jerusalem | Throughout the modern age, Jews often have been major proponents of different economic systems. Karl Marx was the founder of communism while Jews from David Ricardo to Milton Friedman have been major champions of capitalism.

But it seems as if there is one economic system they haven’t tried — a Jewish one. That appears to be changing.

In the past few years, following a budding interest in the subject, a growing number of organizations are researching economic practices according to Jewish law. These include the Maagelei Tzedek Forum, Machon Keter, located in Kedumim, and the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem.

Rabbi Yitzhak Bazak founded Machon Keter about 10 years ago. Bazak says there was a grassroots demand for the institute.

“In 1994, when I was a rabbi in the Kedumim Yeshiva, a group of local businessman came to us and complained that we were dealing mostly with issues of kashrut and Shabbat, but many people didn’t know the [laws] of real life business issues.”

As a result Machon Keter was born.

So far the institute has published four volumes on business laws. In 2002, it opened a Hebrew Web site, Keter.org. The site features some 300 questions and answers about Jewish business law.

Other organizations have been discussing the topic in their publications. Recently Bar-Ian University’s political science department published the fourth volume of its Judaism and Policy periodical.

The latest issue of the Azure journal, published by the Shalem Center, includes an article titled “On Jewish Economics” by Yosef Yitshak Lifshitz.

Some maintain that interest in the field is burgeoning as disillusionment grows with existing economic systems. Socialism, on which Israel was founded, began to lose credibility in the 1980s when economic growth slowed to a crawl. And while capitalism saved the economy, people wonder at what cost, with Israel second in the West in inequality between the rich and poor.

Many ask if Judaism is closer to capitalism or socialism.

Meir Tamari, 77, former chief economist in the Office of the Governor of the Bank of Israel and founder of the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem, says neither, though many have tried to prove the opposite.

“There exists a distinctly Jewish framework in which economic activity may take place,” he says. “The divorce of Judaism from [the economic] sphere of activity produces a distortion in true Jewish living and has led to uncritical acceptance of various theories that bear no relationship to the economic behavior developed by the Jew.”

Tamari says, for example, that we find champions of capitalism using the Jew as a role model for private enterprise. The problem with these arguments is that they separate Jewish economic practices from Jewish sources. These sources impose important restraints on the free market model, restraints that derive from the peculiarly Jewish concepts of mutual responsibility while capitalism is based on egotism and selfishness.

At the other end of the spectrum are those who viewed socialism as a modern expression of the Mosaic code and the moral.

According to Tamari, despite Judaism’s insistence on economic justice, charity, and mutual assistance, it also recognizes the legitimacy of private property, the profit motive and the market mechanism.

Rabbi Nahum Rabinovitch, of Ma’alei Adumim, deals with Jewish law in the economic sphere. And he agrees with Tamari.

“By attempting to sever Israel from its historical roots we have damaged ourselves. We’ve had a lot of experience,” he says. “We are a nation that has survived under many different economic systems. We should have learned a bit.”

Rabinovitch gives as an example the idea that one can arbitrarily legislate a collectivist type of existence.

“It doesn’t work,” he says. “We learned that a long time ago in the Second Temple period.”

Between an economic system that favors the poor and one that favors the rich, Judaism seems to promote a middle path enabling people to help themselves. An example is the obligation to give loans without interest.

“While charity is meant to support the poor and the inefficient members of society, the interest-free loan is meant to enable them either to break out of the poverty cycle or not to enter it at all by enabling them to establish their own businesses,” says Tamari. “For this reason Maimonides ranks the interest-free loan as the highest form of tzedakah.”

Tamari adds that it has been proven that the best way to fight high unemployment

is by helping people start their own businesses.

“All they need is a loan to get started. But a person who wants to go into business for himself usually has no collateral, so he can’t get a loan,” he says. “In the early 1900s, millions of Jews emigrated from Eastern Europe and arrived in the West penniless and without jobs. Everyone in my parents’ generation started themselves in business via free loans. Millions were loaned out this way and it works.”

Indeed, that is the philosophy behind the Hebrew Free Loan Association, which provides interest-free loans to Bay Area Jews, not just for business but for personal and emergency needs.