7/11/2007

The Religious Value of Megabucks

Chaim B recently posted a dilemma – there is often a trade-off between wealth and scholarship. What should one opt for? Ayen sham.

I wanted to add a different dimension to the debate. I think that the answer would be different for the individual and for the community. Clearly, the community needs both its kemach and its Torah, so some are going to fall on either side of the debate. But it goes beyond that.

There’s making a living, then there’s being wealthy, and then there’s REAL MONEY - the kind of money that talks, not just on the communal level, but on the national and global level. Let’s call a spade a spade – the Jewish community’s influence in America, and consequently Israel’s standing in the international community, it a result of lots and lots of Jewish-American money being spent very prudently. Furthermore, throughout history Jewish communities have translated affluence into influence. Money talks, and it always has. But the kind of money that talks is not the kind that you & I make. We’re talking about a league where one needs to be worth nine or ten figures in order to enter the discussion. But the influence that kind of money can wield is enormous.

So the question jumps from being a question of individual comfort to communal power. I used to debate a friend about this, and over the years I’ve come to appreciate his position more and more. Generating that kind of wealth requires a lot of luck, and may even require that a lot of people aim for it – throw enough at the wall, something will stick. My friend contended that there is a need for members of the Jewish community to not just make a living, not just be wealthy, but become incredibly, fabulously wealthy; to generate the kind of wealth that stays around for generations, that builds buildings, that establishes foundations. He contended that this type of wealth benefits the entire Jewish community, not just because everyone benefits from their contributions, but because the political agenda that this money promotes is in the interest of the entire community – or at least can be. Obviously, this is not just true of the Jewish community, but of Christian communities as well.

My question is as follows: is this attitude one which is simply pragmatic? In other words, since fabulous wealth can help an entire community at the highest political echelons, it’s worth promoting individuals to pursue that wealth, or at least to respect it, but not to squelch it or denigrate it. Or is it a religious value per se? My friend contended that big money is the primary vehicle for becoming a ‘light unto the nations’. Not that the money is the ;light’, but that, to continue the ‘light’ metaphor, money is the power supply that keeps that light burning bright. Does the Torah itself, or Chaza”l, want to promote that kind of wealth, or it this a construction of exilic Judaism from the Middle Ages on? And does it really matter, anyway, if this is a lechatchila for a bediavad situation or an a priori lechatchila (yes, I realize that these last words are redundant)?

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