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IS GREED GOOD?

I. Self-Interest and Capitalism

The theoretical basis for Capitalism is self-interest, another term for greed. Those who devalue greed, who view the accumulation of wealth as a vice, necessarily see Capitalism as a system based on sin. It may currently be the best economic system but it is nevertheless a method for succeeding by strengthening one’s evil inclination. The question remains whether greed is good according to Jewish sources.

Let us first note that the term “greed” often has a negative connotation, implying excessive desire for money. However, that is not what I mean here. When I use the word, I mean a desire that is not necessarily excessive nor unduly selfish. Most of us would consider it a natural desire. If you have a choice between receiving payment of $10 or $15 for the same task, a person influenced by what I am calling greed will choose the higher fee.

In a recent First Things article (“The Emancipation of Avarice“), Edward Skidelsky proposes two ways of evaluating the desire to accumulate wealth. Either it is “the root of evil and a sure path to corruption” or “a perfectly innocuous or even benign activity” (p. 34). As a Christian thinker, he sides with the former view. This is not to say that he desires a return to a feudal system. He merely wishes government to use economic incentives to discourage greed, although without his giving examples I am at a loss to see how that is anything but a paradox. Maybe he means something like tax incentives for giving charity. Be that as it may, I’d like to explore the Jewish attitude toward the accumulation of wealth and where it falls in Skidelsky’s dichotomy.

II. The Talmudic Sages

The Talmud certainly contains many statements denouncing physical desires. However, I am not certain that these can be applied to greed. Money may facilitate physical pleasures but its accumulation is not in itself a physical delight. Nor is jealousy the same as greed. The former means desiring what someone else has; the latter means desiring what one lacks. I cannot even think of a term in Hebrew for greed. Neither “ta’avah” nor “chemdah” seem to fit the bill.

The only relevant statement I could find in Talmud and Midrash amplifies the verse in Koheles (Eccl. 5:9): “One who loves money will never be satisfied with money.” The Midrash Koheles Rabbah (1:13) states: “One who has one hundred [of some currency] wants two hundred.” In other words, greed is futile. It is a goal with no end.

Additionally, the Talmud (Sotah 48b) denounces as lacking faith someone who has bread in his basket — or money in his pocket — and asks what he will eat tomorrow. Wealth accumulation demonstrates a lack of trust in God. This statement also denounces greed for an indirect reason. Wealth accumulation for its own sake, rather than out of concern for the future, emerges unscathed.

This is further buttressed by the praise given to the wealthy, not just due to their charity but simply because of their wealth. R. Yehudah Ha-Nassi is lauded as exemplifying a combination of Torah and wealth (Gittin 59a). The wealth of three leaders of late-Second Temple Jerusalem are colorfully described with no hint of disapproval (Gittin 56a). In fact, the Talmud (Ta’anis 9a) even offers tithing as a sure-fire method of attaining riches and elsewhere (Chullin 105a) recommend best business practices that will generate wealth.

On the other hand, the Talmud (Avos 4:1) states that the truly rich person is one who is happy with his lot. And elsewhere (Avos 2:7) it points out that with more wealth come more worry. However, there are certainly multiple interpretive options for reconciling this contradictory data with none emerging as the clearly preferable understanding.

III. Medieval Scholars

Medieval philosophers and ethicists fall into a spectrum regarding asceticism. On one extreme, R. Avraham Ben Ha-Rambam (Ha-Maspik Le-Ovdei Hashem, Histapkus) adopts a radical asceticism. He even includes withdrawal from money as an appropriate behavior (p. 109 in Hebrew only edition):

Contentment (histapkus) is one of the best traits and it means being happy with one’s portion of this-worldly acquisitions and not being excited and anxious to add to them. This testifies to a lack of desire and minimal love for this-worldly pleasures, which bring man to great sins and diminish perfection.

On the other side, R. Yehudah Ha-Levi (Kuzari 2:50) allows for wealth accumulation if it does not detract from one’s spiritual pursuits (Korobkin translation):

Fasting is not an appropriate form of service for one whose physical desires and faculties are already weak and whose body is lean. Such a person would be better off taking care of his body. Nor is living in deprivation an appropriate type of service for one who is able to acquire luxury without too much effort, and whose wisdom and good deeds will not be compromised by his wealth. And certainly if a person has a family to support, and his desire to make a living is therefore for the sake of Heaven, then for him monetary pursuit is healthy.

According to R. Yehudah Ha-Levi, wealth accumulation is not just neutral but an acceptable goal as long as it is a low priority. You must place religious growth far ahead of earning beyond your basic financial needs.

According to R. Avraham Ben Ha-Rambam, if a transaction with one person can earn you enough for your family’s needs but with another it can earn you double, you should opt for the smaller profit as a function of the ethical value of contentment. According to R. Yehudah Ha-Levi, you should opt for the higher profit since you expend no additional effort for it.

IV. Modern Thinkers

Asceticism reigned dominant among non-Chasidic thinkers in the 18th and 19th centuries. From what little I know about Chasidic thinkers, I believe that they differed on this point. Some advocated ascetic living and others believed in embracing and sanctifying physical pleasures. R. Dov Katz, in his Tenu’as Ha-Mussar, describes how an influential Mussar thinker changed the non-Chasidic approach. R. Nosson Tzvi Finkel, the Alter of Slobodka, a leading pedagogue at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, believed that the changing times required emphasizing the non-ascetic approach to Judaism. His students became deans of leading yeshivas and, between them and the influence of Chasidism, not to mention the allure of luxury in our wealthy society, non-asceticism has dominated Orthodox Judaism over the past century.

This, perhaps, explains Dr. Meir Tamari’s approach in his recent article “Jewish Ethics, the State and Economic Freedom” (in R. Aaron Levine, ed., The Oxford Handbook of Judaism and Economics). Quoting the Kuzari and not any dissenters, he writes (p. 469): “Judaism does not see poverty as spiritual or desirable, nor the creation or increase of private individual wealth as evil or immoral.” Judaism only governs and provides an ethical framework for the accumulation of wealth, essentially sanctifying through divine legislation this otherwise mundane activity.

To summarize, there are different approaches to greed in Judaism. Everyone opposes excessive desire for money, even without using lying and other sins to earn it. Some denounce all attempts to acquire more than is necessary, while some approve of the accumulation of wealth if it does not detract from religious growth. This last view is, I believe, today’s mainstream approach. Of course, this limited permission for wealth speaks of the ideal religio-ethical attitude to which many of us have not yet reached.