Ask the Rabbis | What Jewish Wisdom Would You Offer Today’s Billionaires?

INDEPENDENT

Honestly? I am stumped. No clue. Best to hold on to it so you can enjoy your bounty, but make sure you leave some for me. Oh, and don’t give any to synagogues; they’ve already lost 43 percent of our people and counting, so not a good investment.

I once asked the late Rav Moshe Feinstein the purpose of the commandment to tithe. He said: “It means sometimes the Ribbono Shel Olam [Master of the Universe] gives us some extra money to hold on to on behalf of someone else, and when we happen upon someone in need, we give it to them not as charity but as a delivery of funds that belong to them, funds we had been put in charge of holding for them.” What could I tell a billionaire? “Wow, what a responsibility you’ve got holding on to so many people’s money and no idea who to give what, when to do so and where.” Now I sound like a communist. But actually, ever since I heard those words of Rav Moshe, whenever I come across a panhandler, I want to yell at him and give him a ten or a twenty. What would I yell? “Where the hell have you been?! I’ve been carrying this twenty around for months! About time you showed up!” And I’d walk away in a huff.
Rabbi Gershon Winkler
Walking Stick Foundation
Monument, CO

HUMANIST

Neither Jewish tradition nor a humanistic approach to ethics prohibits wealth. Traditional Jews saw prosperity as a gift, one that was all too rare in most Jewish communities. Nevertheless, when it happened that someone did well, the community had expectations that those with deep pockets should spread it around. Tzedakah, after all, is related semantically and ethically to Jewish concepts of justice.

Today, the scale of wealth controlled by the world’s billionaires is hard to imagine, with 85 percent of the world’s wealth in the hands of 10 percent of its population. This is unjust on its face. Since it’s unlikely to change, we are left hoping that those controlling such wealth will act justly of their own accord. If any of them should come to me asking for some Jewish wisdom, I would offer the words of the Prophet Isaiah (5:7-8): “And He hoped for justice, but behold, injustice; for equity, but behold, inequity! Woe to those who add house to house and join field to field, till there is room for none but you to dwell in the land!” In other words, stop hoarding it. There’s enough for everyone. Start giving it away.
Rabbi Jeffrey L. Falick
Congregation for Humanistic Judaism of Metro Detroit
Farmington Hills, MI

RENEWAL

I sure would love the chance to give some of today’s billionaires a piece of my mind! Jewish wisdom, however, comes with a more tempered outlook. Our rabbis wryly observed that the more prominent a person becomes, the greater his or her yetzer ha-ra. Sometimes translated as the “evil inclination,” the yetzer ha-ra is the
ego-driven part of the psyche, the part that wants to pull away from the community and aggrandize one’s own self, the part that will go to great lengths to satisfy one’s needs and cravings—often at the expense of others.

The Talmud (Sukkah 52a) puts it this way: Kol ha-gadol mei-haveiro, yitzro gadol mimenu (“Anyone who is greater than his friend, his evil inclination masters him.”) It’s a word of warning: Just as your bank account grows, or your power over others increases, or your self-estimation soars, so does your aggressive drive, the urge to take advantage of your assets—and your potential for doing wrong. In Jewish tradition, we human beings are constantly forced to choose between our yetzer ha-tov, the inclination to do good, and the yetzer
ha-ra
. (In neurobiological terms, perhaps, it’s the constant battle between our frontal cortex and our limbic system.) For billionaires, it might be even harder to make the right choices, but it’s even more urgent that they do so.
Rabbi Gilah Langner
Congregation Kol Ami
Arlington, VA

RECONSTRUCTIONIST

The Torah warns against extreme economic inequality, a piece of Jewish wisdom that is important for all of us, not just billionaires, to hear. Deuteronomy lays out a roadmap of laws that seeks to prevent such inequality, including regular annual tithing as well as periodic resource redistribution in the sabbatical and Jubilee years. These laws apply to the whole society and not just the wealthy. We must all work to build a society whose laws and policies ensure that everyone is valued and taken care of.

Some extremely wealthy people already do that admirably. Others bring to mind Isaiah’s warning: “Woe to those who add house to house and field to field, till there is room for none but you to dwell in the land” (Isaiah 5:8). Any one of us lucky enough to have attained great success must remind ourselves of Deuteronomy’s warning: “Beware lest your heart grow haughty…and you say to yourselves, ‘My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me’” (Deuteronomy 8:17). When we take this warning to heart, we can loosen our grasp on our own possessions and devote ourselves to sharing what we have, working with others to build a society based on the Torah’s teachings of justice and compassion.
Rabbi Caryn Broitman
Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center
Vineyard Haven, MA

REFORM

In his commentary on Psalm 1:1, the 19th-century Eastern European rabbi Meir Leibush ben Yehiel Michel Wisser, known as Malbim, offers a definition of what it means to be happy. Human happiness, he says, is different from the happiness animals experience. Both humans and animals can experience fulfillment by means of acquisition and by means of the body. Humans, though, uniquely experience a third form of happiness: fulfillment of the soul. This form of happiness transpires when we live according to the teachings of Torah.

What might this teach those who have amassed great wealth? They presumably experience fulfillment by acquisition and can use their wealth to perpetuate that happiness. How might they use their money to achieve that uniquely human happiness, the fulfillment of the soul? For a Reform Jew, to live a life guided by Torah is to pursue paths of justice for all, not just for ourselves. It is to contribute to, rather than deplete, goodness in the world. It is to pursue peace in our relationships and in our society. It is to become our best selves and help others do so. Living lives guided by these directives is our human duty, and the reward for it is our
happiness—the fulfillment of our souls.
Rabbi Laura Novak Winer
Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion
Fresno, CA

CONSERVATIVE

Writing more than 2,500 years ago in Jerusalem, Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) teaches that wealth and material possessions are impermanent. He writes, “I multiplied my possessions. I built myself houses and I planted vineyards. I laid out gardens and groves…” He goes on to speak of taming nature with pools of water and irrigated forests and having staff to manage the herds and flocks.

Indeed, Kohelet claims he was “richer than anyone who had ever been in Jerusalem.” Alas, he concludes: “I got enjoyment from my wealth. But that was all I got out of my labor…it was all useless, a striving after wind. There is no lasting value under the sun.” In other words, while our tradition affirms our enjoyment of riches and wealth, the rabbis remind us who is ultimately rich: “The one who is happy with his portion.”

Wealth is not permanent, nor will it bring true happiness or satisfaction. My advice to the billionaires of the world is simple: In addition to enjoying nice things, identify that which is broken in our world and find a way to fix it. Where the Torah commands us to tithe, or give ten percent, give double!

The word “tithe” shares the same root letters as the word for wealth. Tithes are, for the rabbis, a fence around wealth—a means to harness your resources.
Rabbi Amy S. Wallk
Temple Beth El
Springfield, MA

 

MODERN ORTHODOX

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik wrote that the Torah’s mandate to Adam “to conquer the world and master it” (Genesis 1:28) is a call to human beings to take power and to make the planet productive and useful. The goal of prosperity is a healthy and dignified life for all human beings.

To a billionaire, I would say: Your own wealth shows that you have mastered the economic challenges of our society and of the planet. You should also feel a higher calling to improve the world. Make sure your wealth is based on respecting the environment, not degrading it. The Torah also says humans are called to “work the earth and guard it” (Genesis 2:14). You can bring nobility and higher purpose to your life by fulfilling both these mandates. Rabbi Soloveitchik adds another Torah principle. With power comes responsibility; with greater power, greater responsibility.

Achieving billionaire status gives you great power. You cannot really spend so great a sum effectively on personal pleasure, so explore what cause will yield the highest return for humanity from your wealth. You have only one life. Use it to a higher purpose and it will be marked and honored by humanity. Use it in a narcissistic way, and you will be remembered as a nullity.

To a billionaire who is a Modern Orthodox Jew I would add: Invest in developing a progressive Orthodoxy. The investment of billions in Haredim and other religious hardliners by the government of Israel and by outside philanthropists has led to the dominance of narrow, often intolerant cultural values. Money to teach more humane values and attitudes (including positive approaches to non-Jews and Arabs) would strengthen world Jewry spiritually and ethically.
Rabbi Yitz Greenberg
J.J. Greenberg Institute for the Advancement of Jewish Life/Hadar
Riverdale, NY

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ORTHODOX

Job 1:21 and Ecclesiastes 5:14 share the line “Naked I came, and naked I return.” A midrash on this verse tells of a fox who wants to get to a vineyard, but there’s only a tiny hole under the fence, and he can’t squeeze through. So the fox fasts for weeks until he becomes so thin he can get through the hole and eat to his heart’s content. But there’s one problem: Having gorged himself, he can’t get out again unless he again fasts for weeks, till he’s thin enough to fit through the hole.

Commenting on this story, the great Maggid Yaakov Galinsky (1920-2014) said that the fox had an alternative: He could have thrown some food over the fence to the other side. You can’t avoid death, but while you’re here, you should do what you can to “throw over” the things that have value when you get to the other side—the side of eternity, the World to Come—that is, Torah, mitzvot and tzedakah.

Another message comes from the Talmud’s story of Nakdimon Ben-Gurion, who lived just before the fall of Jerusalem. He was fabulously wealthy and generous, and yet during the siege of Jerusalem his daughter was observed combing through donkey dung in the streets for kernels of grain to address her starvation. The rabbis pondered why such a philanthropist should be thus punished. Their answer was that though he gave generously, it wasn’t enough: When a person finds himself blessed so far in excess of other people, the question to ask is, “What is God trying to tell me?” And the answer is: A wealthy person is only a surrogate and will be judged on how well he or she passed on wealth to those for whom God really intended it.
Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein
Cross-Currents
Los Angeles, CA

SEPHARDIC

My message would be that money can make you happy. Research has proven the joy of gift-giving. Assess your wealth, and divert, or invest, as much as possible in giving. It will make you happier and wealthier. As for the aim of that giving: Whether you give alone or in association with other philanthropists, the key goal should be granting every child a well-rounded education. Of course, our society is plagued with many problems, and it is important to address all of them, but education is the foundation upon which a healthy society rests. Judaism, an education-driven religion, is a living proof of that. The Torah commands parents to teach their children and advises children to talk to their elders and learn from them. That focus on education has guaranteed the continued existence, perseverance and eventual success of the Jewish people.

Securing education for every child will require solving many other problems. Children cannot learn if they are hungry, unsafe or at risk of disease. Philanthropists should find ways to create a safe environment for all children to learn and realize their potential. The work of many experts has shown that education should not be standardized, but should be adjusted to each society, culture, region and religion according to the special needs, narratives and resources of that society. Knowledge is power, and today’s children are tomorrow’s leaders. Empowering them to acquire knowledge will hopefully lead to tikkun olam—a better world.
Rabbi Haim Ovadia
Torah VeAhava
Potomac, MD

CHABAD

Billionaires, while more plentiful in recent times, are still rare. Those who achieve that status gain a certain freedom to do and say whatever they want; at the same time, they have rare opportunities to change events and influence perspectives, whether by funding or by amplified personal example. From our patriarch Abraham to certain Talmudic sages to more recent Jewish business leaders, many wealthy people have done just that, using their means to strengthen Jewish causes and sending a clear message of Jewish identity.

To be concise, I’d advise the following: When you’ve done really well, go do some good. The Torah’s word for “wealth” is the same as the one for “tithing.” Rashi teaches how they are connected.

Support many causes, as you wish, but don’t forget to prioritize your own Jewish community, because your fellow billionaires often don’t (or perhaps aren’t Jewish). Do something humbling from time to time. Remember that your wealth is an investment in you by G-d; He could bless anyone who works hard with the same wealth. So make your Investor happy and pay good dividends to the things dear to Him. You will derive pleasure while you are here on earth from the way you have changed it for the better. Nothing is more exhilarating at the end of the day. You make a living by what you earn. You make a life by what you give.
Rabbi Levi Shemtov
Executive Vice President, American Friends
of Lubavitch
Washington, DC

Opening picture: The Royal Society (cc by 3.0) / Wikimedia / Kuhlmann/MSC (cc by 3.0 de) / David Koch foundation (cc by-sa 4.0) / Eva Rinaldi cc by-sa 2.0) David Azagury/U.S. Embassy Jerusalem cc by 2.0) / Anthony Quintano cc by 2.0) / Facebook / Foundations World Economic Forum (cc by 2.0)

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