A folk story I’ve been reading this week begins with a premise that in feudal Poland, a nobleman within his domain was a law unto himself. If, for example, a tenant did not pay his lease, he could throw that tenant, along with his whole family, into prison, or even execute him. In those days, a Jewish tavern-keeper who was in debt to his nobleman landlord was taken in chains to the nearest shtetl to be ransomed. If the shtetl did not pay the man’s debt, threatened the steward who served the nobleman, he and his wife and children would all be executed.
The word used for ‘owe money’ in this story is shuldik gelt. This struck me as an odd expression. Shuldik also means ‘guilty’. So to owe is to be guilty of money to someone. The tavern keeper iz geblibn shuldik three hundred coins, or whatever. The shtetl Jews who are sick of being extorted, and in any case don’t have the huge sum that the nobleman demands, put their foot down and say no.
Then, yesterday, I looked at the Forverts and saw a brief article that had been published a couple of days before, just as I had been reading this story. [link to article] The article is by Hershl Glasser, and begins:
“A strange word, shuldik, that pertains both to morals and to money. If I am shuldik gelt (owe money), I have to pay another person, If I am shuldik oyf a farbrekh (guilty of a crime), I have sinned or transgressed in some way. Why does one word subsume both of these concepts?”
He talks about the noun form of debt, חוב khub, and Yiddish words for moral responsibility or obligation that have khub in their roots. Glasser then goes into etymology, and, I’ll be frank, he kind of loses me when he invokes the difference in pronunciation (shildik in the south, shuldik in standard Yiddish, but shuld in both places) as evidence to show that the adjective form predates the noun for ‘debt’.
I was hoping for a deeper discussion of the analogy. Does the author think that moral codes derive in their earliest origins from commerce? Though it sounds crass to our ears, the Torah has many cases where blood money or compensatory damages are required. If you have harmed someone, you owe them. But the analogy is rough at best and primitive at worst. It may serve to break the cycle of revenge-taking, and keep the social order, but there are many obvious cases where a monetary payment of damages is clearly distinct from justice.
How much money must DuPont pay per cancer death? Here I am thinking about a recent set of articles on DuPont’s use of the chemical C8 in the production of Teflon, after they knew it was toxic. [link to article here] Sharon Lerner writes:
“Although DuPont no longer uses C8, fully removing the chemical from all the bodies of water and bloodstreams it pollutes is now impossible.” The chemical, she adds, will last longer than humans do. The concept of a limited liability corporation, of course, is to decouple the two meanings of shuldik, so that those who profit from commerce can be shielded from financial, if not moral, responsibility for how their money is produced. As long as they make money, the shareholders will take their chances with God.
When we transgress, do we incur a moral debt to God? Glasser presents the charming expression, Er iz Got di nisht shuldik, which is also the title of his Forverts article. “He owes God nothing,” meaning, “He’s as innocent as a newborn.” My favorite drash (biblical interpretation, or sermon) on sin as a debt to God is a comedy routine called Life is a Job, by Father Guido Sarducci [link]. Meanwhile, those of us who do not have faith that God will some day call people to account must seek justice in this world.
At the end of the article, Glasser speculates that the English word guilt is derived for an old German word for money or for debt. Finally, he discusses some sayings about guilt and debt. I suggested above that there are problems with the analogy equating moral guilt to owing. Not all damages can be made right with money. One of the Yiddish sayings presented at the end of the article shows that the reverse direction is also a problem. “A borrower is a shuldiker, and a shuldiker is a sinner.” Here the two meanings of shuldiker, as someone who owes and someone who is guilty, are expressly equated.
And we are back to our starting point of the story about a debtor threatened with prison or execution. In fact, we in the western world have only barely emerged from a world of indentured servants, poor farms, and debtors’ prisons. It’s good to warn people not to go into excessive debt. It’s good to insist that people take responsibility for their choices and, when physically possible, make good on their promises. But we are too inclined to judge the poor, and to equate financial bankruptcy with moral bankruptcy. It’s funny how these attitudes towards poor individuals are strongly held by some of the very people who support and benefit from uncoupling the two concepts when it comes to corporations. Even by some who think that a corporation should have the rights (though still not the responsibilities) of persons.
If I had my way, I would keep these two meanings securely separated, by allowing ‘to owe’ and ‘to be guilty’ each to have its own word. Then we could judge individually, when a moral transgression can or can’t be made right with money, and when or how a debtor should be held to account, but without the automatic presumption of moral guilt.