Commentary Magazine


“With All Your Possessions”: Jewish Ethics and Economic Life, by Meir Tamari

Wealth and Worship

“With All Your Possessions”: Jewish Ethics and Economic Life.
by Meir Tamari.
Free Press. 340 pp.$22.50.

The role played by religion in the development of economic systems has been a subject of respectable scholarly investigation since the time of Max Weber and R.H. Tawney. But thoughtful and searching as some of the studies in this area have been, the specific role played by Jews and Judaism in the development of modern capitalism has by and large been viewed through distorted and polemical lenses, Marxist or simply anti-Semitic.

For Karl Marx, the hated spirit of Judaism and the hated spirit of capitalism were intertwined. For Werner Sombart, the German political economist and author of the influential work, The Jews and Modern Capitalism (1913), what was central was the role of Puritanism—this he borrowed from Weber—but “the dominating ideas of Puritanism which were so powerful in capitalism were more perfectly developed in Judaism.” Capitalism, according to Sombart, in its demand for rationality and its insidious tendency to weaken “the blood-based” loyalties of the natural community, was a quintessentially Jewish “achievement.” (Sombart’s partiality to the natural community was eventually to lead him to National Socialism.)

Currently the most fashionable linkage, especially in the Third World, joins Judaism (or Zionism, or Israel), capitalism, and imperialism. This goes back to J.A. Hobson, who wrote in Imperialism (1902) of certain well-organized business interests “united by the strongest bonds of organization . . . controlled, so far as Europe is concerned, chiefly by men of a single and peculiar race . . . in a unique position to manipulate the policy of nations.” According to Hobson these men designed imperialist adventures so as to provide profitable investment for their surplus capital, which in turn was created by the forced underconsumption of the exploited masses at home. These ideas, somewhat recast by Lenin and a host of Communists, Marxists, and socialists (including National Socialists), provided the vehicle whereby anti-Jewish/anti-Israel attitudes were subsequently internalized by Third World political leaders and intellectuals.

What all the views concerning the relationship of Jews and Judaism to the Western market economy have in common is ignorance of Jewish teaching on economic issues. This is true in equal measure of writers hostile to capitalism and/or the Jews and of those more favorably disposed. And it is historically true even of many Jewish socialists, Zionist and other varieties, who denied any intrinsic connection between Judaism and capitalism, defining Judaism rather as a kind of Ursozialismus.

Meir Tamari’s book thus fills an important gap. And while it is not specifically written to respond to Sombart et al., henceforth anyone wishing to theorize about the relation of Judaism to capitalism will have to temper speculation with the concrete evidence Tamari presents concerning Jewish economic values and the way they have shaped Jewish behavior. Certainly Tamari’s book lends support neither to those who see in Jews the original bearers of the Puritan ethic, and in Judaism the springboard of a free-market economy, nor to those who regard Judaism as a warrant for utopian socialism.

Tamari, who is chief economist at the office of the governor of the Bank of Israel, sets out to document “how economic activity was traditionally guided and determined by the teachings of Judaism and its religious law” (Halakhah). The book offers a succinct overview of the varied sources of that law: the Bible and talmudic codes, communal enactments, ethical writings, and the extensive literature of responsa (rabbinic replies to queries on matters covered by the Halakhah). The legal and homiletic/ethical materials are grouped under such familiar chapter headings as “Money, Banking, and Interest,” “Wages and Labor,” “Competition, Prices, and Profits,” “Taxation,” and “Welfare.” Tamari also presents pertinent excerpts from Jewish religious thinkers regarding the nature of economic life.

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What Tamari shows, in brief, is that, unlike Christianity, Judaism never developed an anti-commercial tradition. The rabbis approved of profitable entrepreneurial activity, and had in their teachings nothing resembling Thomas Aquinas’s condemnation of “the occupation of the merchant and all that surrounds it.” Rather, their overarching theological concern was that economic pursuits provide the means for the pursuit of religious study and a life of piety. As the very title of this book suggests, in a phrase taken from the Sh’ma prayer, wealth too can be an avenue of worship.

Classical Judaism not only approved of the pursuit of wealth by proper and legal activity, especially when wealth facilitated the study of Torah, but regarded the earning of a livelihood (parnassah) as a divine command. Indeed, Tamari quotes a striking passage from 13th-century Spain, in which Rabbi Bachya ibn Pakuda calls gainful activity a form of imitatio dei: “Apart from the period of wandering in the desert . . . there has been no manna from heaven. This active participation of man in the creation of his own wealth is a sign of man’s spiritual greatness. In this respect he is, as it were, an imitator of God.” While the poor must be provided for, there is no “preferential option for the poor” in Judaism; rather, religious value attaches to economic activity that makes the world more productive and more hospitable to man. (At the same time, the achievement of wealth by proper activity is viewed less as the deserved outcome of individual effort than as a sign of divine blessing.)

Tamari details the process by which the straightforward biblical prohibition aganst theft was developed by halakhic authorities into quite subtle trade restrictions. Not only is trade in stolen goods forbidden, but so is trade in goods that are commonly the objects of theft. The laws of theft are even extended to misrepresentation (gneivat da’at—“stealing another’s mind”): thus, “one is forbidden to beautify the article being sold in order to create a false impression,” to “paint old baskets to make them look new. . . .” By anchoring this prohibition in a related biblical commandment, “You shall not put a stumbling block in the path of the blind” (Leviticus 19:17), the Halakhah was able to expand its scope to include any transaction which might be physically or morally harmful to the client.

In the light of such rulings, it cannot be said that Judaism provides religious endorsement of the perfectly free market. Halakhic authorities have accepted and in fact often insisted upon practices restraining competition if such competition is harmful to the community or even a segment of it. Jewish law recognizes binding agreements reached by producers and merchants limiting competition, fixing prices, and determining the quantity of output (provided there is an arbitrator to represent the public interest). Jewish authorities have even forbidden other Jews from settling in a community when this would interfere with the livelihood of those already there (herem hayishuv).

This last-named ruling, which was applicable only in Christian Europe, not in Muslim society, underscores the degree to which Jewish communal authorities have historically acted subject to external constraints. In Christian Europe the kind of economic activity in which Jews were permitted to engage was of course sharply limited; enormous, even confiscatory, taxes were often imposed on them; and there was always the threat of expulsion. Under these circumstances rabbinical authorities could do little more than strive to maintain an ethical posture in the face of economic conditions dictated by others. Unfortunately it is not always clear from this book how and by what process of reasoning the halakhic decisions taken in such circumstances can be extended to the ethical dilemmas of business in a free contemporary society.

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That Tamari is concerned with such dilemmas, however, is very evident. In fact, he tells us he conceived the idea for this book while teaching a course in corporate finance at Bar-Ilan University (an Orthodox institution). His desire to expound a specifically Jewish value system for today’s businessman mirrors a widespread concern not just in Israel but throughout the West and especially in the United States where, in typical American fashion, ethics is itself becoming a big business. (The bulk of a recent $30-million gift to Harvard’s business school will fund a program in business ethics.)

Tamari’s book not only reflects this general interest in finding ways to reinforce values in the marketplace, but indeed seems influenced by what might be called Western fashions in ethical concern. For example, halakhic rulings, ordinances, and responsa are cited here whose conclusions accord with the current thinking of Western secular urban and regional planners, public-health authorities, and assorted regulatory bodies. There is even a chapter on “Environmental Issues and the Public Good.”

This chapter certainly does point up the invidiousness of those environmentalists who have “discovered” in Jewish religious writings and beliefs the source for the alleged Western despoliation of the natural world. For example, the historian Lynn White, Jr. has claimed that the biblical doctrine of creation sets man over and above nature and amounts to a call for unrestrained growth; similarly, in the divine command to “subdue” the earth the environmental philosopher Ian McHarg has found “the appropriate injunction for the land rapist, the befouler of air and water, the uglifier and the gratified bulldozer.” But all this, as Tamari shows, represents a total misunderstanding of biblical views. Environmentally destructive behavior is forbidden in the Bible, to the point that in time of war one is not allowed to destroy fruit trees (Deuteronomy 2:19) even if they belong to the enemy and the needs of war require it. (The reason is that the trees are a creation of God, Who through them gives sustenance to man.)

If Tamari is perhaps overly anxious to show how “right-thinking” Jewish tradition has been in terms of currently fashionable concerns, one cannot help noticing that the ancient rabbis he cites evinced considerably more common sense than some of our appellate courts, which have demanded enforcement of pollution standards regardless of cost or even feasibility. Thus, Rabbi Shlomo Cohen in 16th-century Turkey, when confronted by demands that the dyeing industry in his community be shut down, ruled that although Jewish law forbids the location of polluting industries near residential settlements, “. . . since the textile industry is the main basis for the livelihood of the people of this town, it is incumbent on the neighbors to suffer the damage. . . .” Some of our judges might profitably reflect on the wisdom of this decision.

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