Q. Is it fair for Wall Street traders to be making tens of millions of dollars a year?
A. As we pointed out in recent columns, this question has several levels. The narrowest applies specifically to traders: is this a legitimate profession? The second considers more broadly the question of large incomes for salaried employees. In this column, we discuss the broadest level of the question: Is it really fair or appropriate for anyone to be making tens or hundreds of millions of dollars and enjoying an extravagant lifestyle?
Jewish tradition has a nuanced view on this question. In Jewish tradition and Jewish history, obtaining wealth is considered legitimate both socially and religiously as long as a person gives charity, remains scrupulous in religious observance, and above all remembers to acknowledge God as his benefactor. Among the most renowned Jewish sages of many generations we find some who were fabulously wealthy and maintained a commensurate lifestyle. This begins with the patriarchs Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov, all of whom are described in the Torah as being extremely wealthy, includes Talmudic sages such as Rebbe Yehuda HaNasi who was one of the wealthiest individuals in the Middle East in his time, and more recent examples such as Rabbi David Oppenheim, a seventeenth-century rabbi of great wealth alongside his great learning, from a prominent banking family.
However, Jewish tradition also reminds us that fulfilling these conditions is not practical for every individual. Wealth can be a blessing, but it is always a challenge and for many people it is so challenging that it is not a blessing at all. Modern economics has as an axiom that more is always better for every individual, but Judaism would agree more with the traditional view that there is an ideal amount for each individual, and that just as a person can be too poor, so a person can be too rich – all based upon a person's character and capacity for enjoyment and appreciation of material well-being.
The book of Proverbs (30:8-9) states: "Give me neither poverty and riches; provide me with my daily bread. Lest I become sated and deny, saying, 'Who is the Lord?', or lest I become impoverished and become careless with [oaths in] God's name."
Wealth and poverty each have their unique challenges. A wealthy person has a tendency to attribute his wealth to his own ability, and deny God's providence; a poor person has a tendency to take ethical shortcuts, including taking false oaths. Thus the author of Proverbs asks to be protected from each of these risks.
These challenges are different for each individual. One person is best off in modest circumstances and is distracted from God's service with even minimal excess, while another has the capacity for enjoying great wealth while still acknowledging God's beneficence, and feels deprived in modest surroundings. Standards also different from era to era and from place to place.
I do not doubt that there are individuals of refined taste and sensibility who are able to obtain great wealth, even income of millions of dollars a year, and still enjoy their wealth and maintain a sense of gratitude to God. I also have no doubt that these individuals are few, and that most people are better off with more sublunary salaries.
The important thing is that each person knows when to say "enough". When the patriarch Yaakov sent a huge gift of hundreds of animals to his brother Esav, Esav offered to decline the gift, saying, "I have much." But Yaakov insisted on giving them anyway, saying "I have everything" (Genesis 33:9-11). It would not be precise to say that Yaakov was content with little insofar as he was very wealthy. What is important is that Yaakov was content with what he had, with what God provided him.