Monday, 24 November 2008


A Keynote Lecture, delivered at NLS

Money: Uses and Abuses

Notes for a Keynote Lecture


Throughout history everyone else has been very quick to tell Jews what we feel about money.

In the Medieval period, Jews were often abused for being dilettantes, lazy for refusing to work on the Sabbath.

We were, of course, equally accused of being commercially obsessed – the lenders and financiers of and Medieval Europe, and part of this accusation morphed into the classic attack of modern antisemitism – that Jews control the banking sector, the money markets and so on.

Not of course that we weren’t also accused of being the driving force behind Communism.

So the Jew as capitalist, as communist, as economically deficient and as economically too-efficient.

Such is the lot of the Jew.

So what do we really think?


As ever, humour provides a clue.


A Rabbi, a Priest and an Imam are on a plane when one of the engines spontaneously bursts into flames.

Please, please, cries out the steward to the three clerics.

Do something religious to save us.

So the Imam prays in the name of Allah to be saved.

And the Priest prays in the name of Jesus to be saved and

The Rabbi starts a collection for fund to investigate why plane engines  spontaneously catch fire in mid-air.


We’ll come back to the notion of the benefits of money, but my sense is that a Jewish exploration into money should begin with this point.

Judaism rejects poverty. There is nothing noble, in the Jewish view, in being poor.

Destitution is viewed as a horror with a range of evocative, almost poetic, examples of legislation designed to put the brakes on anyone cruel enough to turn away from an impoverished fellow or, worse, propel, their fellow deeper into destitution

e.g. Deuteronomy 24

If a man is so poor that they have to offer their own cloak as a pledge to return borrowed capital,

You shall deliver him the pledge back when the sun goes down, that he may sleep in his own garment, and bless you; and it shall be righteousness to you before the Lord your God.


And further

14. You shall not oppress a hired servant who is poor and needy, whether he is of your brothers, or of your strangers who are in your land inside your gates;

15. At his day you shall give him his hire, nor shall the sun go down upon it; for he is poor, and sets his heart upon it; lest he cry against you to the Lord, and it should be sin to you.


Unlike, say, the gurus of India, living on nothing and demonstrating their piety through their poverty there is one, and only  one story in the entire corpus of Rabbinic literature about a religious scholar who rejects the material world – the tale of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai.

The Rabbi spends seven years studying day and night in a cave and, when he emerges he pours scorn on the honest labourers he finds when he emerges from his cave,  only for a Divine Voice to emerge from the heavens and send him back into his cave for another year.

A year later he emerges and this time recognises the honest labourer as a hero. As decent.[1]


Judaism begins form a place of considering money to be a good.

Necessary even for the perpetuation of Jewish life.

Ain kemach, ain torah – as it says in Pirkei Avot – without dough, there is no Torah.[2]

In the C11 the greatest of all Medieval Rabbis, Moses Maimonides writes a letter following the death of his brother. His brother had been a gem-trader, a businessman and his death strikes Maimonides deeply. He extols his financially minded brother’s virtues as one who uses their skills in business to do good.

But there is also an awareness of the, almost addictive quality of the pursuit of money for its own sake – the drive to consume.

Ain Kemach ain Torah - without dough, there is no Torah, but the saying continues, Ain Torah, ain Kemach – without the control of rules of Torah there can be no acceptable accumulation of dough – of money.


The notion of a control on unfettered desires is a classic part of the Jewish approach to all things, not just money.

Enjoyment of food is good, but the appetite needs to be curbed – by rules of kashrut.

Enjoyment of, how best to say it, thrills of the flesh is good, but needs to be curbed – only to be allowed in certain circumstances.

Enjoyment of money, then is to be allowed, but also to be controlled, fettered.


At the heart of this two fold approach to money are two Biblical notions, both of which appear in the context of the telling of the creation of the world.


The first suggests that the earth has been given to humanity to ‘dominate it and subdue it’ kivshua urdu.[3] This is the material world as a right, the right to exploit, the right to accumulate.

But the second notion suggests that we are placed in this world to ‘tend it and guard it.’ – l’ovdah ulshomrah[4]

This is the material world as a responsibility, a duty.

The first notion is an invitation to extract all the monies one can find in the world.

The second is a call to care, to be in balance with the world.

Such is, so often, the Jewish way.

Giving and restricting in the very same moment.


Connected to this is the call of the Sabbath. The resting on the Seventh day bit people tend to know. What often gets overlooked is that the fourth commandments uttered on Sinai opens ‘on six days you shall work.’ Sheshet yamin taavod v’asita kol melachtecha[5]

This is a command to labour, for gain.

‘Love work’ is advice given in Pirkei Avot.[6]

But the lust for money is ameliorated, softened, by the command to abstain one day in the week.

There are two reasons given in the Bible for observing Shabbat.

The first is that we rest because God rested in God’s extraordinarily triumphant material accumulation of things in the first moments of creation.

In other words we rest to remind ourselves that the material stuff of the world is not ours, it’s God’s and the phrase ‘Master of the Universe,’ a phrase that used to be applied to the great money maven of the financial markets  is a phrase that, really, only truly can be applied to God.


The second reason for observing Shabbat, found in Deuteronomy[7], is quite different.

We rest, according to Deuteronomy, to remind ourselves that

‘[we] were servants in the land of Egypt, and that the Lord [our] God brought [us]  out from there with a mighty hand and with an out-stretched arm.’

We abstain from the accumulation of material wealth on the Shabbat to remind ourselves that we are free.

This is the great paradox, and the great insight of Shabbat.

One might thank that a person can demonstrate their freedom by the unfettered accumulation of wealth, after all surely freedom means, free to do whatever we like.

But no, that is not the Jewish way. Instead freedom is demonstrated by an act of abstinence, restraint.

That is the paradox of Shabbat.

The insight of Shabbat is this.

Unless we abstain, unless we find a way to say to the appeal of money – ad can – this is enough, we are in danger of becoming enslaved to its charms, its glittery lure.

We know, from academic enquiry after academic enquiry, not to mention Beatles’ song lyrics, that money cannot buy love and happiness. Indeed money can bring only a desire for more money. More lust for accumulation.

And so the insight of Shabbat is this – we escape this trap, we break this addiction by abstaining from money, from accumulation for this one day in seven. And, in so doing, we become free not only from the servitude of the Egyptians, but also the servitude of our own lust for accumulation.


The Shabbat becomes a spiritual practice, we practice not letting ourselves be governed by our work, our desire to accumulate, the size of our bank balance.

It is a day for re-ensoulment, re-balancing, acknowledging our place NOT as Masters of the World, but its stewards, tenders and shepherds – God help all of us.


Like all the best ritual, and certainly like all the best rituals in Judaism, Shabbat holds two things together – the love of work, the understanding of the value of work, and also its own counter-narrative, its own protection from the unfettered charge of the desire to accumulate.


But there is, perhaps, an even better encapsulation of a Jewish attitude to money than the Shabbat, and that is the case of the Prozbul.

To the Biblical mind credit is good. Credit multiplies wealth, and that is known even in the time of the Bible.

The problem is that debt is not and too much debt can trap individuals in a cycle of poverty. That too has been known since the time of the Bible.

So the Torah offers a solution to the problem of the debt-trap.

The Torah mandates a writing off of all debt on a seven year cycle - shmittah.

It’s a great way of stopping anyone from falling too deeply into debt for too long a period, but it’s hardly an inducement to lenders to offer credit.

The Bible is aware of that the rule of the Shmitta might stop lenders from lending, so it warns, ‘Beware that there be not a thought in your wicked heart, saying, The seventh year, the year of release, is at hand; and your eye be evil against your poor brother, and you give him nothing; and he cry to the Lord against you, and it be sin to you. You shall surely give him, and your heart shall not be grieved when you give to him; because for this thing the Lord your God shall bless you in all your works, and in all that you put your hand to.’ (Deut 15)

But by the time of the First Century of the common era it appears that these stark warnings were not sufficient to keep lenders lending. The wheels of the financial system were grinding to a halt, the flow of credit so necessary to allow the poor to invest their way out of poverty dried up so (in the worlds of the Talmud)


Hillel instituted a ‘prosbul.’ For he saw people were unwilling to lend money to one another and disregarded the precept laid down in the Torah, ‘Beware that there no be a base thought in your heart saying the seventh year is coming [probably best not to lend to my fellow]’ (Deut 15) [8]


Not only is this, I think, the best example of a Jewish approach to money, it is also the classic example of Rabbinics – what it means not to be only a Biblically minded religious person, but a Jew engaged with Rabbinic Judaism.


She what is going on here?

So there is a very clear Biblical doctrine, enacted for a very clear and perfectly laudable reason.

But the system is not working. The injunction is meeting the reason for its existence.

So Hillel rides a coach and horses through the injunction.

He takes a clear Biblical injunction and renders it inoperable, or rather creates a giant loophole which the entire people of Israel are expected exploit to avoid the injunction.

And it is all done because the Biblical injunction designed to ameliorate poverty was instead trapping people in poverty.

For our purposes tonight the most remarkable piece about the Prozbul is that it concerns availability of credit – the smooth workings of the credit market.

The initial Biblical law is designed to protect the poor, but the Rabbinic intervention seems to be designed at saving the creditors.

After all before they had to write off their loans, now they can, by means of this Porzbul protect them even on the other side of the Shmittah.

It seems, in so many ways an extra-ordinary precursor of recent events in the international and national financial worlds.


In modern world we also have a system designed to protect the needy which is failing.

So the intervention comes in, and it is NOT an intervention aimed, at first glance, at the poor, it seems, at first glance to be an intervention aimed at saving the creditors who, it may well be argued are the people who got the poor in the mess in the first place.

In both cases we have the wheels of credit coming to a halt and in both cases there is action which, on first glance seems to be aimed at saving the lenders, but is clearly being driven by a desire to allow credit, once again, to be a force for good.

At least as a general observation –and I don’t want to be overly political - the interventions of both Hillel and of Governments and central banks around the world have to be right.

And the notion of the Biblical verses being rendered void and non-applicable, has an analogy in the way ‘golden rules’ of National and European economic management, so cherished in the past decade have been rendered void or ignored.

On this reading Hillel would probably have supported the partial re-nationalisation of banking structures, etc.

He certainly would have realised the need to ‘do something’

One does need to protect the smooth flow of the Capital markets because without credit – without money things will get far worse for the poor than would be the case without these interventions.


I think the world is turning. I don’t think the end of the world is nigh, but we are seeing a re-evalutaion of the role and place of money in society. It is, as Confucius might have said, an interesting time.

And on the subject of the contemporary and the immediate I would want to offer these thoughts in conclusion.


i)                    Work should be productive. Hedge funds are an important way of defraying risk, derivatives likewise. But somewhere along the line these values were lost under a drive for profit from fund managers looking only for the quick-buck. This is profit made not from increased productivity, efficiency of production etc. but rather as a gamble, a bluff or counter-bluff. These kinds of economic actions do no favours to the broader society and it was this kind of ‘investing’ that tipped a difficult situation over into an impossible one.

ii)                   We need a new way to measure value. The ease of measurement is, surely, the most attractive thing about money. We know that money cannot make a person rich, but it can give us a way of gauging if we are better or worse than our neighbour. However money is poorly used for this purpose. The most important things in Jewish life cannot be valued so simply. (the minimum cost of a wedding band is a ‘peppercorn’ it’s not supposed to be a test of how much we love our spouse)

iii)                 Jews don’t believe in the invisible hand. We do, of course, believe in God, but we don’t consider that a belief in God means the end of the necessity for human beings to be engaged, actively in trying to fix the world. Indeed we know that humans have often been needed to prevent God (or the natural way of things) from resulting in needless destruction and destitution.


Thank you


[1] TB Shabbat 33a-b


[3] Gen 1:28


[5] Ex 20:9

[6] Avot 1:10

[7] 5:15

[8] TB Gittin 36a

No comments:

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...