Middle Israel: Is wealth profane?

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

amotz asa el 88 (photo credit: )
amotz asa el 88
(photo credit: )
To understand God's view of money, said Maurice Baring, one need only look at those to whom He gave it. Educated at Eton and Cambridge, Baring started off as a diplomat only to soon be transformed by the Russo-Japanese War into a war correspondent and eventually earn acclaim as a novelist. Just how this biographical evolution impacted his attitude toward wealth is itself an intriguing question, but the fact is that at an early stage in his life that son of a banker converted to Catholicism, and that 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, sought 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 itself, and Isaiah, who scolded those whose obsession with money came at the expense of their solidarity with the poor. By the last decades the of Second Temple's existence, it had become a focus of such intense financial activity that one pilgrim impulsively overturned its money changers' tables, causing a stir that even today 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 even while its clerics condemned private wealth. 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 making, but idealized it, and not merely as an economic or even moral value, but as a sign of Godly blessing, an indication that one had been divinely chosen. The gulf that this created between Catholicism and Protestantism, and their respective societies and countries, is as famous as the Max Weber thesis that suggested that this theology is also 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. These and other such theses were eventually seriously challenged by scholars, but none disputed the existence of a link between religious, economic and political history. 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 deep in exile, national taxation became theoretical as did the dilemmas about its uses. Still, individual wealth and poverty of course remained well known. Some rabbinical authorities, most notably Rashi, personally engaged in large-scale commerce and left no hint that they felt guilty about that. 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 masses." According to historian Haim Hillel Ban-Sasson, Luntshitz (who is 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." What do contemporary Jewish religious leaders think about this, if anything? JUDGING BY the religious parties' platforms and their parliamentary leaders' pronouncements, Israel's religious establishment would feel good in the Kli Yakar's company. United Torah Judaism's constituents are probably Israel's poorest, Shas's disenchantment with the moneyed elite is second only to its disdain for the Supreme Court, and the National Religious Party's faith in social spending is second only to its quest for a Greater Israel. Yet a closer look at the religious parties' social agenda reveals a superficial, short-term outlook that is as devoid of theological thought as it is laden with political opportunism. The ultra-Orthodox approach their situation through very pragmatic binoculars. For UTJ, the Jewish state is in any event a historic aberration which lacks Godly inspiration and therefore warrants no religious guidance. Its relevance is only as a tool for supporting those who live the ultra-Orthodox way. It follows that philosophizing about the religious meaning of wealth is no more relevant than questioning the merits of work, creation, criticism, feminism, military service, family planning or artistic expression, all of which remain theological taboos in that part of the Jewish state. In Shas the situation is no better, since the only one allowed, or at least expected, to think independently there, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, is a jurist rather than a theologian. 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 that 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. The fact that in this Knesset there are twice as many modern Orthodox members as there are in the NRP (including Kadima's Menahem Ben-Sasson, incidentally the above-mentioned historian's nephew) means that this party is badly in need of reconnecting with its constituents, not to mention the broader conservative public that lurks beyond them. 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 last month at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies.