The talmudic sage Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai would have fit right in with the small, window-smashing faction in the Seattle demonstrations against the World Trade Organization last November.
As the Talmud tells it, Shimon despised the material achievements of the Romans, who dominated Israel. The Romans built markets, he complained, simply in order to sell slaves; bath houses simply to commingle with prostitutes; roads and bridges simply to move their armies and facilitate conquest.
Faced with arrest for his words, Shimon ended up hiding in a cave for thirteen years.
When he finally emerged, he saw a farmer plowing a field. The rabbi's rage at the sight of someone participating in "the system" was so hot that the farmer was incinerated! Several more working people were similarly reduced to ash before a heavenly Voice interceded: has Shimon left his cave only to turn the world to chaos?
The Voice of Judaism does not favor chaos. The "settling of the world"-economic development-is a fundamental good in Judaism, a sign of our partnership with God in the ongoing creation of the world. It is no coincidence that Judaism assigns the same Hebrew word avodah to mean "labor" and "worship."
Yet the alternative to chaos envisioned by our tradition is not the WTO's goal of a smooth-running global economy in which local environmental concerns, labor issues, political and religious preferences, and economic development needs are given short shrift. Judaism's alternative to chaos is not cogworks but covenant: the recognition of our awesome responsibility to create justice as well as wealth in this interdependent world.
Jewish law bids us always to mix compassion with our economics, based on our harsh memory of slavery in Egypt. Recognizing that our economic activities are driven not by idealism but by the yetzer hara, the evil (or lustful) inclination (without the yetzer hara, holds the Midrash, no one would build a house or have children or work for a living), Judaism seeks to sanctify and turn this inclination towards socially positive acts. (Hasidism goes even further, contending that God's own Face may be found through the relational encounters the marketplace offers.) In macroeconomic terms, the Torah of Money combines marketplace principles with elements of distributive economics, embodied in the mitzvah of tzedakah and based on the conviction that "the Earth belongs to God" (Psalm 24)-that wealth is the collective product of humanity, not the privileged entitlement of one narrow sector. …