On The Mosaic Law
[An extract from Heine's Confessions, taken
from Everyman's Edition of selections from his Prose and Poetry.
Reprinted from Land & Liberty, September 1939]
OF ISRAEL'S love of liberty, at a time when not only in its immediate
vicinity, but also among all the nations of antiquity, even among the
philosophical Greeks, the practice of slavery was justified and in
full sway - of this I will not speak for fear of compromising the
Bible in the eyes of the powers that be. No Socialist* was more of a
terrorist than our Lord and Saviour. Even Moses was such a Socialist;
although, like a practical man, he attempted only to reform existing
usages concerning property. Instead of striving to effect the
impossible, and rashly decreeing the abolition of private property, he
only sought for its moralisation by bringing the rights of property
into harmony with the laws of morality and reason.
This he accomplished by instituting the jubilee, at which period
every alienated heritage, which among an agricultural people always
consisted of land, would revert to the original owner, no matter in
what manner it had been alienated. This institution offers the most
marked contrast to the Roman statute of limitations, by which, after
the expiration of a certain period the actual holder of an estate
could no longer be compelled to restore the estate to the true owner,
unless the latter should be able to show that within the prescribed
time he had, with all the prescribed formalities, demanded
restitution. This last condition opened wide the door for chicanery,
particularly in a state where despotism and jurisprudence were at
their zenith, and where the unjust possessor had at command all means
of intimidation, especially against the poor who might be unable to
defray the expense of litigation.
The Roman was both soldier and lawyer, and that which he conquered
with the strong arm he knew how to defend by the tricks of law. Only a
nation of robbers and casuists could have invented the law of
prescription, the statute of limitations, and consecrated it in that
detestable book which may be called the bible of the Devil - I mean
the codex of Roman civil law, which, unfortunately, still holds sway.
I have spoken of the affinity which exists between the Jews and the
Germans, whom I once designated as the two pre-eminently moral
nations. While on this subject I desire to direct attention to the
ethical disapprobation with which the ancient German law stigmatizes
the statute of limitations: this I consider a noteworthy fact. To this
very day the Saxon peasant uses the beautiful and touching aphorism: "A
hundred years of wrong do not make a single year of right."
The Mosaic law, through the institution of the jubilee year, protests
still more decidedly. Moses did not seek to abolish the right of
property; on the contrary, it was his wish that everyone should
possess property, so that no one might be tempted by poverty to become
a bondsman and thus acquire slavish propensities. Liberty was always
the great emancipator's leading thought, and it breathes and glows in
all his statutes concerning pauperism.
* It will be allowed that Heine used this term to mean social
reformer. - EDITOR, Land and Liberty.