American Jews and the "Torah of Money"

By Bush, Lawrence; Dekro, Jeffrey | Tikkun, July/August 1998 | Go to article overview

American Jews and the "Torah of Money"


Bush, Lawrence, Dekro, Jeffrey, Tikkun


Let's begin this new column with a fact that is increasingly acknowledged but only warily asserted: the American Jewish community is rich.

We are rich in assets. Constituting less than 2.5 percent of the U.S. population, Jews are reliably estimated to own or control between 8 and 10 percent of the U.S. Gross Domestic Product. Even with half a million Jews living at or below the poverty line, Jewish median family income is nearly 70 percent higher than the national median-one third of American multi-millionaires are tallied as Jewish. More than 4,000 Jewish family foundations control approximately $5 billion in assets; federation endowments account for an additional $4 billion.

We are rich in generosity. Major cultural organizations, universities, medical centers, political parties, and activist groups in the United States and Israel are beholden to the money-organizing networks of American Jews. Tzedakah is truly as binding a force in contemporary Jewish life as the Holocaust, Zionism, or religious observance-and, through the UJA/Federation, is the only real common denominator holding together our fractious community.

We are rich in economic philosophy. Our religion has a wealth of teachings about dinei mamanot, the laws of money, which offer a meaning-based approach to issues of wealth, poverty, and community. This "Torah of Money" goes well beyond the teachings about tzedakah that many Jews absorbed in Hebrew school. Nevertheless, an "everything-I-need-to-know-I-learned-in-cheder" approach to its principles might read as follows:

1. Tzedakah does not mean "charity" but "righteous empowerment"-the individual and communal obligation to achieve justice through the giving and investing of money, wealth, and resources. In particular, Judaism ranks partnership and investment as the most righteous strategies for alleviating poverty.

2. Judaism links blessing and prosperity to mitzvot (righteous deeds); ethical business means profitable business.

3. Judaism has a "stakeholder" philosophy of management/ownership that views private property rights as being freighted with communal obligations.

4. Judaism's teachings about Shabbat emphasize that sheer productivity and rampant consumerism are not the ultimate aims of life. While we are instructed to taste the many fruits of life and to honor the Sabbath with our finest table setting, the worship of wealth is a form of idolatry and its decadent use is a life-destroying sin.

As ever with Judaism, these fundamentals of the Torah of Money are more usefully seen as a holy dialogue than a holy writ. Judaism's economic philosophy, after all, was developed in an agricultural, theocratic, patriarchal, and ethnically insular community of very limited wealth. By contrast, we live in a high-tech, secular, globalized, multiethnic society of vast wealth and capacity. Interpretative license aside, however, the fact remains that the dynamic "money culture" of American Jewish individuals and institutions is little informed by the Torah of Money. Tzedakah, one of our key "Jewish survival" activities, has generally been uncoupled from the very values that make Jewish survival a profoundly worthwhile goal.

The reasons for this discontinuity between our Jewish communal culture and the Torah of Money are complex. …

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