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Is wealth immoral? A Jewish view

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At a public event earlier this year, when Ta-Nahisi Coates asked Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez if any “moral world” ever “allows for billionaires,” she replied simply, No.” Earlier this month, Adam Roberts asked at Vox, “Is wealth immoral?” while, some time earlier, journalist A.Q. Roberts wrote in Current Affairs that “It’s Basically Just Immoral to be Rich.”

Is wealth itself unethical?

“On the contrary,” writes Ismar Schorsch, chancellor emeritus of Jewish Theological Seminary, “the Torah highlights [wealth] as a sign of God’s favor.”

Schorsch summarizes the Jewish view of wealth in a reflection on Jacob/Israel’s relationship with Laban.

He comments favorably on “Jacob’s entrepreneurship” before adding that both the patriarch’s father, Isaac (Genesis 26:16), and his grandfather, Abraham (Gen. 13:2), accumulated great wealth through industry.

“Nor did rabbinic Judaism abandon that positive valence,” he writes. A prayer  from the concluding ceremony for Shabbat asks God to “forgive our sins and increase our seed and wealth like grains of sand and stars in the sky.”

Judaism holds that the acquisition of wealth, and its voluntary distribution via charity, blesses giver and receiver alike.

“Wealth per se, then, is not evil, nor its pursuit condemnable,” he concludes.

Yet the Bible has much to say about wealth. “What [the Hebrew Bible] does unflinchingly is to rail against those who pervert the principles and practices that enhance human life.”

Importantly, Schorsch notes that even voluntary philanthropy has a prescribed maximum in Judaism: An observant Jews is to contribute no more than 30 percent of his or her income. In a similar vein, he observes that the Judaic tradition sharply constrains the role of the governor to “[a]t best” a “limited monarch subject to the dictates of divine law.”

Free exchange and the market system “enhance human life” by generating bounty and abundance unprecedented in past history (although Schorsch may see hints of their power in the lives of the patriarchs). This allows individuals to support themselves and their families, to relieve the poor, and participate in the improvement of the raw materials bestowed by providence.

Those who would artificially deny people the ability to earn the full “remuneration” of their entrepreneurial skills – much less deem the mere acquisition of wealth immoral – miss the lessons of Judaism, according to this professor of Jewish history.

You can read his full reflection here.

Further resources from the Acton Institute on Judaism and economics:

Judaism, Law & the Free Market: An Analysis by Joseph Isaac Lifshitz

Judaism, Markets, and Capitalism: Separating Myth from Reality by Corinne Sauer and Robert M. Sauer

(Photo credit: Public domain.)

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Rev. Ben Johnson Rev. Ben Johnson is Senior Editor at the Acton Institute.

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