Shmitta: The Bible's Solution to America's Debt Problems?

The book of Deuteronomy calls us to spend one out of every seven years actively eliminating debt, in a practice called shmittat kessafim -- the release of money.

Deuteronomy 15:1-6 reads:

At the end of every seven years, you shall celebrate the year of release (shmitta). This is the release: every lender shall forgive any debt owed by his neighbor and brother when God's shmitta year comes.

How poignant that it has been seven years since the problems of the Great Recession began. Where are we now? Income disparity soars, student loans threaten to be the next subprime mortgages, and millions of Americans struggle daily to make ends meet. Unmanageable, crippling debt is still harming millions of American families. Here are some of the sobering statistics:

  • The average college student is carrying $30,000 in student debt.
  • Over 8 million households carry more than $20,000 in credit card debt.
  • Some 12 million people borrow nearly $50 billion a year through payday loans, with interest rates up to 35 times those charged for credit cards and 80 times home mortgages and auto loans.
Why these staggering levels of debt? To say it's because Americans are lazy or don't know how to manage their money dangerously oversimplifies this crisis.

A Harvard study found that illness and health care expenses lead to about 50 percent of bankruptcies. The spiraling costs of higher education mean tens of thousands of dollars of debt for millions of Americans trying to build a better future. Going into debt isn't about fancy sneakers or big screen TVs -- it's often about survival.

As a rabbi, I know that for those mired in unrelenting debt, it's also a spiritual crisis. Debt harms relationships and is one of the most common causes of divorce. Health problems, emotional difficulty, homelessness, and most tragically, suicide, can often be linked to debt.

We need help. Americans have lifted our eyes to Washington and to Wall Street for solutions to the debt crisis, but for millions of Americans the problems are unsolved. From where will our help come?

Five ways to fight debt with faith
There's a key source of wisdom and guidance on debt that has been overlooked, and if taken seriously, could transform the economic lives of millions of Americans: the Bible.

The Bible recognizes the critical role that debt plays in helping a society flourish: according to the great Medieval scholar Maimonides, the highest level of giving is to provide a loan so that a person can get back on his or her feet. At the same time, the Bible recognizes that debt can spiral out of control and have deeply negative consequences on those lost in its grip.

According to the Jewish calendar, the next shmitta year begins now -- September 2014 through September 2015. In shmitta's spirit, this is the time for faith-led and faith-supported nationwide efforts to help release millions of Americans from the bonds of personal debt.

Here are five suggestions for ways that faith communities big and small can realize this powerful practice this shmitta year:

1. Offer free financial literacy workshops to help lift people out of debt.

2. Join in political efforts for meaningful student-debt reform.

3. Join in efforts for meaningful payday-loan reform.

4. Encourage businesses, banks, and one another to practice loan forgiveness.

5. Promote faith-based, interest-free loan groups and credit unions to create alternative loan sources that do not lock people into unmanageable debt.

In addition to the concrete actions mentioned above, the very act of speaking about debt from the pulpit could be transformative. For many, personal debt is a shameful secret. The notion that crippling debt is not always a personal failing, but often a product of larger forces has a redemptive power that can lift people from shame and despair.

How powerful then that in the verses describing the shmitta year, the Bible places the moral responsibility of debt on the creditor, not the borrower.

The release of debts is just one facet of the Biblical conception of the shmitta year. Other Biblical mentions of shmitta include profound calls for a year that transforms the way we relate to the earth, animals, one another, and God.

A faith-based movement to revive this ancient practice is already underway in light of global climate change and questions of environmental sustainability, the pervasiveness of technology in our lives, our own personal sustainability, communal living, and much more. We stand on the edge of a powerful, weighty moment.

Collectively, our faiths challenge us to take profound, heavenly ideas and make them real in our broken world. This shmitta year, let's meet that challenge.