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Jews and Money

Sermon Shabbat Mishpatim 5780

Congregation Beit Simcha, Tucson, Arizona

I heard quite a funny but problematic joke recently. A Catholic, a Protestant, a Muslim and a Jew are in a discussion during dinner.

The Catholic says, "I have a huge fortune... I am going to buy Citibank!"

The Protestant says, "I am very wealthy, and I’m going to buy General Motors!"

The Muslim says, "I am a fabulously rich prince.... and I intend to purchase Microsoft!"

They all wait for the Jew to speak. The Jew stirs his coffee, places his spoon neatly on his saucer, takes a sip, looks at them, and casually says, "I'm not selling!"

The play on the supposed extreme wealth of Jews is funny, but it also implies that all the stereotypes of rich Jews are true, and that we really do control the international financial system, as the Anti-Semitic slanderous propaganda would have it.

That is not nearly as bad as the uncomfortably troublesome joke several people have insisted on telling me in the last few weeks, which extends the slander to the rabbi.

A priest, a minister and a rabbi are discussing how they decide how much of the donations they receive they should keep and how much should go to God. The priest says, “I draw a circle on the ground, and take all the money from the collection plate, throw it in the air, and whatever lands inside the circle I keep for myself and whatever lands outside I give to the Lord."

The priest says: "I have a similar process but when I draw my circle and throw my money, I keep whatever lands outside the circle and give what lands inside to the Lord."

The rabbi says: " I throw the money in the air and whatever God wants, he takes!"

These jokes pale next to the classic literary illustration of the greedy, rapacious Jew.

There is an infamous scene in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice (Act 2, Scene 8) in which two Venetians are discussing Shylock, the Jewish moneylender at the heart of the story. They describe him walking the streets of the Ghetto in anguish, crying out over the loss of his daughter, who has eloped with a Christian merchant, Antonio, and perhaps worse, has absconded with Shylock’s money and his jewels. The character Solanio says to his friend, Salarino, speaking about Shylock:

I never heard a passion so confused,

So strange, outrageous, and so variable,

As the dog Jew did utter in the streets.

“My daughter! O my ducats! O my daughter,

Fled with a Christian! O my Christian ducats!

Justice, the law, my ducats, and my daughter!

A sealèd bag, two sealèd bags of ducats,

Of double ducats, stol'n from me by my daughter!

And jewels—two stones, two rich and precious stones—

Stol'n by my daughter! Justice, find the girl!

She hath the stones upon her, and the ducats.”

This chaotic passage has been used often to stereotype the Jew as a moneygrubbing creature, so obsessed with gaining filthy lucre that he cannot decide if he cares more for his money or his child. The term “Shylock” came to be used for an unscrupulous moneylender, a loan shark. Charles Dickens played on that slanderous slur in his character of Fagin in Oliver Twist. The evil fake “secret document” that created the vicious slander of an “international Jewish conspiracy,” the Protocols of the Elders of Zion was written to hammer this awful point home. It was created a little more than a century ago by the Russian Secret Police, and it has served as a long-standing slander that fed into the Nazis’ propaganda. Jews are rich, got rich by tricking non-Jews out of their honest, hard-earned money, and are controlling the world with their wealth and influence.

You still hear this awful slur repeated today, in a small way through such ugly insults as “he tried to Jew me down.” When Donald Trump was running for the nomination for president in 2016 he famously told a group of Jewish Republicans, “The reason you oppose me is that I don’t want your money.” And Michael Bloomberg’s candidacy this year certainly seems likely to bring out the accusations of Jewish money trying to buy the presidency, even as he campaigns against another Jewish candidate, Bernie Sanders, who decries the prevalence of money in American politics, yet raises a great deal of it regularly. And when Michael Milken was pardoned last week—Michael Milken! Creator of junk bonds! Is Ivan Boesky next? Bernie Madoff?—it again raised the ugly association of Jews, manipulation and money that has been used to hammer us for so long.

So how did we get to this point? How have we come to revive this stereotypical association of Jews seeking only money, and doing so by any means they can contrive?

In fact, our own textual tradition teaches us exactly the opposite, and it does so, particularly, in this week’s Torah portion of Mishpatim. But it also does so throughout our entire tradition.

There is a famous Jewish teaching that tells us that when we die, the criteria for admission into heaven will be quite simple—the answer to one, single, simple question.

That question will not be “Have you believed in God?” or “Have you prayed regularly?” or even “Have you observed the commandments?”

It will be “Have you dealt honorably in your business dealings with your fellow human beings?” In other words, “Were you ethical in the way you conducted business?”

If we can answer that question “Yes,” we will be admitted to Gan Eiden, the Garden of Eden that awaits us, eternal paradise. If not, we are barred forever from entry.

So the Talmud teaches us in the tractate on the Sabbath. For in Jewish tradition, treating those who are economically dependent upon us in a fair and just manner has the highest ethical priority. If we fail to act morally in the way we do business, it doesn’t really matter how much we pray or how fervently we proclaim our faith.

In Jewish law, and in our lives, how we deal with those over whom we have economic power determines whether we are decent human beings. And how we handle this is a central issue that illustrates the decency of our entire society. In this week’s portion of Mishpatim, the Torah tells us we are commanded not to keep the cloak of a working man in pledge overnight. We are directed in both Leviticus and Deuteronomy that a worker’s wages must be paid on the day the work is performed. Throughout our Jewish tradition, we are taught again and again that no one is to be exploited when they are in our economic debt. In fact, quite the opposite. We are repeatedly enjoined to help the poor and the stranger among us, to leave the corners of our fields for the widow and the orphan. Tzedakah, righteous generosity to create justice in our society and in our world, is a central commandment for every Jew.

In addition, the texts we have in our Torah, and in our rabbinic literature, are designed to prevent anyone from falling into debt. They seem to argue, unequivocally, against charging interest to anyone. The Mishnah, completed 1800 years ago in Israel, extends the prohibition to preclude something that might be called “moral usury,” and includes everyone present at the giving of such an illegal loan—the one loaning the money, the witnesses, even the scribe who draws up the document—in the category of violators who should be punished.

In Mishpatim, Exodus 22:22-26, it reads in full:

You shall not wrong a stranger neither shall you oppress him; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

You shall not afflict any widow, or fatherless child.

If you afflict them in any way—for if they cry at all unto Me, I will surely hear their cry…

If you lend money to any of My people, even to the poor with you, you shall not be a creditor to him; neither shall you lay interest upon him.

If you take your neighbor's garment as a pledge, you shall restore it to him by the time that the sun goes down;

for that is his only covering, it is his garment for his skin; what will he sleep in? It shall come to pass, when he cries to Me, that I will hear; for I am gracious.

This may seem strange when we consider the stereotype of the Jew as moneylender, exemplified in Shakespeare’s Shylock, demanding his “pound of flesh.” That profession was actually forced upon Jews by Christians who were unable themselves to loan money during the Middle Ages by decree of the Catholic Church. The prohibition on “usury” was later suspended, and Rome eventually established a Vatican Bank. But before that happened, in order to have a functional economic system, Christians needed a way to borrow capital to finance voyages, build trading systems, fund major construction, and support royal excesses. The solution was to force the Jews to loan them money.

Somehow, this enforced profession became the perniciously false stereotype of the avaricious, scheming Jew, always trying to extract more money.

The reality, of course, is very different. The usual answer given to this is to focus on just how much we Jews give to good causes. While applauding tzedakah, we should be careful of embracing this approach. Of course, we Jews are at the forefront of every meaningful philanthropic endeavor of importance in every society in which we live. But in a strange way, this plays into the stereotype: after all, only wealthy people can afford to give away large sums of money, right? Sometimes it even plays right into the hands of the slanderers: They can say, “What do donors like Sheldon Abelson want for their money?” Or, what about those high-tech Jewish billionaires, like Mark Zuckerberg and Sergei Brin and Larry Ellison? They aren’t exactly known as big givers now, are they?”

So how should we respond?

The answer lies in Mishpatim. It is in the way we choose to do business, how we live our lives.

I have had the privilege in my rabbinic career of completing the conversions of many people to Judaism. I can tell you that a surprising percentage of them have told me a variation on this: “I worked for a Jewish man and he always treated his employees so well, decently, honorably. I thought, ‘There must be something to this religion.’ And so, I started studying it.” Or, “My neighbors were Jewish, and the wife always gave her housekeeper a little extra every time, and she got to know her children and helped them all go to college. And I thought, this is the right way to be.” Or, “My Jewish accountant used to do taxes for those who couldn’t afford it without charging them,” or “My attorney did pro bono work for people in need, and he never told anyone.” “A Jewish colleague of mine helped her former employees get US citizenship and loaned them down payments for their homes.”

These kinds of true stories demonstrate that the ideas of Mishpatim are very much at the heart of what Judaism truly represents, and how it should be represented. It is not just the grand, sweeping ideals of the Ten Commandments, or the powerful liberation story of the Exodus. It is the practical decency, the moral approach to doing business and seeking economic justice in our society in pragmatic ways, that are the core values of Judaism. How we treat others within our small spheres of economic influence is at the center of who we are. And how honest we are in our own financial transactions truly matters.

Once, Israel Ba'al Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, was traveling by coach. The coachman halted the horses in order to reap some barley from one of the fields adjacent to the road, a field that surely did not belong to him. He asked the Ba'al Shem Tov to keep guard and call him when he saw anyone watching him. As soon as the coachman put the sickle to the barley, the rabbi called out, "There’s somebody here! There’s somebody here!" Quickly the coachman dashed to the coach, got up on his seat, looked around and saw nobody. He turned angrily to the Ba'al Shem Tov to complain about his needless intervention. “There’s nobody there!” he said.

"But there really is," answered the Ba'al Shem Tov, pointing heavenward, "there really is."

So Mishpatim teaches us. Observing Jewish ethics in business and all matters of money is something we must do when no one, except God, is watching. It is the best way to live, and the best way to respond to the false stereotypes afoot in society.

May we learn that lesson well, and practice it always.

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