is not clear how much they knew of the conspiracy surrounding their college admission.

“This transgression toward her and the public I will carry for the rest of my life,” said Ms. Huffman—the transgression apparently being that by lying on her daughter’s behalf, she involved her in a criminal conspiracy, exposed her to the contempt of friends and classmates, and—perhaps—made a mockery of injunctions by parents, teachers, and society not to lie or cheat. Press coverage of the incident has used the scandal to shine a light on alleged sins of society as a whole. These relate directly to what the social reforms put forward by Leviticus were trying to accomplish.

The first matter at issue is equality of opportunity—a declared commitment of broad segments of American society, and particularly of colleges and universities. Disparities of wealth and income remain enormous in the United States today; while dispute rages on whether the government should take concerted action to redistribute wealth, there seems to be a broader consensus that society should do what it can to “level the playing field.” Head Start programs and other educational ventures seek to ensure that children at least start off with a chance to better their circumstances.

College has, with good reason, long been seen as a way up and out of poverty. A report issued recently by the American Council on Education entitled “Race and Ethnicity in Higher Education” shows overall “median annual earnings of adults ages 25 and older” to be $29,100 for high school graduates—and $52,000 for those holding a bachelor’s degree. (The median rate for professional degrees is $95,000.) SAT tests, it was announced a few days ago, will henceforth include an “adversity score” that measures the hardships faced by students from disadvantaged backgrounds. That score will not figure into the results of the tests, but, according to David Coleman, chief executive of the College Board, which administers the SAT, it will help colleges to “see students who may not have scored as high, but when you look at the environment that they have emerged from, it is amazing” (“SAT’s New ‘Adversity Score’ Will Take Students’ Hardships Into Account”, New York Times, May 16, 2019).

Against the background of what the Times called a “raging national debate over fairness and merit in college admissions” (a lawsuit filed recently against Harvard alleges that targets for admission of members of certain minority groups constitute discrimination against those who would have been awarded slots if the criterion was merit alone), it is not hard to understand the hue and cry of protest at news that celebrity parents had bribed their children’s way into college.

Some critics, observes the Chronicle of Higher Education, are asking whether “the game was rigged” all along in favor of the wealthy, who regularly “bribe” their students’ way into college by totally legal means. Test scores have been found to correlate with wealth. Students able to take unpaid summer internships garner a further advantage that students from poorer homes cannot afford. Jennifer L. Mnookin, dean of the law school at UCLA, describes the bribery scandal as the “‘criminal leading edge” of a much more deeply rooted problem. “Elitism perpetuates elitism, ”says historian Clayborne Carson of Stanford University. Data in the Chronicle story shows that at the six private universities so far named in the admissions scandal, “all have more students from families in the top 1 percent of the income scale than the bottom 40 percent” (“‘It’s an Aristocracy’: What the Admissions-Bribery Scandal Has Exposed About Class on Campus,” Chronicle of Higher Education, April, 2019).

There are not many portions of the Torah that lend themselves directly to statistics of this sort—but leveling the economic playing field a bit is exactly what Parashat Behar is all about. Farmers forced by accumulated debt to sell the land they have inherited from their ancestors are to have those debts forgiven. “In this year of jubilee, each of you shall return to his holding” (Lev. 25:13). Milgrom believes that a formerly egalitarian social order in the kingdom of Judah had given way to one in which “a prosperous stratum of landowners have outstripped the small farmers . . . . Those who acquire new lands by debt default live in the cities, removed in distance and in kinship from the plight of the impoverished, landless farmers . . . ” (Milgrom, Leviticus 23-27, 2243). Prophets such as Hosea and Amos loudly protested this development. Leviticus in our parashah was doing the same.

But a second feature of the Jubilee rules works against the drive to share the wealth more fairly, and it too finds echoes in the college admissions scandal. Those forced by debt to leave the land inherited from their ancestors are entitled to return to it at the jubilee. Milgrom captures the issue succinctly: “the institution of the jubilee (and redemption) is unavailable to the resident alien,” who has no ancestral holding to which he or she can return. Leviticus “has unambiguously proclaimed the absolute equality (in civil matters) between native and alien,” but enforces a “blatant contradiction” caused by the fact that “the axiom of YHWH’s bestowal of inheritable land exclusively to the Israelite takes priority over the principle of the alien’s equality before the law” (Leviticus 17-22, 1408). The Land of Israel has a unique status. God has apportioned it among the tribes of Israel—and them alone.

Colleges and universities with a declared interest in improving access for the disadvantaged and for ethnic and racial minorities, historically excluded and under-represented in their ranks, also have a declared interest in keeping their campuses “in the family.” Children and grandchildren of alumni are routinely given special treatment. It also happens, of course, that alumni are a (or the) most reliable donors to those colleges and universities—and that admissions officers are reluctant to turn away children of donors who have been exceedingly generous. Universities have eloquently made the case for why diversity matters so much in higher education. They have also argued for the importance of the multi-generational emotional bonds linking alumni and students to institutions that might otherwise be more impersonal. Like Leviticus, they seem caught in a contradiction of ideals that in turn reflects divergent goals and values of society as a whole.

It’s not clear whether Leviticus’s complex scheme for debt relief and land transfer at the jubilee was ever put into practice. In the same way, disputes over college admissions will likely be with us for many years to come.

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee (z”l) and Harold Hassenfeld (z”l).