Finance and the golden calf

Rediscovering religious values in the market economy

Pope Benedict, Jonathan Sacks 311 (photo credit: (L’Osservatore Romano/Reuters))
Pope Benedict, Jonathan Sacks 311
(photo credit: (L’Osservatore Romano/Reuters))
As the political leaders of Europe meet to save the euro and the European Union, so should religious leaders. That is why this week I visited Rome, to discuss our shared concerns at the Gregorian University and with His Holiness the Pope.
The idea sounds absurd. What has religion to do with economics, or spirituality with financial institutions? The answer is that the market economy has religious roots. It emerged in a Europe saturated with Judeo-Christian values.
As Harvard economist David Landes has pointed out, until the 15th century China was far in advance of the West in a whole range of technologies. Yet China did not give rise to the market economy, the rise of science or the industrial revolution. It lacked, says Landes, the cluster of values that Judaism and Christianity gave to Europe.
The market economy is deeply congruent with the values set out in the Hebrew Bible. Material prosperity is a Divine blessing. Poverty crushes the spirit as well as the body, and its alleviation is a sacred task. Work is a noble calling. “When you eat from the labor of your hands,” says the Psalm, “you will be happy and it will be well for you.”
Competition fuels the fires of invention: “Rivalry between scribes increases wisdom.”
God invites us, said the rabbis, to be His partners in the work of creation. Private property rights are fundamental to freedom. Moses says, when his leadership is challenged, “I have not taken one donkey from them.”
Elijah challenges King Ahab for his seizure of Naboth’s vineyard. Besides this, says Landes, the Bible introduces the idea of linear time, rejecting the idea that time is a cycle in which nothing ultimately changes.
The first financial instruments of modern capitalism were developed by 14th century banks in Christian Florence, Pisa, Genoa and Venice. Max Weber traced the connections between the Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism. Michael Novak has done likewise for Catholicism. Jews, numbering one-fifth of a percent of the population of the world, have won more than 30% of Nobel prizes in economics.
When I asked the developmental economist Jeffrey Sachs what drove him in his work, he replied without hesitation, tikkun olam, the Jewish imperative of “healing a fractured world.” The birth of the modern economy is inseparable from its Judeo- Christian roots.
But this is not a stable equilibrium. The market undermines the very values that gave rise to it in the first place. The consumer culture is profoundly antithetical to human dignity. It inflames desire, undermines happiness, weakens the capacity to defer instinctual gratification, and blinds us to the vital distinction between the price of things and their value.
The financial instruments at the heart of the current crisis – subprime mortgages and the securitization of risk – were so complex that governments, regulatory authorities and sometimes even bankers themselves failed to understand them and their extreme vulnerability. Those who encouraged people to take out mortgages they could not repay were guilty of what the Bible calls “putting a stumbling block before the blind.” The build-up of personal and collective debt in America and Europe should have sent warning signals to anyone familiar with the biblical institutions of the Sabbatical and Jubilee years, created specifically because of the danger of people being trapped by debt.
These are symptoms of a wider failure: to see the market as an end not a means. The Bible paints a graphic picture of what happens when people cease to see gold as a medium of exchange and start seeing it as an object of worship. It calls it the Golden Calf. Its antidote is the Sabbath: one day in seven in which we neither work nor employ, shop or spend. It is time dedicated to things that have a value not a price: family, community and thanksgiving to God for what we have, instead of worrying about what we lack. It is no coincidence that in Britain, Sunday and financial markets were deregulated at about the same time.
Stabilizing the euro is one thing, healing the culture that surrounds it is another. A world in which material values are everything and spiritual values nothing is neither a stable state nor a good society. The time has come for us to recover the Judeo- Christian ethic of human dignity in the image of God. Humanity was not created to serve markets. Markets were created to serve humankind.
(This article was first published in L’Osservatore Romano earlier this week, and is reprinted with permission. A full transcript of the chief rabbi’s lecture “Has Europe Lost its Soul?” delivered at the Gregorian University, is available on his website –

The writer is chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth.