Parashat Ekev

The Divine Ownership Of Wealth

We can translate the concept of the divine ownership of wealth into recognition of the collective effort involved in the generation of wealth.

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The key teaching of this week's Torah portion, Ekev, is that all wealth originates with God. "When you have eaten your fill," Moses warns the people, on the edge of the Promised Land, "and have built fine houses to live in, and your herds and flocks have multiplied . . . beware lest your heart grow haughty and . . . you say to yourselves, 'My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me.'. . . Remember that it is the Lord your God who gives you the power to get wealth . . ." (Deuteronomy 8: 12-18).

This teaching provides the theological foundation for Judaism's economic philosophy. According to Rabbi Meir Tamari, director of the Centre for Business Ethics in Jerusalem, the concept of the divine ownership of wealth "is the only reliable means whereby greed is able to be channeled into morality" (The Challenge of Wealth, 1995). Rabbi Jacob Neusner similarly affirms that the concept that "God owns the land and that the household holds the land in joint tenancy with God" accounts for the "mixed economics--market [and] distributive," of Judaism (The Economics of the Mishnah, 1990).

in god we trust dollar billParshat Ekev makes this as clear as day: "[T]he heavens to their uttermost reaches," cries Moses, "belong to the Lord your God, the earth and all that is on it!"--to the God who "upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and befriends the stranger, providing him with food and clothing. You too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt" (Deuteronomy 10: 14-19).

The sense of social responsibility mandated by this teaching is radically different from the worship of private property that has marked American culture since the ascendancy of conservative politics under Ronald Reagan. Lowering or eliminating taxes, cutting back on social programs, delegitimating government, cultivating the celebrity of the rich, punishing rather than rehabilitating the poor--these features of conservative philosophy add up to the "haughty" attitude that Moses warns against: "My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me."

To oppose this with a statement about the divine ownership of wealth, however, does not add up to a very effective opposition--not in an era in which even many religious folk have "shaved off God's beard" and embraced more humanistic and naturalistic theologies. Our task, therefore, is to translate Moses' statement that "the heavens to their uttermost reaches belong to the Lord your God, the earth and all that is on it!" into humanistic terms.

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Lawrence Bush

Lawrence Bush is author of several books of Jewish fiction and non-fiction, including the forthcoming Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist.

Jeffrey Dekro

Jeffrey Dekro is the senior vice president at the Jewish Funds for Justice.