Just when I thought I’d had my fill of historical Jewish customs for the time being (last week I waist-deep in Scott-Martin Kosofsky’s The Book of Customs for our Hanukkah program), I ran into an interesting Financial Times article referencing a tradition of routinely absolving debts described in the Old Testiment and Torah.

Deuteronomy dictates that “at the end of every seven years you shall grant a release of debts.” After seven of those seven-year cycles (called Sabbatical cycles), comes the jubilee year — a year where material possessions and land are returned to their original owners, and servants are emancipated. The FT article suggests that one solution to the current economic crisis could be to have our own version of the jubilee year — not by absolving debts outright, but by converting them into government-backed, low-interest loans.

I was equally intrigued by the image that was selected to accompany this article: The Moneylender and His Wife, by Flemish painter Quentin Metsys (seen above). According to the description on the Musée du Louvre’s Web site, “the shiny gold, pearls (a symbol of lust), and jewelry have distracted the wife from her spiritual duty, reading a work of devotion.” The objects behind the two figures are also ripe for interperetation, but perhaps the most potent item in this painting — especially for an artist intending to send a moral message — is in the foreground: a mirror “reflecting” the world outside.

Find more of our coverage of the economic downturn, see our Web site for Repossessing Virtue.

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I am very intrigued by the ancient wisdom about debt that's been lost in our modern capitalist narrative. I wonder if we are condemned to repeat history's lesson or worst, that Marxist commentary and predictions would fulfill themselves at the beginning of another century. The excess of the financial market have not only raised its ugly head, but have trump common values of money and blinded us to the pitfalls of vice. Greed, envy, and pride are disguised as market opportunities, executive compensation, and a blind belief in the market. Much was said in the Jewish bible about debt, its underbelly in society, and liberation. It was Rabbi Jesus in the first century AD whose message of forgiveness from debt brought the Old Testament message into sharper focus. Perhaps Wall Street is closer to the heart of our religious salvation then Sunday morning collection plate. I've tried to comment on this in a blog about the Moral Conundrum of the Economic Bailout (http://pluralism.wordpress.com..., but would like to see a more comprehensive commentary on the subject. "Peace on earth, good will to men" was more then just a nice Christmas jingle, it was about forgiveness and balance sheets, that human flourishing (Shalom) who come to all men.