Judaism on Greed

The notion that humans are merely stewards of wealth, not its owner, can play into the hands of the greedy.

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Excerpted from The Challenge of Wealth: A Jewish Perspective on Earning and Spending Money. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. Copyright 1995 by Jason Aronson, Inc.

The effects of greed and the fear of uncertainty, which lead to economic crime and theft, may be limited by the understanding of God’s role as the real provider of all the needs of His creatures. This, however, is not sufficient to create a moral economic system. All too often, faith in God’s bounty as satisfying all the needs of men leads to an evasion of social responsibilities. This piety can easily degenerate into the moral corruption of telling the poor, the weak, and even one’s competitors in the marketplace to trust in God’s bounty, using it as an excuse for not sharing what we receive from Him.

It is because of this ease with which people are able to find reasonable and rational reasons for not giving charity that the Tur [Ya‘akov ben Asher, 15th century codifier of Jewish law known by the title of his work, Arba‘ah Turim], in his opening statement to the laws of tzedakah uses a repetitive form, writing that “one is obligated to be very, very careful in giving charity.” By these laws, the belief in Divine bounty as a source of all wealth creates in Judaism a concept of stewardship, whereby part of that wealth is given to assist others. The religious concept of bitachon (trust in God) may be applied only to ourselves and may not be projected as the means to solve the economic problems of others. One of the chassidic masters said that he was taught this lesson when he found a ten ruble note. “I put it under a stone and wrote on the stone, ‘Thou shalt not steal!’ When I returned, I found a five ruble note in its place and written on the stone was the verse, ‘Thy brother shall live with thee.’ ”

The Mishnah (Avot 5:12) classifies one whose attitude to wealth is “What is mine is mine and what is yours is yours” as being a mediocre person. Such a person is prepared to respect the property of another and operate within the framework of the law. However, he is not prepared to assist others, nor does he recognize a social obligation in view of the wealth in his possession. “Some say,” continues the Mishnah, “this is the mark of the people of Sodom.” The people of Sodom have been the archetype of an evil community deserving of destruction ever since biblical times, primarily because of their selfish economic behavior. The Malbim (Rabbi Meir Lebush, Hungary, nineteenth century) comments that their sin lay in their refusal to share their wealth with the surrounding nations. It should be noted that while the Aggadah [classical rabbinic legends] is replete with stories of their inhospitality to strangers, the men of Sodom welcomed Lot, Abraham’s nephew. Lot was a wealthy man, and it was only poor strangers who were not welcome in Sodom. The Sodomite view of absolute private property rejects any obligations to assist others, which is contrary to the Jewish concept of limited private-property rights.

Hearing that in the World to Come evildoers would be punished by not being able to bend their arms, a chasid queried Divine Justice, saying that this was no punishment. “Well, they will not be able to eat,” answered his master. But the chasid countered, “Let them sit opposite each other and then they can feed one another with their outstretched arms.” That, however they refused to do. That is their evil way even as it was in Sodom.

However, what made it necessary to destroy Sodom was not the individual selfishness of its citizens, but the fact that this had become an integral part of its communal culture. While a society can exist with cruel and selfish individuals, the moral decay that sets in when cruelty and callousness become hallmarks of that society marks it for Divine retribution. Rashi, commenting on a verse in Amos--“They who sell the poor for a pair of shoes”--highlights this communal aspect. He notes the difference between a sandal, which is open, and a shoe, which is closed and possesses in Hebrew the same grammatical root as the word for “lock.” This is what the rich did. They closed in the poor farmer’s field and then forced him to sell—a perfectly legal but immoral use of societal legislation. So Judea had to be destroyed. In Sodom they gave charity generously. However, all the money was secretly marked so that the storekeepers refused to accept it. When the poor died of hunger, each Sodomite reclaimed his money—legal but abhorrent. Cruelty and callousness are expressed not only in relationships with the poor and weak but also in those between buyer and seller, employer and employee, and even competitors in all spheres of business activity.

When a chasid came to his Admor [the rabbi of whom he was a follower] to complain that his competitors were encroaching on his livelihood, the master told him the following story: “A horse, pausing to drink of the waters of a lake, was astounded to see the head of another horse, bending to drink of his water. In anger, he lashed out with his hooves to chase the other horse away. When, indeed the waves drove away the intruder, the horse put his head down into the water once again to drink, only to find that the other horse had returned. Once again he lashed out with his hooves. You, my friend, are a man, not a horse. The God who provides for you, provides also for the needs of your fellowmen.”

If people really believed that all their needs would be satisfied as a result of God’s mercy and providence, then they would not hesitate to share their wealth with others. Indeed, the refusal to share wealth with others is a denial of trust in God, a rejection of God’s merit as the provider of the needs of man, and an assumption that that wealth is the result solely of one’s work, ability, or luck. The selfishness of the people of Sodom and their imitators in all societies is actually a form of idolatry, since it negates the Divine Source of all wealth.

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Dr. Meir Tamari

Dr. Meir Tamari, former chief economist in the office of the Governor of the Bank of Israel, is director of the Center for Business Ethics at the Jerusalem College of Technology. His books include Al Chet: Sins in the Marketplace (Jason Aronson) and Jewish Values in Our Open Society: A Weekly Torah Commentary (Jason Aronson).