When the Talmud Meets Finance

To Dr. Ari Bergmann, the Talmud and the Marketplace are Perfect Fits

Portrait of Dr. Ari Bergmann
Dr. Ari Bergmann

Dr. Ari Bergmann is the founder and Managing Principal of Penso Advisors, LLC, a New York-based global macro and advisory boutique specializing in high convexity strategies. Penso manages high convexity global macro strategies and high convexity negative correlated alpha portfolios for sophisticated institutional money managers and allocators. Prior to founding the firm in 2010, Dr. Bergmann was the CIO of Sentinel Advisors and Senior Managing Director at Bankers Trust.

Dr. Bergmann received a Bachelor of Talmudic Law from Ner Israel Rabbinical College in 1981 and furthered his graduate studies at many prestigious Yeshivot in Israel. He holds a MA in Liberal Studies and PhD in Comparative Religion from Columbia University. Ari was a Visiting Professor at the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at the University of Pennsylvania and at Columbia University.

This semester, he will be teaching a course as a visiting professor in the Isaac Breuer College of Hebraic Studies titled “Rereading Legal Sugyot of the Talmud” which examines in-depth several demonstrative legal passages through the lens of the evolution of the major critical schools of the past century and contrasts them with the interpretation approach of selected medieval scholars, the rishonim. YU News had a chance to speak to him about his thoughts regarding his course and Torah Umadda.

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There seems to be a quantitative side and religious side to your biography. How do you straddle that and, specifically, how will that work into the course you’re going to be teaching?
“My business is called Penso, named after Joseph Penso de la Vega, who wrote the first book ever on modern financial markets called Confusion of Confusions, and it’s one of the ten best books about the financial markets ever written. He was himself also a Talmudist, somebody who was religious, and the book is actually a combination of markets and pricing and the Talmud. So, you see, this idea of combining these two is truly Torah Umadda. This has been something important in my life—these two together have really worked not side-by-side but in an integrated format.”

How do you fuse these two together, the logical/numbers of the market and the ethics of the Torah?
“Torah is not only about ethics but about meaning, giving meaning to things. And the world of markets is a world that needs meaning. I think the cross-pollination of ideas, that’s what makes it unique. The market is not a numbers game. If you just go on the pure numbers, you never make money. The real innovation, the real creativity, is when you come from a different angle, a different perspective, a different vantage point. It’s an amazing thing to combine the two. Talmud is something I love, Talmud is intellectually stimulating, it’s something that gives meaning and perspective to the world and is a world that gives you a different vantage point. Combining this with the markets makes you truly unique and gives meaning to a world that needs meaning.”

Can you give me an example of how having a Talmudic perspective on the world mixed with markets gives an insight into things that one might not otherwise be able to get?
“When you see a paradigm shift, as Thomas Kuhn noted in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, you can you come up with ideas which are really innovative. If you apply this same method to the markets, you could find paradigm shifts, which are so important, and be ahead of others. The Talmud is a collective work, a collective intelligence, a collective Jewish expression, which fosters creativity and innovative readings. It is in this way very similar to the financial markets. What I’m teaching is not just the traditional approach to the Talmud but a true cross-disciplinary approach to the Talmud, taking the Talmud from the religious and the secular perspectives and enabling the students to combine this with the market and life in general. I think an integrated life is something very important: a life of balance, a life of perspective, a life of meaning.”

Tell me about the course you’re teaching, “Rereading Legal Sugyot of the Talmud.”
“It’s taking a religious text, the Talmud, and applying secular academic tools to understand the Talmud, offering a different vantage point. We’ll be using the same tools that we use in regular secular studies, using critical methods like literary analysis and synoptic reading and applying those to the Talmud to draw out different meanings so that the Talmud not only gives meaning to academic life, but academic tools give new meaning to the Talmud. This makes the Talmud and our secular lives integrated in one seamless strategy.

“Take the idea of Torah Umadda, Torah and science. People often look at it as side-by-side: you do this plus that. Academic Talmud is really combining the two, really taking the Talmud to inform your secular life and taking secular tools to enhance and inform your Talmud reading and study.”

Have you ever encountered a situation where the two authorities, the secular and the religious, simply cannot agree and both have equal authority?
“That sometimes comes out of this kind of study, and then you have to make a choice of priorities, which in life is a very important choice. I think it’s important to set your priorities straight. So, if you have this kind of clash, if you’re equipped to deal with the controversy, then you’ll know how to set your priorities, which is itself very important in navigating this world because in this world, you have situations where there are clashes of values, clashes of approaches, and you’ve got to set your priorities straight.”