The Flip Side: For love or money

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with lending money with interest just as there is nothing wrong with renting out any of my other belongings.

July 3, 2012 22:44
4 minute read.
US dollars

US dollars 390. (photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)

Why does Jewish law forbid charging interest to another Jew but allow the Jew to lend money to a non-Jew with interest? Don’t we care about all of humanity? And why just money? If the goal is a more humane society, why not forbid making a profit on any of my belongings? Theoretically, I should rent my cars for free, allow people to stay at my guest house for free, give legal and medical services for free, and so on.

Imagine offering a couple a million dollars in exchange for their newborn baby.

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Sane people would laugh in your face.

They may have spent their whole lives trying to earn a million dollars, but it is clear to them not only that the value of their baby exceeds a million dollars, but that even mentioning money in relation to their baby’s value borders on the absurd.

Two things of value: love and money.

People will invest huge amounts of time and energy for both, yet the value of one entirely and completely cancels out the value of the other. What is the difference between them? Love is a concept that defies justification.

We could say that the reason we love our children is because we birthed them, or because they are cute. We could explain that we love our spouses because they have a good sense of humor or because they make us feel good. But the truth is that the only good answer to why we love someone is “because.” Love defies explanation; it just is. Imposing some ulterior motive on this transcendent experience is like trying to smell a rose with our ears.

When we say in our prayers, “There is nothing that shares Your value, G-d, our Lrd, in this world,” we are asserting that there is nothing in this world that can be used as a measuring tool for the value of our relationship with G-d. Just as using money to measure our love for our child or spouse revolts us with its absurdity, so too, a relationship with Him wipes out all other values.

When we finger crisp new bills, when we fill up our wallets and our bank accounts, we feel good. We feel powerful. What we love about money is not, as people think, that we want to amass more things. We can’t eat money or wear money, but with money we hold in our hands limitless possibilities, pure (green) potential. The whole world and all its pleasures are within our grasp. And therein lies its power.

R’ Tzadok HaKohen points out a difference between the human and the animal.

An animal left to its own devices eats what it needs, and stops when is satisfied.

Humans, on the other hand, may be almost comatose from gorging, yet when the chocolate cream pie is brought out, we hear emanating from the depths of the couch a little voice saying, “Well, maybe just one small piece.”

Where does this desire for just a little bit more come from? Why are we so driven for just one more piece of cake, one more academic degree, one more trip, one more experience? A cow never looks at the cow in the stall next door to see if its hay is crunchier. It has its hay. It eats it. Yet which human doesn’t compare and contrast his portion with that of the next guy? R’ Tzadok says this uniquely human tendency touches on the very basis of what a person is. A human being, who has a soul that must connect to the eternal, needs to never be satiated. Yearning and longing are its natural state. “My soul thirsts for You [G-d]; my flesh longs for You.” The scorn of the loving parent for the million dollars mirrors the soul. Nothing this world has to offer can completely satisfy that ultimate spiritual connoisseur, the soul, which remains, always, in a state of hunger.

So we, beings who are created with an insatiable desire for more, hold chunks of tangible desire in our hands in the form of money. And God says: Don’t prostitute this desire. Don’t take the very thing that represents yearning and longing for more (kesef, the Hebrew word for money shares a root with the word kissufin, desire), and use it just to acquire more of the same.

This yearning, this kisuf, comes from the very deepest place inside of you. You can charge for your fleet of cars, your house, your time or your expertise, but the money itself, the very symbol of yearning for value – don’t use it just to acquire more of the same.

This is why taking interest from a non- Jew is permitted. Jewish Law is supportive of healthy, wholesome and economically feasible living. To forbid a Jew to lend money with interest to a non-Jew when there would be no reciprocity would be unfair and economically unfeasible. And there is nothing intrinsically wrong with lending money with interest just as there is nothing wrong with renting out any of my other belongings.

Yet not taking interest from a fellow Jew, who was also charged with the mission of reminding the world where yearning should lead, who is also asked to put the value of relationship over the value of money, gives us the opportunity to reinforce the value that supersedes and transcends all other values.

The writer lectures weekly to hundreds of Israeli university students on Jewish thought, through the organization Nefesh Yehudi. The ideas in this article are drawn from the works of Rabbi Moshe Shapiro, shlita. She welcomes comments and questions and can be reached at [email protected]

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