While watching the Royal wedding, both on the television and twitter, I was struck by the number of times that Kate Middleton, now the Duchess of Cambridge, was described as a ‘commoner’. In terms of coverage, one of the major features of the marriage was the fact that Prince William had chosen to marry someone who was not of noble birth. The wedding was a reminder of the fact that British society contains a landed upper class, born into status (and often wealth) as a result of family history and lineage.
However, while the media may have described Kate as ‘commoner’, she has clearly not emerged from poverty, with a family though not aristocratic, are certainly financially very secure and well off. The status of ‘commoner’ today includes a vast range of people, including some who are super-wealthy and others who are homeless on the streets of our cities. While we have a landed aristocracy in Britain, we also have a significant population who have nowhere to live and no place to sleep.
In many western societies there is a growing gap between the wealthiest and the poorest ends of society. In a report from 2010 Britain was ranked seventh in the world in terms of the gap between rich and poor. This week’s Torah portion puts in place a corrective to ensure that the gap between the extremes would never be allowed to grow too wide in the Promised Land.
God says specifically ‘The land shall not be sold for ever, for the land is mine, you are strangers and sojourners with me’ (Leviticus 25:23). While land may be bought and sold, the Torah makes clear that in reality no-one can truly own the land, and so no sale of land can ever be permanent. Alongside this the Torah makes clear the laws for redeeming land which may have been sold in the past, allowing family members to buy back property which had to be sold due to trying circumstances.
However, when the land cannot be bought back there is still an added safeguard: ‘that which is sold shall remain in the hand of the person who bought it until the Jubilee Year, and in the Jubilee it shall go out and return to original owner’ (Leviticus 25:38). The Jubilee Year provided a safety net within the society so that no-one could be indefinitely impoverished; everyone was protected so that once every 50 years their property would be returned. Israelite society was constructed in such a way as to ensure that no-one could be left languishing forever; everyone would eventually be caught and supported.
In our society while there is today some social mobility, the situation one is born into is still the greatest predictor on where they will find themselves fifty years later. As the Government’s own report from 2010 stated: ‘the evidence we have looked at shows the long arm of people’s origins in shaping their life chances, stretching through life stages, literally from cradle to grave.’ People can rise up while others fall down, but for the overwhelming majority their situation at birth will largely define their place at death.
Kate Middleton proves what the fairytales always knew; the regular girl can become a Princess. But she is still the exception, not the rule. We need to embrace and adapt the idea of the Jubilee Year to ensure that the poorest members of our society are protected. Not in terms of the specific return of land, but the assurance that no-one will be left to languish with no support or sustenance from society. The Jubilee Year was not a law for a Promised Land, but a law which enabled us to build the Promised Land; we must aspire to build such a land wherever we live today.