For twelve months, you’ve watched and listened as Kivi and Malky Denburger try to find their places within their families, neighborhood, and marriage. You’ve cheered on the crew at 55 Norton and empathized as they struggled and grew. As the serial draws to a close, we reached out to voices of authority within the community to discuss some of the underlying threads of Shared Space. This week, Rabbi Avrohom Neuberger weighs in on the issue of hard moneylending.a

Enough Is Enough

The beauty of fiction is that it allows us to self-criticize in a unthreatening manner. We can see our flaws and failings as they are refracted and projected through the fictional characters of the story, and some of the attitudes and feelings expressed by the actors will resonate with a reader who finds himself in a similar situation.

But that is fiction. This column is not.

It’s time to have frank discussion about some of the business practices of our own community, and how we treat not only the outside world, but even each other. Some of these dealings are, for lack of a better word, repulsive.

The serial spoke of predatory “hard money loans” and the heartless repos of homes. Let us first give a very brief overview of the laws of ribbis.

As we all know, neither the lender nor the borrower may be involved in a ribbis loan. The question is why the Torah prohibited it. After all, there is nothing immoral about my charging for the usage of my shovel. Why, then, can I not charge for the usage of my money? If the Torah specifically permits lending with interest to non-Jews, then clearly there is nothing inherently immoral about charging interest. Why, then, can I not charge a Jew for the usage of my money?! Various explanations are offered, and I would like to present one that is very relevant to the discussion at hand.

We Jews are brothers, and the verses banning ribbis repeatedly refer to “achicha,” your brother. The Torah wants us to be a “free loan society,” a band of brothers who care for one another to the degree that we take our “extra money” — money just sitting in the bank, doing nothing — and use it to help each other out. Sure, we could have used that money to find a new revenue stream that would make even more money for us, but the Torah wants us instead to make another Jew’s life easier, to give him the opportunity to make enough money to support his family, so that when he in turn has “extra money” in the bank, he can lend it to another Jew.

A free loan society: a society defined by the free loans one Jew is offering the next.

A heter iska is a relatively recent invention. This is not the forum to explain in detail how it operates, but suffice it to say that the lender and borrower become partners to some degree, so that the interest paid is in fact a return on the lender/investor’s stake in the partnership. Various devices are introduced into the deal to make it difficult — though not impossible(!) — for the lender/investor to lose his principal, and to ensure that he will realize a consistent return on his loan/investment.

(Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 756)