Wealth as a Blessing and Challenge: A Further Look at the Sources

In celebration of the release of CCAR Press’s newest publication, The Sacred Exchange: Creating a Jewish Money Ethic, we share an excerpt of the chapter that Dr. Alyssa Gray wrote.

The teachings of our tradition in large part agree that wealth is a blessing. However, a nuanced view of the sources provides us with clear-eyed cautions about the spiritual, psychological, and social costs that come with the pursuit of wealth and with our possession of it.

Being Wealthy Is a Good Thing

There is no shortage of biblical verses supporting this proposition. Let us look at the role that God’s bestowal of the blessing of wealth plays in the crafting of the character of Abraham, the father of Israel. Wealth and divine favor go hand in hand. Abram leaves Haran with wealth (Gen. 12:5) and is described as rich in “livestock, silver, and gold” (Gen. 13:2). He is concerned that the king of Sodom not be able to take credit for his wealth (Gen. 14:23) but does accept silver and flocks from Abimelech (Gen. 20:14–16). His servant Eliezer opens his speech to Abraham’s relatives about his mission to find a wife for Isaac by stressing that “the Eternal has blessed my master exceedingly and made him rich” (Gen. 24:35).

The Book of Proverbs later says that “in her [Wisdom’s] right hand is length of days; in her left, riches and honor” (Prov. 3:16). Wisdom “herself” later says, “Riches and honor belong to me, enduring wealth and success” (Prov. 8:18). The Babylonian Talmud (Bava Batra 25b) builds on Proverbs’ linkage of wisdom, riches, and honor: while Rabbi Yitzchak teaches that one should face south while praying to obtain wisdom and north to obtain wealth, Rabbi Y’hoshua ben Levi teaches that one should always face south, as wisdom leads to wealth (citing Prov.3:16). At the very least, this Talmudic passage demonstrates that seeking and acquiring wealth is viewed positively.

The Devastating Spiritual, Psychological, and Social Consequences of Greed

What of those who remain trapped by the feverish desire for possessions and a cycle of perpetual accumulation for its own sake? Mishnah Avot 2:7 states that the one who increases his possessions increases his worries. This increase in worry, if taken to an extreme, can become spiritually damaging. Commenting on Exodus 16:4 (“I will rain down bread for you from the sky . . . that I may thus test them”), Luntschitz points out that those who have more possessions than they actually need are too busy maintaining their lifestyle “to engage in Torah.” We may discern another consequence of the endless drive for accumulation in a responsum of Rabbi Solomon ben Adret, the Rashba (Barcelona, 1235–1310)—the emergence of an “us and them” mentality, separating the very wealthy and the needy. Adret harshly criticizes people he labels the “magnificently wealthy” for their plan to dismantle the local social welfare apparatus and compel the local poor to beg, all because (as he sees it) they wished to save themselves the money needed to maintain it.

Taken to an extreme, greed can fray social bonds so much that social breakdown results. JT Yoma 1:1, 38c claims that the Second Temple was destroyed in 70 CE despite widespread engagement in Torah study because the people “loved money” and hated each other without cause. Although the Jerusalem Talmud does not connect these two social ills, they can reasonably be seen as mutually reinforcing.

Unchecked greed can dehumanize the greedy. BT Sanhedrin 109a recounts that the people of Sodom would deposit bundles of fragrant spices with wealthy people, who would put the bundles in their treasure chests. At night the greedy people of Sodom would sniff out the bundles like dogs and tunnel to steal the treasures. They allowed their greed to distort their humanity and began behaving like animals. The end point of such untrammeled accumulation is rebellion against God; according to BT Yoma 86b, Moses held God responsible for Israel’s worshiping the Golden Calf, because God gave them so much silver and gold when they left Egypt that they yelled, “Enough!” Their sense of spiritual self was entirely overwhelmed by the excess of gold and silver—and God was to blame! In the twentieth century, Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan warned that the unchecked pursuit of luxuries could lead people down a path of “robbery, violence, and also disgrace and shame.”

Dr. Alyssa Gray is the Emily S. and Rabbi Bernard H. Mehlman Chair in Rabbinics and Professor of Codes and Responsa Literature at HUC-JIR in New York.