At the end of every seven years thou shalt make a release. And this is the manner of the release: every creditor shall release that which he hath lent unto his neighbor. He shall not exact it of his neighbor, his brother, because the Lord’s release has been proclaimed. Deuteronomy XV: 1-2
Debt as a spiritual matter? To Pastor Chris Harris, the leader of two Church of God in Christ congregations on Chicago’s South Side and Rabbi Ari Hart, who leads the Orthodox Skokie Valley Agudath Jacob Synagogue, it very much is.
Rabbi Hart reached out to Pastor Harris with an idea based on the biblical concept of shmita, the practice of leaving the land to rest every seven years—no farming, no harvest, no agricultural activity whatsoever. But other matters besides land are given a rest as well in the Sabbatical shmita year, not the least of which was indebtedness (in a farming economy it would stand to reason that in a year of zero farming it would be difficult to attack one’s debts). Creditors in biblical times were commanded to release all debts. Various commentaries differ as to whether the debt forgiveness was permanent or just for the shmita year, but in any case, there was to be at least a pause and relief from the burden of red ink.
Rabbi Hart, observing that many in his community bore the yoke of heavy medical debts, came up with an idea that he shared with Pastor Harris: why not take the Biblical law of shmita and apply it to the release and forgiveness of debts?
Pastor Harris’ reaction? “I fell in love with it. And I said listen, let’s keep this thing rockin’.” And rock they did. Teaming with RIP Medical Debt, an organization that purchases people’s medical debt from collection agencies and others, the pastor and the rabbi through their congregations raised over $10,000 in a matter of months, or enough to purchase $1.9 million in debt. The resulting relief will then benefit 2,327 Chicagoans whose low income/high debt level qualify. None of the recipients will know what has been done on their behalf until they get the happy news by mail.
Rabbi Hart observed, “These are very religious biblical concepts that people can get trapped by debt. It can ruin your life.”
“In Jewish living today, we talk a lot about values, we teach about values, and that’s great, but I love this because it was real for those 2,000 families,” he added.
This is not the only partnership between the Church of God in Christ congregations and the Orthodox Jewish congregation. Hart and Harris have also shared mutual projects attacking racial injustice, antisemitism, violence prevention and illiteracy among others.
Pastor Harris says, “Every time I’m on college campuses, people always brag about the fact that Blacks and Jews have been working together for a long time. And I tell them, you know, stop taking credit for what Dr. King and Rabbi Heschel did, that’s 50 years ago… Let’s keep the old frames, and let’s put new pictures of us working together in that old frame.”
Applying the concept of shmita, of a pausing, a resting of the land, a cessation of debt, can also be applied to wider matters. A permanent resting or cessation of distrust among faiths, of suspicion, of competition for instance. The partnership of Rabbi Hart, Pastor Harris and their congregations is testimony to the workability of that particular kind of shmita. Let’s hope it spreads.
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