Is wealth profane?

To understand God's view of money, said Maurice Baring, one need only look at those to whom He gave it.

steinsaltz 88 298 (photo credit:
steinsaltz 88 298
(photo credit:
Educated at Eton and Cambridge, Baring started off as a diplomat, only to be transformed by the Russo-Japanese War into a war correspondent and eventually earn acclaim as a novelist. Just how this biographical evolution affected his attitude toward wealth is itself an intriguing question, but the fact is that at an early stage in his life this son of a banker converted to Catholicism, and money and those in possession of it did not impress him.

Money and faith have indeed had a troubled relationship since antiquity, one that Israeli theology - to the extent that it exists at all - has yet to discover. While priests needed and obtained money, prophets damned it. Such, for instance, was the constant tension between the clergy of the First Temple, whose taxing of the public was enshrined by the Torah, and Isaiah, who scolded those whose obsession with money came at the expense of solidarity with the poor.

By the last decades of the Second Temple's existence, it had become a focus of such intense financial activity that one pilgrim impulsively overturned its moneychangers' tables, causing a stir that has yet to abate. And yet, like Judaism before it, medieval Christianity fed an elaborate clerical establishment whose accumulation of property made it the world's largest landowner.

The Christian attitude toward wealth was famously dealt a shock in the wake of the Reformation that eventually gave rise to a theology that not only legitimized enterprise, investment and profit, but idealized it, and not merely as an economic or even moral value, but as a sign of Godly blessing. The gulf this created between Catholicism and Protestantism is as famous as the Max Weber thesis which suggested that this theology is the root of modern capitalism.

Another thesis that mixed faith and wealth attributed Europe's economic decline in the Middle Ages to the rise of Islam. According to Belgian historian Henri Pyrenne, the Mediterranean basin's previously bustling commerce all but ground to a halt in the wake of the invading Arab fleets' effective splitting of the Mediterranean Sea between its Christian north and Muslim south.

Where, then, does all this leave Judaism?

THE ORIGINAL clash between Jerusalem's priests and prophets soon faded into oblivion. With the Temple gone and the Jews in exile, national taxation became theoretical, as did dilemmas about its uses. Still, individual wealth and poverty of course remained well known.

Some rabbinical authorities, most notably Rashi, engaged in large-scale commerce and left no hint that they felt guilty about it. Others, like Rabbi Ephraim Luntshitz who taught and judged between Lvov and Prague four centuries ago, bitterly attacked the wealthy. "The rich," he wrote, "who are mostly violent and are out to impose themselves on the Diaspora, have no mercy or concern for the oppressed."

Historian Haim Hillel Ban-Sasson, Luntshitz (better known as the Kli Yakar) attributed the wealthy's inhumanity not to their personalities, but to their wealth. Property, he thought, is inherently corrupting, since "all wealth causes arrogance."

The place where all this could have been different is modern Orthodoxy. That part of the Jewish state has no shortage of thinkers, both rabbinical and academic, only they are split between Greater Israelites who have wasted their energies on a cause that is politically lost and religiously marginal, and knee-jerk socialists whose idea of charity is thousands of bureaucrats bilking thousands of industrious people so they can hand their taxes to thousands of lazy people.

It's time Israel's religious thinkers, from Adin Steinsaltz to David Hartman, began debating wealth. Part of that would be to understand that thousands of Israeli conservatives find nothing the matter with wealth, and a lot the matter with big government. The way they see it, charity should be given religiously and generously, but by individuals and communities, not by taxpayers and ministries.

And when that day is allowed to arrive, fewer people will have reason to speak cynically about God's view of money.

Based on a lecture delivered at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies.

(From the May 2006 edition)