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The Jewish Prescription for Inequality: Work Hard, Get Rich, Be Good

For good advice on economic policy, stop whining and listen to what Maimonides has to say

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“200 One Dollar Bills” by Andy Warhol is on display during a preview of Sotheby’s impressionist and modern art sale in New York, October 30, 2009. (Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images)
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Rabbis have long tried to persuade us of the benefits of parting with some of our money. Are we listening?

Just in case we needed any further proof, Thomas Perkins’ spirited outburst—comparing the have-nots to the jackbooted thugs who trashed Jewish property on Kristallnacht—should suffice as evidence that the conversation about inequality has gone completely bonkers. It hardly makes sense to try and inject it with a measure of perspective and nuance; just ask David Brooks, who attempted to do just that in a fine column decrying the “primitive zero-sum mentality” that argues that “growing affluence for the rich must somehow be causing the immobility of the poor,” and was in turn greeted by hordes of Internet trolls who approached him with the same gleeful bloodlust that Saint George reserved for drowsy dragons. If we can’t look at the present, then, without being pilloried, let us look at the past. The long, long ago past. What might Judaism have to tell us about inequality?

At first glance, the question seems silly. With man having been created in God’s image, isn’t Judaism just a drumbeat urging equality? Isn’t that why so many of these wild-haired men and wild-eyed women who preached revolution—Karl, Leon, Rosa, Emma—were Jewish? That is certainly a resonant historical narrative, but it’s far from the only one. As economists Corinne and Robert Sauer showed in their study of Jewish theology and economic theory, the religion’s approach to wealth was far more complicated than a mere cry for parity.

First, as much as it preaches the importance of equality, Judaism values work. Just ask Rabbi Akiva, who puzzled the unimprovably named Roman general Turnus Rufus by placing before him grain and bread and asking him which he’d rather eat. The Roman, perplexed, chose the bread. Just right, said the Jewish sage, which goes to show that the essence of progress is labor.

But labor, as anyone who has ever hit a snooze button knows, sucks. It’s hard, unpleasant, and, to a mind given to excessive contemplation, degrading. Why work when you can indulge in studying the Torah, or the Communist Manifesto, or any other tome?

Because the brain without the brawn, spake the sages, is little less than flabby matter. “Whosoever has in his heart that he shall indulge in the study of Torah and do no work but rather be sustained from charity,” thundered none other than Maimonides, “defames the Lord’s name, cheapens the Torah, extinguishes the light of faith, causes himself ill, and removes himself from the world to come.”

The same Maimonides, of course, also stressed the importance of tzedakah, a core principle of our faith. But just what does tzedakah mean? The Bible is quite clear: “And if thy brother be waxen poor, and fallen in decay with thee; then thou shalt relieve him,” commands Leviticus. There are no abstractions when it comes to charity, and little theological debate: You are to just open up your purse and give.

The wealthy Romans living before Christianity’s ascent saw it more or less the same way, with the state replacing God as the supreme entity in whose name alms were expected. Rome’s richest gave a lot, expected a lot in return—mainly by way of public recognition—and believed they were acting for the greater glory of their fellow citizens and their empire.

Christianity changed all that. As Peter Brown argues in his masterful Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 A.D., the ascending religion now required that wealth flow from “the rich” to “the poor.” You don’t have to be a theologian or a philologist to realize the problems inherent in this shift. If we believe Christ’s admonition that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God,” and if we practice the radical redistribution of wealth that follows, a whole set of problems blooms, not the least among them is deciding who among the poor is poorest and therefore most deserving. When Queen Mary Tudor, for example, partook of the Holy Thursday ritual of washing the feet of the poor, she gave her gown to the poorest woman in attendance. Queen Elizabeth the First, however, rejected the inherent silliness of her predecessor’s position and awarded each of the needy women an equal dole of cash.

The same problems became more bedeviling when practiced not by individuals but by institutions. How, for example, were followers of St. Francis—the namesake of our current inequality-focused pope—to establish orders and erect edifices if their founder insisted on absolute poverty, urging his followers to own not so much as a book? And how was Christianity to thrive if, at its core, it sought to divest itself of power, fortune, and the other tenets necessary for any organization to thrive?

Deftly, Brown describes how Christianity eventually learned to channel its ideas of charity into a structure of fundraising and distribution. Ecclesiastical riches, he writes, came “to stand out sharply as different from the wealth of laypersons because it was wrapped in the magic of eternity.” With Rome sacked, the church became the premier institution that collected funds, provided services, and dispersed charity, and it did so, as did the Jews from Leviticus onward, under the banner of divinely inspired justice. Practically, this meant that the very wealthy could keep their fortunes as long as they supported the church financially and as long as they did not publicly behave in any way that flouted its principles.

Which brings us back to our time. We seem to have retained the idea that poverty is a moral failing rather than just a failure to allocate resources adequately. This is evident from the way we speak about the most affluent Americans: As headlines scream “we do hate the rich,” it is obvious that ours is a holy rage.

And yet, unlike our predecessors in the fifth and sixth centuries, we lack a strong theocratic framework capable of translating indignation into action. We sometimes look to our legislators, but the solutions they offer us are rarely satisfying. Talk of earned income tax credit does little to assuage the white-hot anger many of us feel when realizing that the watch dangling from the wrist of a cantankerous patrician is worth nearly eight times as much as the median income in America. What we want isn’t merely for the Haves to behave as the Romans once had and view us with a kind eye and an open wallet. What we want, what we desire, is a more transcendent sense of balance.

And that desire, I’m so sorry to say, leads to nothing but nastiness. The recent kerfuffle over Google’s private buses, ferrying employees from San Francisco to its Mountain View campus, is a case in point: The vehicles are efficient, reduce carbon emission, cut traffic, and are beloved by their riders. Penalizing the program just to soothe the resentments of those not fortunate enough to count themselves among the meritocrats reeks of the most thwarted perceptions of social justice, the ones that are perfectly content to herald inequality by making everyone poor.

What, then, ought we to do? Judaism, sharing Christianity’s understanding of social justice as a moral issue but not dependent like Christianity on the church as a worldly financial institution, offers us more than a few leads. First, let’s stop viewing the accumulation of fortunes as inherently immoral and see it instead as Judaism has seen it all along, a blessed and sacred act, a supreme expression of humanity’s godlike ability to invent, innovate, cultivate, and create. And as we celebrate our sons and our daughters whose skill and education and perseverance and tenacity and luck have all led to swollen coffers, let us also demand that they repay their debts to morality by caring for the needy and footing the hefty bill of repairing the world. If that happens, we would still have an unequal society but one in which hard work and good ideas are much more likely to sweep everyone, rich and poor, upward rather than down.

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The Jewish Prescription for Inequality: Work Hard, Get Rich, Be Good

For good advice on economic policy, stop whining and listen to what Maimonides has to say

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