Dreaming a New American Economy

In anticipation of the release of CCAR Press’s forthcoming publication, The Sacred Exchange: Creating a Jewish Money Ethic, we invited Rabbi Andy Kahn to share an excerpt of the chapter that he wrote.

The central notion of the American Dream, that every person is equally capable of working towards a life of prosperity and happiness, may remain, but only as a dream. That ideal based itself upon the belief in an equal playing field[1] for all Americans. Through tax legislation, corporatization, dismantling of social safety net programs, and wealth channeling directly to the upper echelons of the economic elite, the nature of the system upon which the American Dream rested has been altered in such a way that this dream no longer corresponds to reality.[2] In the face of this situation, Judaism can provide us excellent examples of responses to similar dramatic change. We can, with the power of our visionary tradition, construct a new dream for the American future based in Jewish values.

As vessels of Torah, we can return to our dreams from the past as guides to help us forge a new way forward in America. Like the prophecies of Isaiah,[3] this new dream must aid all people in our country in finding their way to a better, more sustainable life. I suggest three sources of guidance: Cain and his descendants’ reaction to their world changing; the Israelites’ response to a new mode of collectivity in the desert; and the dreams of the future yet to come – that of the Messianic era.

Cain, when cast out of Eden and cursed to have his work on the land never yield fruit, was placed in a brand-new world. He, unlike Adam, was given no directive as to how he would survive – only that he wouldn’t be murdered himself. His response to this new reality? To construct the first city.

Cain having been notified that agriculture was no longer an option for him, went to work cultivating a collective that birthed new modes of production into the world. Rather than languishing in irrelevance, Cain and his offspring found new ways to contribute to society. From Cain and his children, we learn that we can view our own new, scary economic reality as an open canvas. We can choose the palette with which we paint. It is almost impossible to imagine our current society without the fundamental technologies attributed to Cain and his offspring – now, how innovative can we become to create equally new and groundbreaking ways of being and expressing humanity?

D’var acher – another example. The Israelites in the desert were emerging from generations of slavery in Egypt, and in need of a new way of organizing themselves. Just like Cain, Moses brought forth a new, this time God-ordained, technology – the Mishkan, an innovation meant to maintain connection between the People of Israel and God.[4] When Divinely directed to collect the resources for the Mishkan, the Israelites were specifically asked to do so with nedivut lev, the free will of their hearts.[5] In practice, this meant that people with particular skills or resources volunteered what was needed for the project.

This new social formulation gives us insight into our Scriptures’ view of human and communal nature. The Israelites’ went above and beyond of their own accord. In our day and age, this is a revolutionary outlook. It is often assumed that people are unlikely to contribute resources or energy to projects without extrinsic rewards or punishments. Due to this, the jobless or impoverished are often devalued to the point of being dehumanized (referred to as “drains on the system,” for instance), and individuals seek jobs, and in particular socially valued jobs, at any cost, whether or not they have a desire to perform the actual role. Humans, according to this piece of Torah, when in meaningful community and given a clear, direct need, will jump at the chance to contribute. This view is continued in the grand Torah of the future – the Messianic age.

For Rambam, the ultimate state of Messianic redemption is one in which people no longer have to compete for resources.[6] In essence, this means that all needs will be provided for, and the individual will be able to pursue one’s own knowledge of God. Perhaps we can tie this vision to the Mishkan, and the individual knowledge of God may be construed as the individual’s nedivut lev, one’s own free will to enact one’s own God-given abilities in pursuance of collective Good.

As the 1999 CCAR Pittsburgh Platform states, “Partners with God in tikkun olam, we are called to help bring nearer the messianic age…We are obligated to pursue tzedek, and to narrow the gap between the affluent and the poor…to protect the earth’s biodiversity and natural resources, and to redeem those in physical, economic and spiritual bondage.”[7]

These values central to the Reform movement commit us to pursuing a new Jewish dream for America’s future. We, the vessels of such a boldly hopeful Torah, can take the lead in realizing a new vision for the future of our beloved home in America. As we stride bravely into the uncharted territory of our country’s future, the guiding values of our Torah will provide us the dreams we need in order to to build a new, better future, free of bondage for all people.

[1] We must also recognize that this equal playing field never truly existed for all people and has always been particularly difficult to reach for people of color and women.
[2] Bartlett, Donald L., and James B. Steele, The Betrayal of the American Dream, Public Affairs; 1 edition (July 31, 2012), pp xvii-xx
[3] In particular, Isaiah 2:3.
[4] Exodus 25:8
[5] Exodus 35:5-29.
[6] Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Kings and Wars 12, trans. Reuven Brauner, 2012. [,]
[7] CCAR, A Statement of Principles for Reform Judaism, Pittsburgh, 1999,, Accessed June 26, 2018.

Rabbi Andrue J. Kahn serves Temple Emanu-El in New York City. The Sacred Exchange: Creating a Jewish Money Ethic is now available for pre-order.

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