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Ki Tissa: Money and Spirituality Part I

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The paradox of money.

The Golden Calf. The Holy Temple built of gold.

Greed. Charity.

Wealth – is it a blessing or a curse?

Capitalism has been criticized for its underlying core: Success driven by selfish gain. We have witnessed, especially lately, the consequences of greed turned into mass corporate corruption. But is there a better viable economic system?

These week’s Torah portions address the paradoxical qualities of wealth. Indeed, the contributions to the temple were, according to some, “atonement for your souls” for building the Golden Calf.

We bring you here part one of a comprehensive paper offering and in-depth analysis of money in the context of spiritual aspiration.

ABSTRACT

From the earliest times, wealth and religion have existed in mutually exclusive and seemingly incompatible spheres. Wealth and the process of its acquisition epitomizes ”self” and “self interest,” while religion in its ultimate expression embodies selflessness. The acquisition of wealth draws one down into one’s baser drives while religion channels man’s drives upward toward the sublime and the spiritual.

Yet, however tenuous their relationship, both wealth and religion seem necessary components in ensuring man’s spiritual and physical survival on earth. Reconciling these two forces has challenged man from the beginning of history.

Whether wealth is viewed as virtue or vice depends not just on man’s attitude, nature, and intentions, but on an objectified analysis of the roots and underlying nature of wealth.

In modern times, two major economic models have impacted on the present global economic structure. I will briefly contrast the socialist and capitalist models and finally balance them with a Torah model.

No one in history has influenced social and economic reform more than Karl Marx, whose socialist models and scathing critique of religious and economic systems have worldwide ramifications. Marx defines wealth and religion in negative terms: both are outside forces alienating man from his true self. This paper will use Marx’s philosophical insights as a springboard to demonstrate that wealth and religion are neither external nor alienating to man, but are truly inner forces. When appreciated as such, they assist man to integrate with his inner self.

Marx’s conclusions are accurate in reacting to G-d, religion and wealth as they were perceived and experienced in his times, as well as today. However, when looking at G-d and wealth in its pristine form – as an inner spiritual force – all of Marx’s arguments fall away and we emerge with an elegant model of wealth as an internal force, helping man actualize his true self.

Capitalism, on the other hand, does not argue the alienation factor and the inherent greed in the pursuit of wealth, it simply accepts this as a necessary evil, the only way to motivate labor. Capitalism is in effect a form of resignation, or “rationalization” (in the great sociologist Max Weber’s words), that tries to make the best of life’s presenting conditions. Marx at least recognized the faults in capitalism and demanded a better system, a better world. He opens our eyes to the fact that selfish capitalism is simply inadequate and cannot endure, yet he does not offer a viable alternative.

The stage having thus been set, Torah offers us the working alternative to these two manmade economic models. By demonstrating the “inner” power of wealth and religion described in Torah (and Chassidus, its mystical dimension), we can embrace a new paradigm in the acquisition of wealth, fueled by its spiritual energy, hence creating a system that not only validates the individual drive for wealth, but shows it as a necessary step in its ultimate stage: as a tool for man’s contribution to the common good.

This paper will demonstrate – from a Torah perspective – how wealth reflects the sheer spiritual power behind all that is valuable in this material universe, and thus offers us the greatest opportunity to transform the world. This paper will present the Torah’s revolutionary approach to wealth and offer a blueprint for utilizing wealth in new ways.

INTRODUCTION

Money. Everyone needs it, everyone wants it, and everyone is influenced by it. For good or for bad, no one is oblivious to or unaffected by wealth. [1]

Is wealth virtue or vice? Much has been written on the topic. On one hand, man cannot exist or function without material resources. Great institutions and technologies could not have been built without enormous financial investment. On the other hand, we have seen the noxious, corruptive power of wealth, and its ability to compromise even the purest ideals. The physical and psychological destruction created by the power of wealth has wreaked havoc on families, businesses, and countries. Battles over fortunes have destroyed many lives.

Philosophers, economists and political scientists throughout history have focused on the meaning and significance of money, its effects on a society, the inherent greed in human nature, and how to build a human co-existing community within the context of financial competition.

Socialist economics contends that we must battle the inequality of the classes and create a collective pool, eliminating private ownership and infusing society with a utopian sense of commonness and sharing. Only this, the socialist argument goes, will free man from the exploitation and alienation inherent in the capitalist system. [2]

The free market economy system, in contrast, argues the futility of trying to change man’s inherent greed, individuality and competitive nature. Rather, it maintains, we must harness these forces and channel them into effective and productive growth, within rules, parameters and incentives that offer equal opportunity and charitable endeavors, while fostering healthy competition and rewarding individual contributions and the efforts and investments of the driven wealthy. [3]

Many spiritual schools of thought maintain that wealth is synonymous with the worship of wealth, thus rendering it an inherent evil: the “golden calf” that impedes man’s way to find peace, truth, and happiness. Wealth is diametrically opposed to the spiritual journey. The Mishnah warns “Increasing possessions, increases anxiety.” [4] Hence, spiritual disciplines preach and dictate the need for man to turn away from the pursuit of riches and transcend to another plane of reality; to “rise above” the bourgeois crassness of materialism and embrace the more rarified atmosphere of the sublime. Indeed, in some religious systems, poverty is often seen as a virtue.

Given the many social and religious systems that vilify wealth, the title of this paper may appear to be an oxymoron: With the perception of wealth as evil, the argument could be made that religion is not meant to enhance or form an alliance with wealth, but rather to counterbalance the necessary evil which is wealth and its inevitable negative effects. Is there an essential connection between wealth and religion that not only allows them to coexist but fuses them at their core? Charity, for example, as dictated by religious doctrine, is meant to tame and somewhat redeem our selfish natures through giving. But is this really an effective remedy for the “evils” of wealth, or merely a deterrent?

The power of wealth, when unleashed, can be used for either great achievement or mass destruction, depending on the ethical nature and intentions of the person wielding the wealth. Not surprisingly, there remain varying and even contradicting philosophical approaches toward wealth.

Can we ever hope to create a better system? Can we expect to create a system that synthesizes and harnesses the benefits of both capitalism and socialism? Can we overcome the inherent selfishness of capitalism without undermining the benefits of competition and personal initiative? Can we create a system of equality while maintaining and respecting the power and character of individuality?

That which lies at the heart of the role of wealth in context of religion leads us to fundamental questions regarding the very consciousness of man and the nature and consequences of human individuality and its drives for success and power. How we see wealth and money teaches tells us how we see ourselves, power and our very essential drives. To get a portrait, snapshot of a society we need to study its attitude to wealth and affluence. Money is a metaphor for life. In and of itself, it is simply a means to transfer our neuroses, fears, power needs.

Any endorsement or even condoning of wealth implies an equal acceptance of inherent individuality. According to Marx, this would imply an acceptance of inherent greed, which is an inevitable result of individuality. Marx clearly and powerfully demonstrated the flaws of capitalism, the abuse of individual empowerment (which explains the seduction of so many intellectuals to his philosophy).

The desire to acquire, to have more than others, create a sense of security against external forces out of our control.

Ultimately the issue comes down to the origins of wealth, the understanding of inherent human nature and consciousness and man’s aspiration and drive for affluence, wealth and power. What lies at the heart of all these forces?

All existing economic templates and systems are based on certain given attitudes to wealth, certain constants, founded upon pre-existing experiences and the historical use and abuse of wealth. A new economic blueprint can emerge only if we discover a new understand of wealth and its driving forces. In order to do so, we must identify its essential core, and not just its symptoms.

The ultimate goal of any research should be to: find a new understanding of wealth, that reaches deeper into its core, which would then result in a new approach and attitude to wealth, and in turn allow us to create a new economic model and blueprint. For as long as we continue to look at wealth in context of pre-existing attitudes, we can perhaps come up with new variations, even radically different ones, yet all within the prevailing context. A new perspective, that challenges all previous axioms, allows us the opportunity to develop and cultivate a new approach.

This paper is predicated on the principle that the wisdom of the Torah (Bible) offers us just that opportunity: empowering us with the ability to pierce the surface levels of any given topic and reveal its core root. This provides us with the ability and tools to develop a system and strategy that will enable us to see and use wealth in a new way.

This paper will demonstrate that Torah offers us a revolutionary approach to wealth, and to establishing a ‘new’ economy. By delving into and appreciating the origins of its power, we can transform wealth into a divine (sublime) force that plays an integral role in the unfolding of the human drama and its search for fulfillment. The Torah’s approach gives us a brilliant perspective on wealth, which takes into account and encompasses all the different and opposing elements and approaches to wealth and human nature, while providing us with a working economic model and a practical blueprint for implementation. [5]


[1] Wealth, money, property are used interchangeably throughout this paper.

[2] This ideology and its critique of capitalism is espoused in the Manifesto of the Communist Party (Karl Marx and Fredrick Engels. 1848). Also see Marx’s Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts (Paris, 1844). The German Ideology (1845). Das Kapital (Marx. 1867).

[3] The ideology of classic capitalism is defined in Adam Smith’s Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776).

[4] Avot 2:7.

[5] See Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, correspondence, vol. 4, pp. 200-201: The Torah approach includes the virtues of various systems, socialism, communism etc.

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One Response to “Ki Tissa: Money and Spirituality Part I”

  1. Stephen

    I have never pursued wealth but peace of mind. To have enough to cover the expenses of living according to my and my familys societal very middle class needs. This does not mean a fancy house and Mercedes Benz but freedom from anxiety and worry. Freedom to be able to
    contribute towards positively enhancing my environment and society and to engage learning Torah with a clear mind and soul. Financial stress and I do not make good bedfellows when it comes to being an effective person. Too often I read and hear commentary about the corrosive effects of materialism vs spiritual trust when my reality is that it is not the pursuit of wealth but lack of peace of mind about worldly security which corrosively cuts me off from HaShem.

    March 4th, 2013 at 3:14 am

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