My brother-in-law inquired: “The communists have a labor theory of value, while the capitalists maintain that the source of value is land, labor, and capital. What is the spiritual theory of value?”
Of course, there are so many ways to answer this question, and the answers would be as varied as people’s idea of what spirituality actually means. I thought of the discussion between two Talmudic sages, Rabbi Akiva and Simeon Ben Azzai. As Rabbi Art Green notes in his book, Radical Judaism, The two were arguing about what is the highest principle expressed in the Torah, the klal gadol (main principle), of which all other rules and principles are a derivative.
Rabbi Akiva chose the famous line from Leviticus: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (19:18)—not a surprising choice, perhaps, for a man who is responsible for the inclusion of the Song of Songs, a mystical and erotic love poem, in the Bible.
But for his colleague, Ben Azzai, this principle was not universal enough to be a klal gadol. It’s not water tight: one may think that it only applies to one’s closest circle, or to the people with whom one shares a belief system. Sometimes we may find it difficult to love the other, the one who is not seen as “my neighbor”.
For Ben Azzai, a much more inclusive principle was “God created humankind in his image” (Genesis 1:27). The fact that each human being is made in the image of God is the great principle, because it leaves no wiggle room. Whoever the person is, he/she is made in the image of God. All other laws in the Torah, or in later Jewish literature, or in other religions for that matter, should be judged against this highest principle. Is a certain rule in service of this principle? Then, by all means, let’s adopt it. Is it not? Then let’s drop it like a hot potato.
This, for me, is the spiritual theory of value. What determines whether a certain economic system creates great good or great evil is the degree to which its proponents and practitioners are guided by the spiritual value of honoring each person as if he or she is made in the image of God. Or, if they don’t believe in God, whether they recognize that each human being is worthy of reverence. We can see that great evil has been done to individuals and societies in both communist and capitalists societies, and I believe that this is mainly because these systems were not founded on this principle. This is the source of today’s crises, and it also points to the direction of moving to the next stop of our social evolution.