Sunday, December 11, 2011

Is it Jewish to Occupy Wall Street?

As part of our kollel's "Occupy Wall Street" shabbaton, we provided the derashah. We were charged by the Rabbi to make it something "creative", though, rather than the standard speech or shiur. So we came up with a skit, which we presented after davening. The text is below; we ad-libbed somewhat, but we basically stuck to the script:

Abraham Schapiro III enters from left, wearing a nice suit and a yarmulka and carrying a briefcase. Neatly opens briefcase and withdraws container with sandwich. Play-acts reciting berachah and beginning to eat, while looking at a smartphone.

-15 seconds pass-

Jonathan Goldberg comes in from the right, in an untucked flannel shirt open over a T-shirt, yarmulka, jeans and hiking boots. Puts down a protest sign ("Down with Wall Street") and opens a brown paper bag. Play-acts reciting berachah and beginning to eat, while looking at a smartphone.

-10 seconds pass-

Abraham Schapiro III looks over at Jonathan Goldberg with a degree of annoyance, then goes back to his phone. 10 more seconds, another annoyed look. 10 more seconds, and he addresses Jonathan:

Abraham Schapiro III (AS): Some Jew you are!

Jonathan Goldberg (JG): [surprised, puts down the phone] What's that supposed to mean?

AS: Look at you – protesting in the middle of some park alongside Anti-Semites and Communists. Is that what they are teaching in yeshiva these days?

JG: I haven't met any Anti-Semites there, and last time I looked in the Torah I saw plenty of support for what I'm doing.

AS: And what exactly are you doing? What are you protesting?

JG: I'm protesting wealth.

AS: What does that mean, "protesting wealth"? Isn't that like "protesting sunshine"? Wealth just is¸wealth isn't something to protest.

JG: I'm protesting wealth held by individuals. By 1% of society. By big banks that get bailed out.

AS: We need banks, you know. Without banks, society would fall apart. That's the way the world works.

JG: The world doesn't have to be that way – wealth could be shared, people giving to each other!

AS: And what makes you think the Torah supports that?

JG: Gd brought a flood because people were taking property from others. Sounds to me like Gd is on my side!

AS: A flood, and suddently you think Gd is a Marxist? You amateur Bible-thumper, you've got to be kidding me. Those people broke the laws – the laws that Gd set to encourage and promote and protect wealth. If Gd doesn't want people to make money, why does He protect property rights with laws against stealing, against desiring others' property, against invading their estates?

JG: Because Marxism isn't the same as anarchy; Gd wants wealth to be shared, but He provided rules for how the sharing is done. Look, doesn't the Torah require lending, saying that someone who refuses to lend is בליעל, a wicked, worthless person? Doesn't the Torah prohibit charging interest when you lend to your brother? Doesn't Gd wipe out Sdom because they don't give to others? Seems to me, Gd wants us to share what we have.

AS: Sure – and when Gd handed Avraham and Sarah lots of wealth, and when He multiplied the crops Yitzchak planted, and when He transferred to Yaakov all of Lavan's cattle, they all gave it away right? And why did Yaakov drive such a hard bargain with Lavan for his salary, for that matter? And Joseph, the capitalist who made Pharaoh a fortune – was he some kind of anti-Gd renegade? Why didn't all of them renounce their wealth?

JG: Maybe because they were busy using their money to invite in guests and take care of others. Look, the Talmud says it, too. Pesachim 54b says, "Gd wants wealth and food to be spread around, which is why He has currencies circulate and why He makes produce rot." Gd is angered – angered, I tell you – by people like you, gambling in the stock market with other people's money to generate fortunes for your cronies while other people suffer.

AS: Don't go quoting me Talmud all self-righteously – That same Talmud, Yoma 19a, says that the Kohen Gadol is supposed to be wealthier than all of the other kohanim. And judges on the Sanhedrin, the High Court, are supposed to be wealthy. Are they all evil too? And what about us, you and me, when we say Birkas haChodesh, praying for a good month, and we ask Gd for a life of עושר וכבוד, wealth and honour – what do you make of that? Your definition of a good month includes making money, don't kid yourself.

JG: Yeah, but-

Abraham Schapiro III's phone vibrates; he excuses himself and takes the call. Jonathan Goldberg contemplates the sky, thinking up his next line. Abraham Schapiro III puts his phone away.

JG: Look – I'll grant you that Gd's record is ambiguous enough that you can find different ways to read it, but look at the record of Jewish communities. Maimonides wrote (Hilchos Matnos Aniyyim 9:3), " We have never seen or heard of a Jewish community which did not have a Kupah of Tzedakah." Every community looked after its needy citizens. Even the kings did it - Maimonides (Hilchos Melachim 2:6) wrote about the king's job description, "He must be generous and merciful for small and great, he must exit and enter at their desire and for their good, and he must care for the honor of the smallest of the small." A Jewish state is a welfare state, taking care of everyone's needs out of the collective property.

AS (waving a hand): Stuff and nonsense! Sure there was tzedakah, sure we have an obligation to aid others, that was never in question. But don't tell me Jewish communities were anti-business, they were pro-business. Bava Basra says that Jewish communities in Talmudic times had councils who implemented all sorts of rules to support business. Bava Metzia 60a prohibits renegade merchants from creating unfair incentives to lure consumers, and it talks about protecting the market price from individual merchants who undercut it. Pro-Business, Pro-Wealth, that's the track record, and you anarchists-

JG: Marxists!

AG: Whatever you call yourselves, you are defying the weight of Torah.

JG: Wait just a minute – all of those rules you mentioned support what I'm saying, not what you're saying! The gemara is supporting creation of a system that controls wealth creation, as well as a government that makes all sorts of rules defining when one may, and when one may not, make money! Gd is a big-government progressive! Long live the NDP!

AS: Total nonsense. Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar said, in Shabbat 151a, עשה עד שאתה מוצא ומצוי לך ועודו בידך, Make money while you have the means to do so. Make money, that's his instruction. Gd loves Stephen Harper for his support of Israel, but He also loves the Conservative drive to get government out of regulating business.

Jonathan Goldberg starts to reply, but is interrupted by his own phone. Abraham Schapiro III puts away his lunch and phone, looks at his watch, and gets up to walk away. Jonathan Goldberg cuts off his phone conversation and jumps up.

JG: Where do you think you're going?

AS: To catch minchah. Sorry, I'm not convinced, and I'm not joining your protest.

JG: Maybe you should ask the rabbi at minchah; rabbis have always taken the side of sharing the wealth.

AS: You've got to be kidding me – how are synagogues going to survive on that kind of preaching? Rabbis know how their bread is buttered.

JG: Really? Tell that to the Tzemach Tzedek, who banned the purchase of fish for Shabbos back in 17th century Poland in order to shut down merchants who were overcharging! Apparently he wasn't concerned about dues from the fish merchants, huh?

AS: That's one iconoclast, it hardly makes for a movement.

JG: Yeah? The Magen Avraham quoted it in 242:1 as a halachic recommendation. And Tzemach Tzedek wasn't the first – the practice of protesting high prices goes back to the times of the mishnah, when none other than Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel threatened to shut down bird merchants by changing his ruling on korbanot, because the prices were too high!

AS: Yeah, well he was a Nasi, he was independently wealthy.

JG: Then how about the rabbis' limitations on ona'ah, against profiteering (Bava Metzia 49b-50a)? A cap on profits - If you think the free market should determine prices, how do you deal with the way the sages put limits on profits?

AS: At least that's better than your silly Flood argument – but it's still wrong. First, the laws about ona'ah don't apply to all products. Second, I have more rabbis on my side – look at the way the rabbis promoted open credit for lending.

JG: Why does that support you? That supports my side! Do you realize how often the rabbis changed the rules of finance שלא תנעול דלת לפני לווין, to ensure there would be credit for borrowers? Didn't Hillel create the Prozbul, requiring that people extend loans?

AS: Sure, but look how they did it.

JG: What do you mean?

AS: Look: If a Liberal government wants to encourage lending, what does it do?

JG: It makes lending a requirement, and punishes those who don't lend, like through taxes.

AS: Exactly. And when a Conservative government wants to encourage lending, what does it do?

JG (with distaste): It makes borrowers reward lenders for lending.

AS: And what do you think the rabbis did שלא תנעול דלת, to encourage lending?

JG (resigned): I hear.

AS: I'll spell it out anyway, for fun: They made the borrowers pay. They required better-quality payment, and lowered the bar on evidence and collection methods, to create incentives for lending.

JG: But they did want to expand credit, still.

AS: Yes - All in the name of business. And that prozbul Hillel created to ensure that people would lend? It got rid of the shemitah nullification of loans. He encouraged lending by punishing the borrower and helping the lender.

JG folds his arms, pouting.

AS: Listen – You made a good case with those points about the Flood, and Sdom, and sharing wealth. And you're right about tzedakah, of course, and about the way the rabbis worked against price gouging.

JG: And you're right about the way they encouraged lending, I suppose. And about the Torah's protection of property rights.

AS: And don't forget R' Shimon ben Elazar's encouragement to make money while you have the chance.

JG: Yes, that too. So what do we end up with – some kind of wishy-washy, "To each his own?"

AS: Basically.

JG: Bummer.

AS: Glad you've seen the light.

Abraham Schapiro III gets up to leave. After a beat, Jonathan Goldberg follows him.

AS: Where do you think you're going?

JG: Coming with you to minchah - and then it's back to the protest.

The two exit stage left.


  1. i want to mention something. Jews invented capitalism. This happened not by choice but by necessity. after the collapse of the roman western empire Jews under Gothic Law were not allowed to own land or to be framers. the serf class was closed to Jews. Jews instead engaged in handicrafts and in money lending at interest. As the feudal system took hold princes and kings very often found themselves in need of ready cash and therefor had to go to the Jews. The Jews gladly loaned them money because in those countries contracts were strictly enforced as opposed to Islamic countries where contracts were meaningless. This developed into full fledged capitalism eventuality in which people would place capital into the hands of smart princess and private individuals who they felt could give a return on their investment.
    This is just a very short introduction to this subject.

  2. I think there is only one original source quoted from the past 800 years (and one that quotes that source), discussing the protest of a monopoly (which I am not sure how it really relates to this issue, but people only complain about housing, imports, cottage cheese, residents' salaries, and teachers' salaries here, not about people in general making too much money).

    A wonderful publication out of Toronto published its translation, around two years ago :)

  3. The Rebbetzin's Husband: Very interesting and balanced skit.


    Jews invented capitalism.

    I'm no expert, but I don't think this is true. Medieval Italian Catholic moneylenders were also important e.g. inventing double-entry bookkeeping. And while Max Weber's idea of "The Protestant Work Ethic" has been debunked, the first modern capitalist economies were Protestant (the Netherlands and England).

    Anyway, capitalism isn't just about lending money at interest. You're ignoring social change, structural economic change, technological change e.g. urbanization, industrialization, the rise of the wage labourer etc. etc. These weren't "invented" by anyone.

    If you mean early economic theorists were Jewish, then David Ricardo was, but Adam Smith and Reverend Malthus and others were not.

    Even if "Jews invented capitalism" one could equally say that Jews invented communism: Marx, Trotsky, Luxemburg. What does such a statement actually prove?

  4. Russell-
    Indeed; that was in the script, but thanks for referencing that excellent and well-edited translation.


  5. On some level, we should be skeptical of any modern ism that neglects some significant portion of Torah law and hashkafah. This would even include capitalism. However, if that ism has led to mass murder and the suppression of religion, we should be more than skeptical---we should be revolted by it. For all its alleged idealism, communism has been one of these latter isms. Communists, no matter what they call themselves, have not been too shy to misappropriate and redefine Jewish terms and concepts as part of a Trojan horse strategy.

  6. Thank you for your criticism You wrote.

    Anyway, capitalism isn't just about lending money at interest.

    I never said that it was. It is in fact highly related to the idea of iska in the gemara. In the gemara it is giving someone a lot of money so that they go to Leptzig and buy low and sell high. when the guy gets back they split. But since that would be close to interest which is forbidden there is a rule about the splitting that takes into account the effort put in.
    Now before the era of the high middle ages was a era in which the feudal system was being pasted together. In this era the only money lender were Jews and Christians were forbidden loan at interest.
    But I hope i have made it clear that capitalism has little to do with loaning at interest-- it is rather investment or giving to a prince of king money so that they can expand their business interest and give a high return on the investment. This was not the invention one a few Jews but the general practice of Jews during the dark ages in Europe and then the lower Middle ages until the high middle ages.