The old antisemitic stereotype of Jews obsessing about money has been re-energized of late in several pop-culture venues. But is this image — dare I voice a heresy — really all that antisemitic?
When celebrity book editor Judith Regan was fired by her boss, Rupert Murdoch, the story went around that it was because Regan had voiced antisemitic sentiments. The Web site Gawker.com noted a variation of the rumor, which I find amusing but highly dubious as to its accuracy, according to which she once had a laugh at the expense of Jewish neighbors in her apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Supposedly, Regan placed torn-up dollar bills in their mezuzot in place of the usual parchment inscribed with Torah verses.
Meanwhile, this very newspaper recently reported on the comments of radio host Don Imus, who described his employers, the “Jewish management” of WCBS radio, as “money-grubbing bastards.”
And, of course, there’s the scene in the blockbuster film “Borat” in which our terrified protagonist throws dollar bills at a pair of huge cockroaches. He believes them to be the transmogrified elderly Jewish couple that run the bed-and-breakfast where he’s staying. Jews, he thinks, have the power to shape-shift into giant insects, the only defense being to toss money at them.
Funny? Offensive? Maybe both. Yet some stereotypes have a basis in fact.
In this case, the association of Jews with money finds strong support in the ancient rabbinic sources. Of course the spin placed on it is entirely different from the version put forth by Imus. As my friend Rabbi Daniel Lapin shows in his book documenting and explaining the classical teachings on this theme, “Thou Shall Prosper: Ten Commandments for Making Money,” Judaism places an aura of sanctity around wealth-creation — and appropriately so.
Indeed, as an Orthodox Jew, I pray for wealth morning, noon and night. It’s part of our religion, included in Judaism’s central prayer recited three times daily, the millennia-old “Amidah.” One of the prayer’s benedictions asks, “Bless on our behalf — O Lord, our God — this year and all its kinds crops for the best, and give a blessing on the face of the earth, and satisfy us from Your bounty, and bless our year like the best years. Blessed are You, Lord, Who blesses the years.”
The Bible portrays money as a blessing to be sought, even expected. The central declaration of Jewish belief, the “Shema,” emphasizes the material rewards that go to a society that “continually hearken[s] to [God’s] commandments.”
When Jewish parents bless their children each Sabbath evening with the text of Numbers 6:24-26, they have in mind the authoritative medieval commentator Rashi’s explanation that one meaning of this priestly blessing is a promise of wealth: “May the Lord bless you and safeguard you.” The meaning, Rashi says, is that God should bless your property and safeguard it from being taken from you unjustly.
The Talmud adds that wealth is one of the qualifications for prophecy (Nedarim 38a). What’s more, “The righteous value their wealth more than their own bodies” (Chullin 91a). So what’s going on here?
Judaism, which commands a tithe of 10% of every Jew’s income for the poor and other good causes, is realistic enough to know that charity is possible only when you have the resources available to give it. But there’s something deeper in these strange biblical and rabbinic statements.
The idea, as Lapin shows, is that God cares passionately about humans forming relationships with each other. Commerce entails continually seeking out such relationships, looking for ways we can provide services that will please others. Money thus functions as a gauge of how much enthusiasm you have put into giving pleasure, comfort and utility to others.
In a capitalist society, you make money by finding new ways to make customers happy. Starbucks, iPod and Toyota’s Prius are three random examples of innovations that came about because clever businesspeople were looking for fresh ways of giving satisfaction to strangers. To do so, they employed empathy, the power to call up in your own mind the feelings and thoughts of others — what they want, what they don’t want.
To really succeed in capitalism, however, you have to use not only your imagination but also your heart. That’s because human beings like to work with other people whom they care about, and who they feel care about them.
It’s not enough to offer the superior service or product. Typically, the successful deal is done by individuals who relate to each other sincerely as friends. To get to be friends, they have to stop talking about business and instead talk about their lives. Making money usually requires first making friends.
The consummate Jew, in short, would be very much a people person. He also would be, as the Talmud says of the Hebrew prophets, rich.
David Klinghoffer, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, is the author of the forthcoming “Shattered Tablets: Why We Ignore the Ten Commandments at Our Peril” (Doubleday, 2007).