Sermon – On Luxury, Libor and Jewish Living

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 6 July 2012

There’s a car you sometimes see driving around Golders’ Green – If it is your car then I really apologise for turning you into a sermon – it’s a big, expensive luxury car – with a personalised number plate – M3NSH.  Mensch.  A mensch in Yiddish is an honourable, good person.  Someone who behaves with integrity, who knows what is right and does it.

Now I have no idea how this number plate came to be on this car – it’s possible, I suppose, that mensh is the driver’s surname and I am reading just a bit too much into it.  But assuming it is meant as a description, whenever I see it I wonder – is the person who owns this car really a mensch or not?

I have no evidence one way or the other.  The car itself doesn’t tell me anything about the qualities of the person inside other than that they are probably quite successful.  And Menschlichkeit has nothing to do with success, with wealth, any more than it does with intellect or looks.  I can’t make a leap from the car to the person inside.  Driving a big expensive car with a personalised number plate does not preclude you from being a decent human being.

That I can say that reflects a feature of Judaism which marks it apart from some other faith traditions.  Judaism is not only tolerant of, but actually recognises the importance of personal pursuit of wealth.  Ours is not an ascetic tradition – fast days aside, there is no value ascribed to poverty, to hunger, to self denial – and no shame in wanting to live well and to acquire wealth, no harm in wanting good things, a nice house, a nice car.  There are faith traditions which fundamentally oppose personal property, that ascribe virtue to poverty.  Ours is not one of them.

Every month, in the blessing on the Shabbat before the New Moon we quote the words of the Talmudic sage Rav.  We will do so next Shabbat.  We will petition God that the New Moon bring us chaim shel parnasah – a life of sustenance and also chaim shel osher v’chavod – a life of wealth and honour.  We ask not only for our basic needs to be met, but for more than that.  To Judaism personal ambition is a natural part of human existence, wealth a legitimate thing to want, legitimate even to petition of God – God who is understood to have created the world in part so that we can derive pleasure from it.

In contrast to some groups, the early rabbis, and indeed Jewish thinkers of the Middle Ages – many of whom knew dependence, knew suffering, knew hunger – did not idealise their own predicament, but railed against it.  To be ambitious is not shameful because, as they knew very well, money is a pre-requisite for life.  The Talmud states, “All the parts of the body depend on the heart, and the heart depends on the purse”.  Poverty, for the rabbis, was a curse, with no saving graces. Poverty does not ennoble; it demeans. It does not improve us, it weakens us. Beyond our most base needs, they identified that a life without a level of physical comfort is unlikely to be able to reach for spirituality, for ethics, for self development, and that money enables us to influence the world around us.

So, Judaism is not inherently opposed to us seeking out comfort and possessions in our lives.  If I were suddenly to start demanding that we shed our worldly possessions as a route to God, you would, quite rightly, think you had walked into the wrong place. The automatic value judgement against wealth sometimes found in other traditions – The Gospel of Matthew’s “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” springs to mind – this is not found in our formative texts.  It is perfectly possible for the driver of a big car with a personalised number plate to enter the kingdom of God.  Judaism does not embrace the extreme rejection of materialism.

But nor is Judaism, to quote a former British politician “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich”.  Our formative texts consider wealth acquisition to be legitimate but to come with conditions, with responsibilities.  They contain a series of strong messages about the boundaries of acceptable capitalism.  As this week, once again we reel from another example of ‘reprehensible’ dishonesty at the heart of our economic life, our tradition provides cautions we would do well to heed.

Primary among these is that while it is good to acquire wealth, the manner in which we do so matters more than our success.  In an age in which the market is seen at best as amoral, Judaism demands that ethics be at the heart of business.  The Talmud tells us that among the first questions that an individual is asked in the afterlife is “Were you honest in your business dealings”.  The question at the end of life is not how big was your company’s profit, how large your bonus, but were you honest in your business dealings?

Now, before Libor manipulating bankers start to panic, I don’t think this is meant as an actual description of the world to come.  But it is a metaphor for how important Judaism considers the ethics of business to be.  This is reflected in the extent of Jewish literature on how to carry out business – a vast corpus of material, covering legitimate advertising, intellectual property, treatment of employees – you name it, Judaism cares about it.  And so should we.

And once we have, hopefully honestly, acquired wealth, what we then do with it also matters.  Money in Judaism is not an end in and of itself, but exists for a purpose. Squirreling it away in offshore tax-avoidance schemes – comedians and pop stars caught up in last week’s scandal take note – this defeats the very purpose of wealth in Jewish thought.  Wealth creation goes hand in hand with responsibility to others.  From the earliest biblical texts, our tradition demands that with wealth comes duty.  Landowners were expected to share part of their harvest with the poor, and the wealthy in our time are expected to engage with the needs of the society in which they live.  This is not an unfortunate corollary of wealth but its very purpose.

In fact, the wealthy are understood in Jewish writings to be especially privileged, to be among the luckiest in our society, not because of the size of the wallet and what it means for them but because of what that wallet enables them to do for the community and those around them.  As the fourteenth century Spanish rabbi Bachya ben Asher wrote “Riches enable one to perform suitable and desirable deeds through which one will find grace and favour in the sight of God”.

Without this core ideal, the acquisition of wealth beyond our own needs in Judaism is purposeless and ultimately endless and destructive.  To quote Rabbeinu Bachya once more: “It is characteristic of wealth that when one has little one desires more, and when one attains more, one desires double of what has already been acquired… Wealth is like a fire: the more wood one adds, the more the flame increases and the fire blazes.”

So, unlike some other faith traditions, Judaism is not anti-money.  There is no shame in being a banker, a property developer, an entrepreneur, far from it.  No shame in wanting a nice house, a nice car.  Judaism recognises the dangers the pursuit of wealth can raise, but also the good it can bring, and the legitimacy of wanting nice things, wanting comfort, wanting osher v’chavod – riches and honour.

But Judaism also tells us that what matters much more than whether we have wealth is how we get and what we do with it if we have it.  That this is the real mark of someone’s character.  That, as the Book of Proverbs tells us – it is better to be poor with integrity than to be rich and crooked.

That the worth of an individual is judged not by the size of his or her pay cheque, not by the size of his or her car, not even by the license plate on that car (whatever it might say) – but by whether the person in the car truly is a mensch.