If There’s Flour, Is There Torah?

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September 1, 2004
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Susan Fendrick

In 1962, my family nearly left the Jewish community. A booklet was distributed to all of the contributors to the local Allied Jewish Appeal campaign, listing the exact amount of each person’s contribution. There at the very end was the name of our struggling Jewish milkman, and the amount he had given: $1.

My parents were so upset about the shame this might bring him, and so turned off by the Jewish community’s approach to money, that they almost joined the local Ethical Culture Society. Unfairly dramatic? Perhaps. But some version of this reaction, that we emphasize money too much, and that money speaks too loudly in Jewish life, is still not uncommon, nor entirely unreasonable.

Today, we’re unlikely to know exact amounts. Contributions are grouped together into giving levels, though for some, this still represents too great an emphasis on money, with too much attention (and inevitable influence) to those who have it and can afford to give away a lot of it. Indeed, with great ambivalence, Sh’ma has published in this issue such a list of contributors.

A giver lends not only her dollars but her shem tov, her good name, to a cause when her name is published. Listings of donors and their general giving levels and “aming opportunities” are not just a reward (and thus an incentive) for giving, they provide food for thought for the rest of us, helping to stimulate other and larger gifts. Mitzvah goreret mitzvah, one person’s mitzvah leads to another’s good deed.

If there is no flour, there is no Torah; if there is no Torah, there is no flour ( Pirkei Avot 3:21). Financial sustenance is necessary (but not sufficient) for Jewish life to flourish and thrive, and Jewish values are necessary (if insufficient) for financial resources to provide true sustenance to the Jewish people. If the values of Torah are not reflected in the ways that our communities approach the role of money, and its relationship to power and authority, its sustenance will be partial, supporting our institutions but not our underlying mission to live as a “ation of priests, a holy people.”

Following are a few thorny questions about the relationship of money to power and authority that require serious Jewish answers:

Large Jewish family foundations are generously reshaping the face of Jewish life in North America. Are we thinking seriously enough about what it means to place in the hands of a few philanthropists such influence on the Jewish future?

Do the tzedakah and investment dollars with which we support Israel give North American Jews entitlement to any special voice in Israel’s present or future? Or does this “in the family” relationship entail a greater sense of responsibility, not rights, on our part?

Is “dirty money” forever dirty? Can Jewish institutions accept and publicly acknowledge substantial financial support from individuals whose previous wrongdoings are well-known and/or admitted? Maimonides’ last step of teshuvah is making a different choice in the same situation, yet often wrongdoers are, for sound practical reasons, not allowed to occupy similar positions again. How can we measure an individual’s teshuvah so that we might accept his money and use it for good?

To what extent can rabbis, and other professionals, speak freely? A modern Orthodox congregational rabbi who, rather than take a salary from his congregation, supports himself and his family in a lucrative profession, speaks boldly from the pulpit about supporting gay rights. How can rabbis speak with a prophetic voice, disturbing the comfortable as well as comforting the disturbed, when their jobs and salaries are entirely in the hands of those they are trying to disturb?

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Susan Fendrick, an alumna of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship, is a Conservative rabbi, editor, writer, teacher, and consultant. She was founding editor of SocialAction.com and managing editor of MyJewishLearning.com. She lives with her husband and their five children in Newton, Mass.

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