The theoretical basis for Capitalism is self-interest, another term for greed. Those who devalue greed, who view the accumulation of wealth as a vice, necessarily see Capitalism as a system based on sin. It may currently be the best economic system but it is nevertheless a method for succeeding by strengthening one’s evil inclination. The question remains whether greed is good according to Jewish sources. Let us first note that the term “greed” often has a negative connotation, implying excessive desire for money. However, that is not what I mean here. When I use the word, I mean a desire that is not necessarily excessive nor unduly selfish. Most of us would consider it a natural desire. If you have a choice between receiving payment of $10 or $15 for the same task, a person influenced by what I am calling greed will choose the higher fee.

Is Greed Good?

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I. Self-Interest and Capitalism

The theoretical basis for Capitalism is self-interest, another term for greed. Those who devalue greed, who view the accumulation of wealth as a vice, necessarily see Capitalism as a system based on sin. It may currently be the best economic system but it is nevertheless a method for succeeding by strengthening one’s evil inclination. The question remains whether greed is good according to Jewish sources.

Let us first note that the term “greed” often has a negative connotation, implying excessive desire for money. However, that is not what I mean here. When I use the word, I mean a desire that is not necessarily excessive nor unduly selfish. Most of us would consider it a natural desire. If you have a choice between receiving payment of $10 or $15 for the same task, a person influenced by what I am calling greed will choose the higher fee.

In a recent First Things article (“The Emancipation of Avarice“), Edward Skidelsky proposes two ways of evaluating the desire to accumulate wealth. Either it is “the root of evil and a sure path to corruption” or “a perfectly innocuous or even benign activity” (p. 34). As a Christian thinker, he sides with the former view. This is not to say that he desires a return to a feudal system. He merely wishes government to use economic incentives to discourage greed, although without his giving examples I am at a loss to see how that is anything but a paradox. Maybe he means something like tax incentives for giving charity. Be that as it may, I’d like to explore the Jewish attitude toward the accumulation of wealth and where it falls in Skidelsky’s dichotomy.

II. The Talmudic Sages

The Talmud certainly contains many statements denouncing physical desires. However, I am not certain that these can be applied to greed. Money may facilitate physical pleasures but its accumulation is not in itself a physical delight. Nor is jealousy the same as greed. The former means desiring what someone else has; the latter means desiring what one lacks. I cannot even think of a term in Hebrew for greed. Neither “ta’avah” nor “chemdah” seem to fit the bill.

The only relevant statement I could find in Talmud and Midrash amplifies the verse in Koheles (Eccl. 5:9): “One who loves money will never be satisfied with money.” The Midrash Koheles Rabbah (1:13) states: “One who has one hundred [of some currency] wants two hundred.” In other words, greed is futile. It is a goal with no end.

Additionally, the Talmud (Sotah 48b) denounces as lacking faith someone who has bread in his basket — or money in his pocket — and asks what he will eat tomorrow. Wealth accumulation demonstrates a lack of trust in God. This statement also denounces greed for an indirect reason. Wealth accumulation for its own sake, rather than out of concern for the future, emerges unscathed.

This is further buttressed by the praise given to the wealthy, not just due to their charity but simply because of their wealth. R. Yehudah Ha-Nassi is lauded as exemplifying a combination of Torah and wealth (Gittin 59a). The wealth of three leaders of late-Second Temple Jerusalem are colorfully described with no hint of disapproval (Gittin 56a). In fact, the Talmud (Ta’anis 9a) even offers tithing as a sure-fire method of attaining riches and elsewhere (Chullin 105a) recommend best business practices that will generate wealth.

On the other hand, the Talmud (Avos 4:1) states that the truly rich person is one who is happy with his lot. And elsewhere (Avos 2:7) it points out that with more wealth come more worry. However, there are certainly multiple interpretive options for reconciling this contradictory data with none emerging as the clearly preferable understanding.

III. Medieval Scholars

Medieval philosophers and ethicists fall into a spectrum regarding asceticism. On one extreme, R. Avraham Ben Ha-Rambam (Ha-Maspik Le-Ovdei Hashem, Histapkus) adopts a radical asceticism. He even includes withdrawal from money as an appropriate behavior (p. 109 in Hebrew only edition):

Contentment (histapkus) is one of the best traits and it means being happy with one’s portion of this-worldly acquisitions and not being excited and anxious to add to them. This testifies to a lack of desire and minimal love for this-worldly pleasures, which bring man to great sins and diminish perfection.

On the other side, R. Yehudah Ha-Levi (Kuzari 2:50) allows for wealth accumulation if it does not detract from one’s spiritual pursuits (Korobkin translation):

Fasting is not an appropriate form of service for one whose physical desires and faculties are already weak and whose body is lean. Such a person would be better off taking care of his body. Nor is living in deprivation an appropriate type of service for one who is able to acquire luxury without too much effort, and whose wisdom and good deeds will not be compromised by his wealth. And certainly if a person has a family to support, and his desire to make a living is therefore for the sake of Heaven, then for him monetary pursuit is healthy.

According to R. Yehudah Ha-Levi, wealth accumulation is not just neutral but an acceptable goal as long as it is a low priority. You must place religious growth far ahead of earning beyond your basic financial needs.

According to R. Avraham Ben Ha-Rambam, if a transaction with one person can earn you enough for your family’s needs but with another it can earn you double, you should opt for the smaller profit as a function of the ethical value of contentment. According to R. Yehudah Ha-Levi, you should opt for the higher profit since you expend no additional effort for it.

IV. Modern Thinkers

Asceticism reigned dominant among non-Chasidic thinkers in the 18th and 19th centuries. From what little I know about Chasidic thinkers, I believe that they differed on this point. Some advocated ascetic living and others believed in embracing and sanctifying physical pleasures. R. Dov Katz, in his Tenu’as Ha-Mussar, describes how an influential Mussar thinker changed the non-Chasidic approach. R. Nosson Tzvi Finkel, the Alter of Slobodka, a leading pedagogue at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, believed that the changing times required emphasizing the non-ascetic approach to Judaism. His students became deans of leading yeshivas and, between them and the influence of Chasidism, not to mention the allure of luxury in our wealthy society, non-asceticism has dominated Orthodox Judaism over the past century.

This, perhaps, explains Dr. Meir Tamari’s approach in his recent article “Jewish Ethics, the State and Economic Freedom” (in R. Aaron Levine, ed., The Oxford Handbook of Judaism and Economics). Quoting the Kuzari and not any dissenters, he writes (p. 469): “Judaism does not see poverty as spiritual or desirable, nor the creation or increase of private individual wealth as evil or immoral.” Judaism only governs and provides an ethical framework for the accumulation of wealth, essentially sanctifying through divine legislation this otherwise mundane activity.

To summarize, there are different approaches to greed in Judaism. Everyone opposes excessive desire for money, even without using lying and other sins to earn it. Some denounce all attempts to acquire more than is necessary, while some approve of the accumulation of wealth if it does not detract from religious growth. This last view is, I believe, today’s mainstream approach. Of course, this limited permission for wealth speaks of the ideal religio-ethical attitude to which many of us have not yet reached.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link of New Jersey, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student serves on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and as Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He also serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazine and the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

54 comments

  1. I’ve reached the “ideal religio-ethical attitude.” If anyone wants details, please send me $149 and I will supply the details to you.

  2. And is the amazing bonus ginzu knives or a one-year WSJ subscription?

  3. On a more serious note, Alan Blinder had this to say in the WSJ in January 2010:

    “When economists first heard Gekko’s now-famous dictum, “Greed is good,” they thought it a crude expression of Adam Smith’s “Invisible Hand”—which is one of history’s great ideas. But in Smith’s vision, greed is socially beneficial only when properly harnessed and channeled. The necessary conditions include, among other things: appropriate incentives (for risk taking, etc.), effective competition, safeguards against exploitation of what economists call “asymmetric information” (as when a deceitful seller unloads junk on an unsuspecting buyer), regulators to enforce the rules and keep participants honest, and—when relevant—protection of taxpayers against pilferage or malfeasance by others. When these conditions fail to hold, greed is not good.”

    So, while your title is catchy, I think you are conflating separable issues in this post.

  4. Adam Smith lived in a time when the British government — and its American colonies — provided generous support to the poor. Smith saw nothing wrong with this.

  5. See also Rav Soloveitchik, Festival of Freedom, pp. 9-10:

    “Judaism has never forbidden man to quest for security…However, there is a distinction between a normal security quest and security madness…Irrational accumulation of gratuitous blessings from the Almighty is wrong, because this attests both to a lack of trust in God, Who is the free giver, and to an arrogant attempt to lay claim to something which belongs to God…[God] permits man to strive for material comfort and riches. Yet man must never entertain the illusion that the bread he eats is his.”

  6. The essence of this week’s parasha is not to have too much…

  7. “I am calling greed will choose the hire fee.”

    Intentional pun?

  8. “On a more serious note, Alan Blinder had this to say in the WSJ in January 2010:”

    That quote from the WSJ is odd. Adam smith doesn’t discuss any of those issues that the author believe are necessary for “greed to be good”. However I think it was more popularly expressed in Ayn Rand’s Fountain Head book.

  9. while relevant, i dont think the sources you cite directly address the the core claim of “greed is good”, namely that pursuing ones own self interest is the best way to contribute to the common good. perhaps though its really that your title is confusing

  10. Often misquoted as ‘money is the root of all evil’. Originates in the Bible, Timothy 6:10 (King James Version):

    For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.

    btw it would be an interesting study to see what internal and external stimuli correlate with the various jewish thinkers positions you quote,

    KT

  11. if a transaction with one person can earn you enough for your family’s needs but with another it can earn you double, you should opt for the smaller profit as a function of the ethical value of contentment.
    ==========================================
    which will also open up a great arbitrage market for others!
    KT

  12. does self intrest =greed? or is capitalism theoretical basis about freedom and independence to make decisions on a individual basis as oppose to central planning,communal ownership, and being told what is good for you. please read milton friedman’s capitalism and freedom.
    too much ayn rand in your definition. its all about freedom and independence to choose.

  13. The fundamental idea of capitalism is not that greed is a good thing, but that people will act in their self-interest. He therefore argued that it was better to set up the system so that people would prosper by providing goods or services that other people would buy willingly than to continue the then prevailing mercantalist system where one prospered by toadying up to the government officials who could grant monopolies.

    That is to say, his big idea was that one should set up the economic system so that people would have the financial incentive to do work that others found valuable.

  14. Or to phrase it another way, it is not that greed is good, but that greed is normal and so society should structure the economy to channel it for useful ends.

  15. Rambam hilchot talmud torah chap. 3:

    הלכה ו
    מי שנשאו לבו לקיים מצוה זו כראוי ולהיות מוכתר בכתר תורה לא יסיח דעתו לדברים אחרים ולא ישים על לבו שיקנה תורה עם העושר והכבוד כאחת כך היא דרכה של תורה פת במלח תאכל ומים במשורה תשתה ועל הארץ תישן וחיי צער תחיה ובתורה אתה עמל ולא עליך הדבר לגמור ולא אתה בן חורין ליבטל ממנה ואם הרבית תורה הרבית שכר והשכר לפי הצער.

    הלכה ז
    שמא תאמר עד שאקבץ ממון אחזור ואקרא עד שאקנה מה שאני צריך ואפנה מעסקי ואחזור ואקרא אם תעלה מחשבה זו על לבך אין אתה זוכה לכתרה של תורה לעולם אלא עשה תורתך קבע ומלאכתך עראי ולא תאמר לכשאפנה אשנה שמא לא תפנה.

    הלכה ח
    כתוב בתורה לא בשמים היא ולא מעבר לים היא לא בשמים היא לא בגסי הרוח היא מצויה ולא במהלכי מעבר לים היא לפיכך אמרו חכמים לא כל המרבה בסחורה מחכים וצוו חכמים הוי ממעט בעסק ועסוק בתורה.

  16. Sorry for being unclear. The title of this post is a 1980’s movie reference. A more accurate title would be “Is Wealth Accumulation Positive, Neutral or Negative?” Much less catchy.

  17. JI: The Rambam is clearly speaking about the exceptional individual, as evidenced by his beginning words “מי שנשאו לבו”

  18. Doron Beckerman

    The Hebrew term for greed is אוהב בצע- and being greedy is something that disqualifies a דיין.

    רמב”ם הלכות סנהדרין פרק ב הלכה ז

    שונאי בצע אף ממון שלהם אינן נבהלין עליו, ולא רודפין לקבץ הממון, שכל מי שהוא נבהל להון חסר יבואנו,

  19. a. That is in halacha 6 which is more extreme in its asceticism. It definitely doesn’t apply to halacha 8 and I don’t think to halacha 7 either.

    b. All these halachot quote meimrot of chazal which aren’t similarly qualified.

    c. Earlier in the perek the Rambam explains how talmud torah is the most important of all mitzvot, so he would expect the religiously sincere to follow the path to correctly accomplishing this mitzva that he lays out in these halachot.

    I think it is clear from these meimrot of chazal and the Rambam’s codifications that one’s pursuit of wealth should be subrogated and secondary to one’s pursuit of study to the extent possible. Pursuit of great wealth would of necessity in almost all cases be contradictory to this principle. Of course, I’m a corporate lawyer with a 2,000 hours per year minimum billable hours requirement, so what do I know…

  20. Actually, the hebrew term is “חמדנות” the word in the Rambam, means “Avaricious”. Seems to be connected to the word lust.

  21. Greed gets mentioned in connection with capitalism, but it is alive and well in socialism too. In the latter, people desire and compete for government money. This is not unlike the profit motive in the private sector.

  22. JI: I suspect that Rambam agreed with his son but in halakhos 7 & 8 that you quoted, he only says not to let acquiring money interfere with your learning. The Kuzari would agree with that.

  23. [Charlie Hall]>Adam Smith lived in a time when the British government — and its American colonies — provided generous support to the poor. Smith saw nothing wrong with this.

    Can you provide any references or quotations from Adam Smith to back up your contentions?

  24. On Timothy 6:10 translations and cross-references from a Christian perspective, see: http://bible.cc/1_timothy/6-10.htm.

  25. R’IH,
    Interesting side note – mishlei 15:27 they translate soneih matanot yichyeh – as – he who hates bribes (not gifts)
    KT

  26. R. Joel — In Alter’s new translation, he also renders bribes:

    “He blights his house whose gain is ill-gotten,
    but the hater of bribes shall live.”

    as does (Orthodox) Davka’s iPad Tanach Bible:

    “He who is greedy of gain troubles his own house;
    but he who hates bribes shall live”.

    JPS 1985 renders gifts.

    So, this does not appear to be a Christian/Jewish translation issue per se.

  27. Someone needs to read The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged again. Capitalism is a very good thing.

  28. It is always amusing to hear frum Jews sing the praises of Ayn Rand, who was an exemplar of what people like to call “a self-hating Jew”.

  29. R’IH,
    Pulled up mikraot gdolot, could be machloket rashi/ibn ezra.
    KT

  30. I seem to recall hearing that Rav Soloveitchik considered Ayn Rand’s writings to be immoral (or something like that). I’m trying to remember the source.

  31. R’ Joel — thanks. Mine was out of reach, but had it flagged to look up. (I guess I should look for it on Hebrewbooks.org to load on my portable library).

    Gil — Like many, I was infatuated with Ayn Rand’s writing at a certain age. I still have the yellowing paperbacks (all of them, not just the famous 2) and would encourage all bright teenagers to read them. But, like everything else, one needs to understand context and history to shelve them appropriately in one’s mind.

  32. IH, you characterize Ayn Rand as a self-hating Jew; do you feel the same way about the majority of Jews today who are assimilated and/or intermarried? Also, you seem to dismiss her writings as suitable only for bright teenagers. Can you offer any substantive criticism of her views on capitalism?

  33. Canuck — sorry if I miscommunicated. On your first point, I was merely trying to highlight the irony; on the second, I would not limit the reading to bright teenagers (in my experience, it is those who most often find Rand compelling at that age — if that is not your experience, I happily yield the point).

  34. “Greed gets mentioned in connection with capitalism, but it is alive and well in socialism too. In the latter, people desire and compete for government money. ”

    could be paraphrased “Greed gets mentioned in connection with capitalism, but it is alive and well in many mosdos too. In the latter, people desire and compete for Zedakah/guilt money “

  35. “seem to recall hearing that Rav Soloveitchik considered Ayn Rand’s writings to be immoral (or something like that). ”

    wouldn’t surprise me-her ideas were far from an ethical Torah one.

  36. IH, what are your thoughts on those two articles you linked to? They seem to offer only superficial and biased quotes from Ayn Rand (nee Alisa Zinov’yevna Rosenbaum), and without evidence, imply that Alan Greenspan’s failed policies as Chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank (i.e. setting below market interest rates and creating inflation) had something to do with Rand’s ideas. Greenspan didn’t channel Rand, he betrayed her. In any case, didn’t Rand’s economic ideas come mainly from Austrian School economist Ludwig von Mises (ne Ludwig Heinrich Edler)? So it might be said that Greenspan betrayed the Austrian School. BTW, was von Mises a Jewish apostate to Christianity (as Rand was to secularism?)

  37. Can you offer any substantive criticism of her views on capitalism?

    Her writings contain no originality WRT capitalism or economics in general. They are original (or rather, unusually successful at formulating and spreading old ideas) WRT morality, in their rejection of and revulsion for any form of altruism. There are plenty of capitalist economists who are more morally palatable; why don’t we discuss their views instead of Rand’s?

  38. Shlomo – We know Rand opposed so-called altruistic ideologies (e.g. socialism; communism). Do you have any evidence that she was opposed to free-choice altruism by individuals?

  39. Canuck — sorry, but debating Ayn Rand simply doesn’t interest me at this stage in my life/interests, so I’ll bow out of that one.

  40. “Do you have any evidence that she was opposed to free-choice altruism by individuals?”

    I never had the ayn rand phase, so can’t answer on substance. but i did know some of her followers in college, and yes, at least one refused to do anything you could not show him was for his own material benefit (like respond positively to “hey, could you drop this bottle in the recycling can on your way out?”). he didn’t have many friends.

  41. “Do you have any evidence that she was opposed to free-choice altruism by individuals?”

    Yes, there is plenty of evidence in Atlas Shrugged and Fountainhead. Best exemplified by the bracelet of superior steel that Dagny gets and almost refuses to accept, until she is convinced that its not really a gift.

    Rand’s books pushed “greed is good” to new levels. It’s also some argue, a direct outgrowth of Nietzsche. (also popular at the highschool level)

  42. I dont know about the Rav, but RAL is famously anti-Ann Rand.

  43. Many attacks or critiques Ayn Rand given above are ad hominen (ad feminam?), based on hearsay, or simply mischaracterizations. FYI, check Youtube for video interviews with Ayn Rand. After realizing how brilliant and charismatic she was, you will not be so quick to dismiss her views.

  44. [IH]>Canuck — sorry, but debating Ayn Rand simply doesn’t interest me at this stage in my life/interests, so I’ll bow out of that one.

    After I noticed lashon hara against Ayn Rand, I just wanted to correct the record. I agree with you; let’s both bow out.

  45. MiMedinat HaYam

    at a yc alumni event (back in the days yu had an alumni assn) dr pava of yc economics dept (is he still there?) discussed this, and played the relevant videos from the movie you reference. and compared it to the feuerestein (thousand points of light) malden mills case.

    but his reasoning was flawed. malden mills in the end fell out of feuerstein’s (yc 1930 grad) hands and eventually was liquidated. so did he succeed in social fullment?

    while (almost) everyone who practiced what was preached in that movie ended up being succsessful (ok; some may have invested their profits with madoff, but thats another issue.)

    2. charlie h — long time no post. but american colonies govt (and i am sure british empire govt — e.g., charles dickens) did not provide for the poor of their time. private individuals did. but there were no coordinating agencies, e.g., united way, etc to raise the funds, and similar orgs to distribute the funds. (except the churches.)

    3. also heard that the rav was against ayn rand. also, her writings are in novel form, not polemic form. so they must be analyzed differently.

  46. I am a believer in free market cpitalism, and I believe it to be compatible with Torah. However, I am a capitalist of the Adam Smith variety, not the Ayn Rand variety. Adam Smith had religion and believed in the capacity and importance of human good, giving, sharing, etc. Ayn Rand, as an atheist, does ot believe that human to human giving is good. I believe that 10% of my income belongs to HaShem, for use among those less fortunate, but I do this out of personal conviction that this is a mitzvah and a halacha. I do not believe in the state mandating giving, nor do I believe in confiscatory or punitive economic policies. I believe in the simple, unadulterated power of the human individual and his/her capacity to do good unto others, in fulfillment of the dictum of Rav Hillel.

  47. “malden mills in the end fell out of feuerstein’s (yc 1930 grad) hands and eventually was liquidated. so did he succeed in social fullment?”

    Aaron and Moses Feuerstein were different-they did not originate the business it at least dated from their father.
    Moses Feuerstein was from the 30s of YC. Aaron Feuerstein was the one who became famous for the reopening of Malden Mills after the fire. M Feuerstein was the President of the OU. A Feuerstein was in YU circa 43-47-might be off a year or so.
    Full disclosure they were both hospitable and were among those who invited students for lunch after schul on Shabbos. I had the pleasure of being invited by both at different times. They weree both personable. Aaron was more “modern” than “Moses”

  48. “וַיִּוָּתֵר יַעֲקֹב לְבַדּוֹ, אמר רבי אלעזר: שנשתייר על פכין קטנים, מכאן לצדיקים שחביב עליהם ממונם יותר מגופם וכל כך למה, לפי שאין פושטין ידיהן בגזל.”
    חולין צא

    The money of tsaddikim is more beloved to them than their bodies – because they don’t get involved in theft.

    Make of it what you will.

  49. Gil Student needs to shelve his Talmud and other latter day sources and read the Torah. Our Father Abraham was wealthy and worked at it. His son Isaac was far wealthier. Joseph had a Midas touch and Moses was a member of the Egyptian upper class. Boaz who married Ruth and founded the royal house of David was the wealthiest man in Judea. Then there’s Solomon whose wealth exceeded all the aforementioned. Not only is wealth and its accumulation not condemned in the Hebrew Bible, it is held up as an ideal.

    The only instance of greed in the Torah is Aharon’s persuading the people to turn in their gold for smelting into a golden calf to be placed in his possession. The fixing of Aharon’s priestly sons as a dependent class forbidden ownership of land and the tradition prohibiting their display of gold in the conduct of their offices are probably a direct outcome.

    Condemnation of greed may also be implicit in Ehud’s spilling of fat Eglon’s guts on his toilet.

    All the rest is Christian perversion. If the Galilean actually made the statement attributed to him regarding the eye of a needle and a rich man’s chances of getting into heaven, the pretender to Solomon’s throne was an Ebionite hypocrite.

  50. “Gil Student needs to shelve his Talmud and other latter day sources and read the Torah”

    It is fundamental that we get our hashkafa form Tanach from the way taht Chazal interpret Tanach.

  51. 1. No mention of why Yaakov went back across the Yaboq to pick up some small jugs? It would seem that “tzadiqim hold their money more dear to them than their lives” would be a very relevant maamar Chazal.

    2. Also, Rav Shimon Shkop has much to say about collecting wealth. To his mind, we don’t fully own our wealth, we are guardians of Hashem’s wealth to disburse or invest on His behalf.

    -micha

  52. Rav Shimon Shkop also has much to say about self interest. In the same essay I can find quotes that sound like Ayn Rand, and quotes that sound like Marx or Engel!

    -micha

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