Rabbi Benjamin Blech on Wealth and the Occupy Wall Street Movement
I wish the Occupy Wall Street movement would be a little clearer about what they’re protesting.
Rabbi Benjamin Blech is an acclaimed author and professor of Talmud at YU.
Even as it continues to grow and gain followers outside of New York, with satellite protests in more than 60 American cities as it threatens to go global, the demonstrators still haven’t directly identified their enemy.
And before I can make up my mind whether or not I support them, I think they need to tell us whether this is more about money or morality.
What troubles me is that much of the anger of the protesters seems to be fueled by a sentiment about wealth that Judaism long ago rejected. There have always been people who believed that spirituality demands that we forsake materialism. Rich people are wicked by definition. Accumulating a great deal of money is a sin.
But from a Jewish perspective, wealth is not ignoble; it presents us with precious opportunities. When Abraham first discovered God and gave the gift of monotheism to the world, we’re told that he was divinely rewarded with prosperity. The philosopher Philo had it right when he summed up the Jewish sentiment in these words: “Money is the cause of good things to a good man, of evil things to a bad man.”
From time immemorial Jews have recognized that their mission in life is to improve the world. They were also realistic enough to realize that a great deal of good they were required to perform on this Earth can only be fulfilled with adequate financial resources. Helping the poor, assisting the community and its needs, building synagogues and houses of study, and supporting friends, family, neighbors – all these mitzvahs require money in order to properly perform them.
In a beautiful Midrash, we’re told that when Moses was commanded to count the Jews by means of their contributing a half Shekel, Moses was baffled. He didn’t understand. Then God showed him “a coin of fire” and his mind was put at rest.
What was so difficult to grasp that caused Moses to be confused? Did Moses need to be shown an actual coin before he could understand the meaning of half a Shekel? And what was the point of showing him a coin of fire?
The rabbinic commentary is profound and beautiful. The reason Moses was perplexed was because he couldn’t believe that for counting Jews something so seemingly non-spiritual and materialistic would be used. How could money play a role in defining Jews and holiness?
The answer was to show him a coin of fire. Fire has two seemingly contradictory properties. Fire destroys, but it also creates. Fire may burn, but it can also cook, warm, and serve the most beneficial purposes. Money and fire are related. Wealth may destroy those who possess it but it can also be the source of the greatest blessing. Precisely because it has this quality, it becomes doubly holy. When we choose to use a potentially destructive object in a positive and productive manner, we have learned the secret of true holiness.
Twice a day Jews recite the line that defines our faith. “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” The words that follow define how we are supposed to express that belief through our actions. The original Hebrew from the Torah is often mistranslated, “with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might.” The more correct reading for the last phrase is “and with all your wealth.”
Having a great deal of money isn’t a problem. Not knowing what to do with it is what causes almost all of our difficulties. And spending it correctly is the challenge we face throughout our lifetimes that will best determine whether we can face our final judgment with confidence.
“Show me your checkbook stubs,” said the noted psychologist, Erich Fromm, “and I’ll tell you everything about yourself.” Self-indulgence or selflessness? Wine, women, and song or charitable works? Hedonism or helping others? Forsaking God because you no longer need Him or feeling more spiritually connected out of gratitude for your good fortune?
For those whose crusade against Wall Street is synonymous with a vendetta against all those with wealth, there needs to be recognition of the great good accomplished by many of those who’ve been blessed with prosperity. Just because someone has “made it” doesn’t make him a villain. To add the adjective “filthy” to the word rich in signs hoisted by Occupy Wall Street protesters is to unfairly castigate those who God may have rewarded because they’re wise enough to work on His behalf in creating a better world.
We could all learn much from Michael Bloomberg, the self-made billionaire founder of the Bloomberg financial information firm and New York Mayor, who for two years in a row was the leading individual living donor in the United States, according to The Chronicle of Philanthropy. He recently said he intends to give away most of his fortune, because “the best measure of a philanthropist is that the check he leaves to the undertaker bounces.” And that will insure that he dies a very happy man.
Capitalism isn’t only about accumulating more and more money. Just a few years ago TIME named Bill and Melinda Gates as its “Persons of the Year.” Gates, a Wall Street superstar, was acknowledged as one of the most influential people in the country – not because of how much money he has but because of how much of it he is willing to give away. He came to the conclusion that greed isn’t meant to be our goal in life.
Having made more money than he will ever need, he has one more vision that drives him. He would love to convince world business leaders that being socially responsible isn’t just altruism but sound business practice. Gates says he has learned that greed is self-defeating. It destroys the very people who make it their god.
Today Gates is spearheading a drive to get the super wealthy to publicly commit themselves to giving away most of their fortunes for charitable purposes – and Warren Buffett, chairman of Berkshire Hathaway Inc. and one of the world’s wealthiest men, among others has signed on to this noble endeavor.
When the Occupy Wall Street crowd talks about cleaning up corruption, when it points a finger at all those whose financial recklessness plunged the country into the Great Recession, when it gives voice to the anger we all feel at the perpetrators of highly immoral business practices that hurt millions of innocent victims – for all of these righteous causes they deserve our unqualified thanks.
It’s only when they confuse anyone who is wealthy with the enemy that I think we need to remind them that just as much as the poor don’t deserve to be despised for their poverty, the rich don’t deserve to be hated simply because they have money.
This article originally appeared on aish.com. Rabbi Benjamin Blech is Professor of Talmud at Yeshiva University and the Rabbi Emeritus of Young Israel of Oceanside. He is the author of 12 highly acclaimed books, including Understanding Judaism: The basics of Deed and Creed. He is also the author of If God is Good, Why is the World So Bad? and of the international best-seller, The Sistine Secrets. The opinions expressed above are solely those of the author and should not be attributed to Yeshiva University.