Money and Morals

January 1, 2009
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by Louis E. Newman

Because money plays such an important role in our lives, it is perhaps no surprise that our relationship to it is complex and paradoxical. In many ways, money bestows power, yet money also has enormous power over us. 

Our ability to live comfortably, to have opportunities and the leisure time to enjoy them, to be free from the fear of going hungry, to provide for our children, to improve the lot of others and to obtain positions of prominence in society — all these depend, to a greater or lesser degree, on the extent of our financial security. But precisely because it is such a powerful force in our lives, money frequently overpowers all other considerations in our system of values and so makes it harder for us to live healthy, meaningful lives.

If the recent global financial crisis proves anything, it is that the pursuit of money, taken to its extreme, can even lead to financial ruin. When we glorify money and treat it as an end in itself, we may subordinate our value system, our spiritual needs, our integrity, our respect for others, and (ironically) even our financial security all in the pursuit of greater wealth. How, then, shall we establish and maintain a balanced and healthy relationship with money?

Jewish Guidance for the Use of Money

Judaism challenges many of our most fundamental assumptions about money. We almost universally assume that if we make money, it is ours. Yet, Judaism teaches us to be grateful to God for our prosperity and not to take undue credit for our material success. The Torah puts this very directly and succinctly: “Beware lest your heart grows haughty and you forget the Lord your God . . . and you say to yourselves, ‘My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me.’ Remember that it is the LORD your God who gives you the power to get wealth.” (Deuteronomy 8:14, 17–18)

Given that we owe our prosperity to God’s beneficence, the Torah requires us to share the gifts that we have with the poor and the marginalized in society. The rules governing the agricultural gifts for the poor (Leviticus 19:9–10; Deuteronomy 24:19–21) were clearly designed to reinforce the principle that everyone in society must share in the collective good fortune of others.

The Torah also prohibits us from using our financial power to oppress others. We may not charge usurious interest or any interest at all to other members of our own community.  (Exodus 22:24; Leviticus 25:35–37; Deuter onomy 23:20–21) Moreover, the cancellation of all debts every seventh year ensures that creditors cannot use their financial advantage to create a permanent class of debtors. (Deuteronomy 15:1–3)

Finally, Jewish teachers over the centuries have cautioned against allowing the value of money to eclipse other values in life. When our sages ask, “Who is rich?” the answer is not “the one who has the greatest net worth,” but “those who are satisfied with their share.” (Avot 4:1) The goal is not to amass more wealth but to cultivate more serenity with the material success one has.

Today our need for a set of core values to keep the power of money from overpowering us is greater than ever. Some basic Jewish values to guide us include:

  • Honesty: Earning money honestly, without misrepresentation or fraud, and compensating those who work for us fairly, without taking advantage of their vulnerabilities, are essential to creating and preserving trust between people.
  • Humility: Recognizing that our money is the product of many hands besides our own will tend to curb our tendency to self-aggrandizement. We will use our money best if we begin with a sense of gratitude, rather than of entitlement.
  • Generosity: Our willingness to share liberally of what we have with those less fortunate is essential to securing the common good and protecting the human dignity of every person.
  • Extrinsic Value of Money: Money is valuable solely for the ways in which it enables us to survive, and then to live more fully. We need to cultivate a healthy relationship to money, one in which moral values define our use of money, rather than the reverse.

Money, or its functional equivalent, will be with us for the foreseeable future. Without a set of values to guide us, money itself will become an end in itself. But since money is “value-free,” this almost certainly leads to the pursuit of greater amounts of money and greater freedom in using it. Jewish values will help ensure that one of the most powerful tools for human flourishing continues to be harnessed for good.

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