Casino Jack: Are We Trapped in Money Worship?
12/23/10
Special to the Jewish Week
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Watching “Casino Jack” on its opening weekend was the very first time I ever felt embarrassment for wearing a kippa in a movie theatre. When Jack Abramoff, played by Kevin Spacey, sponsored kosher restaurants and a yeshiva with dirty money, the woman sitting next to me let out a disgusted “My G-d!” I shrunk in my seat.

Dostoevsky once wrote, “The best way to keep a prisoner from escaping is to make sure he never knows he’s in prison.” It seems that many of us in the Jewish community are not aware that we are in a prison. The plague of money worship has reached pandemic proportions.

More and more, the Jewish community is voting on collective national issues based on personal economic incentive. Charitable giving, on average, is far below the 10% that Jewish law requires. The salaries of heads of Jewish universities and non-profits are disproportionately higher than ever. And one need only listen to conversations at Kiddush tables around the country to know that, even on Shabbat, too many congregants are focused far more on stock tips than on Torah.

Worst of all, financial scandals perpetrated by members of the Jewish community are at an all time high, as we are reminded by the recent arrest of Milton Balkany. The title of Dr. Erica Brown’s new book, “Confronting Scandal: How Jews Can Respond When Jews Do Bad Things,” speaks to a real problem.

We all feel the shame when we hear of a scandal or crime by a Jew: Spinka Rebbe, Baruch Goldstein, Moshe Katzan, Eliot Spitzer. The words of the Rabbis, “all Jews are responsible for one another” (Shavuot 39a), are not only prescriptive but also powerfully instinctual.

Last year, Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote, “What the financial collapse should teach us is that we were becoming obsessed with money: salaries, bonuses, the cost of houses, and the expensive luxuries we could live without. When money rules, we remember the price of things and forget [their] value.” Pirkei Avot teaches us that the truly powerful possess not wealth and prestige but self-control and exemplify the virtues of sacrifice and restraint.

So what do we do to confront this problem?

1. Clean up our own act and become moral exemplars of living sameach b’chelko (content with one’s lot). We must all hold ourselves accountable to live virtuously before we can hold others accountable as sur mei’rah (turning from wrongs) precedes the imperative of aseh tov (perpetuating broader good).

2. Protest wrongs within our community to assert that fraud and theft by some will not be tolerated by fellow Jews. But a call to action is mere words when it fails to lead to action. The Talmud explains that one who fails to protest a wrong in one’s midst is held accountable for that wrong.

3. Honor and reward those doing good. The rabbis teach that we should honor those who honor others. This praise not only ensures that the virtuous get the recognition they deserve but it publicly reinforces ethical behavior.

Rabbi Hirsch explained that when the Torah demands that we do what is “tov v’yashar” (good and straight) that we learn that we must only accomplish the good (tov) justly (b’derech ha’yashar). The ends do not justify the means and money earned illegally or unethically cannot be accepted as charity.

Beginning this week, Uri L’Tzedek is accepting nominations for the Yosher Award for Jewish business leaders doing and promoting good in the community. Especially in these dark times, we need to honor and celebrate – and, ultimately, emulate – role models and heroes– not the wealthiest, but the most generous and just. It is easy for rabbis and educators to preach righteousness and generosity, but when Jews maintain these ideals even in the thick of the daily battle that is the business world, they should earn our highest respect. The Yosher Award is a step in that direction. A distinguished panel of judges will select a winner by the early spring.

In addition to the Yosher Award, we must rally the troops to become “holy beggars,” as defined by Rav Shlomo Carlebach: “A Holy Beggar is someone who is begging you to allow him to give!”

We need to create a Jewish community that is saturated not with greed but with benevolence – that is, with more people begging for opportunities to give. I personally have so far to grow to remove the money lust from my own heart. Will you join me in a journey toward placing service and giving at the center of our lives?

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Senior Jewish Educator at UCLA Hillel and a 5th year PhD candidate at Columbia University in Moral Psychology & Epistemology.

Last Update:

12/23/2010 - 11:45

Comments

A great reminder as we approach the Gregorian calendar new year. The lesson can also relate to Passover as we may no longer be slaves to a physical empire, but to material goods.
It seems you are addressing a very specific Jewish audience-- the upper-middle class and the upper-class-- but act as if this includes everyone in the Jewish community. Yes, Jews are all responsible for each other, but many Jews (including, yes, American Jews) do not have problems remotely related to what you are talking about. Many American Jews face the problem of not being able to afford synagogue membership, and struggling to be a part of a Jewish community where lack of money may be a source of shame. Others of us live in poverty, and being content with our lot would mean accepting living in unfair and unjust conditions. I want to say I agree with and support just about everything you said, but to overlook Jews who are themselves experiencing real financial struggle, and who were struggling *before* the financial crisis, seems to be missing the point of the status quo of economic inequality that allowed Jack Abromoff to do what he did.

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