Judaism on Greed

The notion that humans are merely stewards of wealth, not its owner, can play into the hands of the greedy.


Excerpted from The Challenge of Wealth: A Jewish Perspective on Earning and Spending Money. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. Copyright 1995 by Jason Aronson, Inc.

The effects of greed and the fear of uncertainty, which lead to economic crime and theft, may be limited by the understanding of God’s role as the real provider of all the needs of His creatures. This, however, is not sufficient to create a moral economic system. All too often, faith in God’s bounty as satisfying all the needs of men leads to an evasion of social responsibilities. This piety can easily degenerate into the moral corruption of telling the poor, the weak, and even one’s competitors in the marketplace to trust in God’s bounty, using it as an excuse for not sharing what we receive from Him.

It is because of this ease with which people are able to find reasonable and rational reasons for not giving charity that the Tur [Ya‘akov ben Asher, 15th century codifier of Jewish law known by the title of his work, Arba‘ah Turim], in his opening statement to the laws of tzedakah uses a repetitive form, writing that “one is obligated to be very, very careful in giving charity.” By these laws, the belief in Divine bounty as a source of all wealth creates in Judaism a concept of stewardship, whereby part of that wealth is given to assist others. The religious concept of bitachon (trust in God) may be applied only to ourselves and may not be projected as the means to solve the economic problems of others. One of the chassidic masters said that he was taught this lesson when he found a ten ruble note. “I put it under a stone and wrote on the stone, ‘Thou shalt not steal!’ When I returned, I found a five ruble note in its place and written on the stone was the verse, ‘Thy brother shall live with thee.’ ”

The Mishnah (Avot 5:12) classifies one whose attitude to wealth is “What is mine is mine and what is yours is yours” as being a mediocre person. Such a person is prepared to respect the property of another and operate within the framework of the law. However, he is not prepared to assist others, nor does he recognize a social obligation in view of the wealth in his possession. “Some say,” continues the Mishnah, “this is the mark of the people of Sodom.” The people of Sodom have been the archetype of an evil community deserving of destruction ever since biblical times, primarily because of their selfish economic behavior. The Malbim (Rabbi Meir Lebush, Hungary, nineteenth century) comments that their sin lay in their refusal to share their wealth with the surrounding nations. It should be noted that while the Aggadah [classical rabbinic legends] is replete with stories of their inhospitality to strangers, the men of Sodom welcomed Lot, Abraham’s nephew. Lot was a wealthy man, and it was only poor strangers who were not welcome in Sodom. The Sodomite view of absolute private property rejects any obligations to assist others, which is contrary to the Jewish concept of limited private-property rights.

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Dr. Meir Tamari, former chief economist in the office of the Governor of the Bank of Israel, is director of the Center for Business Ethics at the Jerusalem College of Technology. His books include Al Chet: Sins in the Marketplace (Jason Aronson) and Jewish Values in Our Open Society: A Weekly Torah Commentary (Jason Aronson).

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