In a rather uncomfortable moment at an interfaith meeting, a non-Jewish member of clergy pointed out that only Jews (not Muslims and Christians) are permitted to charge interest on loans, perpetuating the imbalanced financial systems of today.
It smacked of so many anti-Semitic tropes around money, but from a textual point of view is entirely accurate.
In Deuteronomy 23:20-21, we read that we are forbidden from lending to our brothers with interest, but can to a foreigner.
This injunction formed part of the arsenal used by Christian rulers to force Jews into becoming medieval moneylenders. This is how Jews have become so negatively connected to money and banking in Europe – no one likes the person who wants their money back.
At face value, it’s pretty hard to deny the negative claim made at the meeting. So why the difference between those to whom we live close and those we don’t?
If we lend someone money without interest, we are likely to know them and be able to go back to them when it is needed. They have to live with us, so will be more likely to pay it back responsibly.
A foreigner may only be passing through; you might not know when they will return and therefore it is a much greater risk.
No one verse of Torah is ever the end of the discussion. Nahmanides quotes Deuteronomy 6:18: “You shall do that which is right and good in the sight of the Eternal,” arguing that this is a reminder that all our business dealings must be done with integrity.
If we are going to charge interest, it must be done with absolute clarity and kindness, and not with the intention of squeezing the borrower.
The Talmud (Shabbat 31a) says: “In the next world, the first question you shall be asked in judgement is: ‘Were you honest in business?’”
υ Debbie is Reform Judaism’s community educator