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Public Morality: The Jewish Contribution

R&L: There is a recognition by Jewish religious writers that wealth can undermine one’s spiritual well-being. In what way does this occur?

Tamari: Since the need for the possession of wealth is an unlimited one, people will do things to earn that wealth; sometimes those actions are morally permissible and other times this great need for wealth, which can almost never be satisfied, will lead them to do things which are neither legal nor moral. In this way the need for this wealth destroys the moral being. People make war, nations make war, people quarrel with one another, people lie and steal and harm one another, primarily because this need for wealth is the most powerful, perhaps, of all human passions and lusts.

R&L: Would you say this very fundamental human urge would need to be curtailed in some way?

Tamari: To educate it, or to curtail it and it is not for nothing that in many religions, and in many philosophies, people saw poverty and a renunciation of wealth as the only way to achieve some sort of spiritual and moral well being. That never happened in Judaism. Judaism never came to say that this was a need or a lust which had to be irradicated; all it said was that this powerful urge needs to be educated, and for that reason, we have the Commandments, which are obligatory for every Jew. There are far more commandments with regard to wealth than there are with regard to any other human need. The Talmud said that this was a need which is never satisfied.

For instance, the need for food exists when one does not have any, but when one has a lot of food, the need diminishes. Interestingly enough, with regard to sex, the rabbis see it the other way; they say that abstinence from sex makes the need or the desire weaker–the more that one has, the more one wants. Money is different than both of these: the less one has, the more one wants, and the more one has, the more one wants. This is why there are more religious teachings in this area than in any other.

R&L: How did the Essenes, who were ascetic in their own religious life, view wealth and try to assess a person’s desire to obtain more wealth for themselves or to improve themselves through acquiring material possessions?

Tamari: The Essenes are an excellent example of a non-Jewish way of thinking because they came to reject wealth. They said they could not handle the spiritual challenge enjoined by wealth, and therefore, we will go and live in the desert–which they did, down by the Dead Sea–living at subsistence level, spending their time in spiritual devotion. Mainstream Judaism never accepted that and said that God gave man a Law which enabled him to be in the world, to use the things of the world, and at the same time to protect himself from its evil influences.

R&L: Then, to avoid those sorts of temptations, one would need moral education and to participate in the religious life to mold one’s moral outlook to govern these desires?

Tamari: Definitely. Judaism, I think, did two things. There is a mistaken concept, formulated by Immanuel Kant that Judaism is only a legal system, and that there is nothing spiritual or religious about it. I think that is an error accepted by many people, but it nevertheless is an error. What we did in this field, is what we did in every other field. Judaism laid down a legal system to channel the need for economic goods into legitimate and illegitimate actions, into forbidden and permitted actions. At the same time, it is fairly obvious that this legal framework cannot exist alone; it requires an educational system alongside of it. There is much Rabbinic literature and teaching to mold a mental and spiritual frame, which will work in harmony with this legal framework. This was the case in the economic sphere, too. The role model presented by rabbis and sages were people who were earning a living and creating wealth, but at the same time adhering to the moral codes. You should notice that it is not for nothing that the founders of the Jewish religion were all wealthy men because they saw nothing wrong with it, provided it was done in a moral and ethical way.

R&L: You argue that Jewish civilization was among the first, if not the first, to condemn theft as a moral transgression. Why do you think this is so?

Tamari: Well, you and I are probably both biased. I think that it is not possible for a pagan society to have a real moral system. The multiplicity of gods, the lack of a god who sees and knows, punishes and rewards, is in the last instance, the real destroyer of morality. This results in a relative morality, a limited morality, similar to what exists in the modern secular world, and produces a system which says that theft is not allowed because it is not possible to have a society in which people go around stealing from each other. So there is a self-interest for everyone to make laws against theft. To say that because it is efficient, or productive or beneficial, we won’t steal from each other has nothing to do with morality. But what will happen when it is beneficial to me? Then I will steal from you. This is why we say that you are not allowed to steal because God said so. God’s command is the basis for the moral objection to theft. Now it is obvious that up to a certain point there is a human morality which says: “Look, we want to work together within the society; so we can’t have people stealing from each other; we don’t want to harm each other.” But what we are saying is more than that.

For example, you can have the concept of a victimless crime or a case in which I consent to your theft of my property or when a person steals as a prank or when a person steals in order to anger the other person and intends to return it to him. All these are defined as theft in Judaism. Why? Because God said that you are not allowed to take something that belongs to someone else. Therefore the damage that the thief does to the victim is only part of the story. We are as concerned with the damage done to the thief, spiritually, as we are with the damage done to the victim. This can only exist in a system where there is a normative law which is not relative, which does not change, and which is, if I may say so, black and white. Therefore, it was the monotheistic religions, and Judaism was the first of them, which developed the concept of theft as an immoral act, not as a harmful act–there is a great difference between the two. That is why in Judaism, we don’t talk a lot about right and wrong, about good and bad, but about what is forbidden. It is forbidden to steal, not that it is bad to steal, because society can change its opinion. Tomorrow it may not be so bad. Or you can steal from some sections of the community, or you can steal because you are deprived and so on. You are not allowed to steal because God said so.

R&L: How would you respond to victimless crimes? Should the community restrict them or put some force behind restricting them. How does one deal with them in terms of the responsibility of the community and local legislation?

Tamari: Let us say that society creates laws which are immoral. Society says that such and such an action is permissible and God said it is not, then as far as we are concerned, that rule by society does not exist. Not only that, to set up courts of law and to have a moral economic system is obligatory on all men. That is one of the seven Noachide laws. This is not something left up to society to decide. And because there are no rights without obligations, the same society which has a right to part of my property for economic purposes has an obligation to ensure that it fulfills its moral obligations in the same area.

R&L: To what extent is the enforcement of the moral law upheld by local governmental ordinances in Jewish communities and to what extent are these laws upheld through voluntary association?

Tamari: I think that we have to admit that the legal and moral framework for business activity in Judaism is built around the concept of autonomous Jewish communities which have the right to prosecute, to make people pay fines, to force them to obey the law. And much of the power of the Jewish economic system is weakened when law enforcement does not exist. But for long periods of time there were autonomous Jewish communities, which in effect were mini-states comprising as few as 25 Jewish families, and since they got the ability to exercise the right to self-taxation and to self-jurisdiction from the feudal lords, they could force the members to obey this Jewish system; and then it works very well. The problem is this: what happens when that enforcement is transferred from a legal entity, like an autonomous community, into the modern open society in which we live? Being part of a religious community is purely voluntary. One man belongs to church A and I belong to Synagogue B; both cases are voluntary associations. This is the real problem. However, because of the moral and social power of the community, there are tools to make the system work. Let me give you a few examples which still exist today in these voluntary Jewish communities.

What happens when I break a contract and you have no financial losses? Let’s say I made an offer to buy property from you, and then I went back on my word and you were able to sell the property for the same amount to someone else. Now, you lost nothing, but I broke my word and caused you much anguish, much annoyance, much anger, which are also costly, even though not translated into money. The Jewish community has a system whereby I will get up in the synagogue and a Rabbinic formula was announced that Meir Tamari broke his word and the God who punished the sins of the generation of the flood, punished the sins of the generation of the people of Babel, Sodom, will punish one who doesn’t keep his word. Believe me, that is very powerful social pressure. A different way was the ban of excommunication, where a man could be excommunicated from the community until he fulfilled his obligations to those he had wronged.

R&L: What does the Jewish tradition say about assisting those less fortunate, with particular regard for those suffering economic hardship? What role does the state play, if at all?

Tamari: Jewish tradition insists that we are obligated both individually and collectively. By collectively I mean through the community or through the state apparatus, to help those people who are deprived, poor, weak, inefficient and even who are lazy. There is no such concept in Judaism of the “deserving poor.” We must, however, quickly add that this is not an entitlement; this is an obligation on me, which is something different. A poor man is not entitled; I am obligated, which is different from what the modern world thinks. We have two aspects to this concept of charity: one is a biblical verse that says that you should surely open your hand to the poor, and another one says you are not allowed to close your hand. We would like to explain this as a tension between mercy and justice. I am obligated to be kind and help people and to give to them at the personal level. In Judaism, however, that is not enough; like in any other sphere, that’s philanthropy. It is necessary and important, but it’s not enough. What happens if I don’t feel kind, if I don’t want to be a philanthropist, if I don’t want to help someone? In this case, the Jewish Law says it will force me to do it. It will make me open my hand, so that communal pressure, through taxation and other forms is perfectly modeled to force people to participate in these acts of charity.

If we only had the state apparatus, it would be soulless and legalistic. So that the state has an obligation to act within certain limits. We learned a long time ago that state action can be as corrupt as the lack of private philanthropy because there can be fraud of the communal purse. It can be abused by those who benefit from it: just as I am obligated to give charity, others are not allowed to take it under false pretenses. The state apparatus can be callous and can ignore the needs of the recipient and therefore, this role of the state, even though it is legitimate, must remain limited.

R&L: How is that done? What role does the state play in this regard and what are its limitations?

Tamari: It is quite apparent that massive government intervention can lead to massive corruption in many different ways. When I put the economic decisions into the hands of a small number of bureaucrats, this gives them great power. This leads, ultimately, to bribery and oppression–you are giving a man power over me, almost the power of life and death. If I do not have a right to work, or the right to export, and someone decides where I should place my factory, etc., I have given him control over my life. Now, here again the power of the state and the freedom of the individual must be balanced. How do we know this? We look at the laws of the king. The monarchy in Judaism was a legitimate institution. But the king was subject to God’s Law, just like everyone else, and therefore there are numerous regulations in the Jewish Law which came to limit his role. Men are free, and this mass of state intervention takes away their freedom. Therefore, we would have to limit the state to protect the freedom of man created in God’s image.

R&L: How do you account for the lack of economic understanding among today’s clergy? What has been the effect on today’s religious business leaders?

Tamari: A very dangerous question. I will try to answer without getting into too much trouble.

I think that what happened in the nineteenth century was that religious leadership in all religions–Judaism, Christianity and Islam–simply abandoned the field of economic morality to the secular world. It seems that we didn’t have the ability to come up with answers to the questions which were generated by the industrial revolution, social state, etc. We simply gave it up. Religion thus became irrelevant to many people. We helped create a split personality among the business leaders. They could be pious men, they could go to church or to synagogue or to the mosque, but religion made no demands on them in the marketplace. This separation of personality, I think, is a major tragedy for religion and for the businessman. It allowed religion to be painted as the enemy of the businessman. It allowed religion to be painted as the spokesman for the economic oppressor in many African and Asian countries. And it allowed businessmen to operate without a referral to their particular religious tradition, so that it was possible to remove from religion this very important aspect of man’s life–his economic endeavor. I believe this is almost a travesty of religion.