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Wealth & the Occupy Wall Street Movement
Rabbi Benjamin Blech

Wealth & the Occupy Wall Street Movement

Rich people are not the enemy.


I wish the Occupy Wall Street movement would be a little clearer about what they're protesting.

Even as it continues to grow and gain followers outside of New York, with satellite protests in more than 60 American cities as it threatens to go global, the demonstrators still haven't directly identified their enemy.

And before I can make up my mind whether or not I support them, I think they need to tell us whether this is more about money or morality.

Related Article: Holy Money

What troubles me is that much of the anger of the protesters seems to be fueled by a sentiment about wealth that Judaism long ago rejected. There have always been people who believed that spirituality demands that we forsake materialism. Rich people are wicked by definition. Accumulating a great deal of money is a sin.

But from a Jewish perspective, wealth is not ignoble; it presents us with precious opportunities. When Abraham first discovered God and gave the gift of monotheism to the world, we're told that he was divinely rewarded with prosperity. The philosopher Philo had it right when he summed up the Jewish sentiment in these words: "Money is the cause of good things to a good man, of evil things to a bad man."

"Money is the cause of good things to a good man, of evil things to a bad man."

From time immemorial Jews have recognized that their mission in life is to improve the world. They were also realistic enough to realize that a great deal of good they were required to perform on this Earth can only be fulfilled with adequate financial resources. Helping the poor, assisting the community and its needs, building synagogues and houses of study, and supporting friends, family, neighbors – all these mitzvahs require money in order to properly perform them.

In a beautiful Midrash, we’re told that when Moses was commanded to count the Jews by means of their contributing a half Shekel, Moses was baffled. He didn't understand. Then God showed him “a coin of fire" and his mind was put at rest.

What was so difficult to grasp that caused Moses to be confused? Did Moses need to be shown an actual coin before he could understand the meaning of half a Shekel? And what was the point of showing him a coin of fire?

The rabbinic commentary is profound and beautiful. The reason Moses was perplexed was because he couldn't believe that for counting Jews something so seemingly non-spiritual and materialistic would be used. How could money play a role in defining Jews and holiness?

The answer was to show him a coin of fire. Fire has two seemingly contradictory properties. Fire destroys, but it also creates. Fire may burn, but it can also cook, warm, and serve the most beneficial purposes. Money and fire are related. Wealth may destroy those who possess it but it can also be the source of the greatest blessing. Precisely because it has this quality, it becomes doubly holy. When we choose to use a potentially destructive object in a positive and productive manner, we have learned the secret of true holiness.

Twice a day Jews recite the line that defines our faith. "Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” The words that follow define how we are supposed to express that belief through our actions. The original Hebrew from the Torah is often mistranslated, "with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might." The more correct reading for the last phrase is "and with all your wealth."

Having a great deal of money isn't a problem. Not knowing what to do with it is.

Having a great deal of money isn't a problem. Not knowing what to do with it is what causes almost all of our difficulties. And spending it correctly is the challenge we face throughout our lifetimes that will best determine whether we can face our final judgment with confidence.

“Show me your checkbook stubs,” said the noted psychologist, Erich Fromm, “and I’ll tell you everything about yourself.” Self-indulgence or selflessness? Wine, women, and song or charitable works? Hedonism or helping others? Forsaking God because you no longer need Him or feeling more spiritually connected out of gratitude for your good fortune?

For those whose crusade against Wall Street is synonymous with a vendetta against all those with wealth, there needs to be recognition of the great good accomplished by many of those who've been blessed with prosperity. Just because someone has "made it" doesn't make him a villain. To add the adjective "filthy" to the word rich in signs hoisted by Occupy Wall Street protesters is to unfairly castigate those who God may have rewarded because they're wise enough to work on His behalf in creating a better world.

We could all learn much from Michael Bloomberg, the self-made billionaire founder of the Bloomberg financial information firm and New York Mayor, who for two years in a row was the leading individual living donor in the United States, according to The Chronicle of Philanthropy. He recently said he intends to give away most of his fortune, because “the best measure of a philanthropist is that the check he leaves to the undertaker bounces.” And that will insure that he dies a very happy man.

Capitalism isn't only about accumulating more and more money. Just a few years ago TIME named Bill and Melinda Gates as its “Persons of the Year.” Gates, a Wall Street superstar, was acknowledged as one of the most influential people in the country – not because of how much money he has but because of how much of it he is willing to give away. He came to the conclusion that greed isn’t meant to be our goal in life.

Having made more money than he will ever need, he has one more vision that drives him. He would love to convince world business leaders that being socially responsible isn’t just altruism but sound business practice. Gates says he has learned that greed is self-defeating. It destroys the very people who make it their god.

Today Gates is spearheading a drive to get the super wealthy to publicly commit themselves to giving away most of their fortunes for charitable purposes – and Warren Buffett, chairman of Berkshire Hathaway Inc. and one of the world’s wealthiest men, among others has signed on to this noble endeavor.

When the Occupy Wall Street crowd talks about cleaning up corruption, when it points a finger at all those whose financial recklessness plunged the country into the Great Recession, when it gives voice to the anger we all feel at the perpetrators of highly immoral business practices that hurt millions of innocent victims – for all of these righteous causes they deserve our unqualified thanks.

It's only when they confuse anyone who is wealthy with the enemy that I think we need to remind them that just as much as the poor don't deserve to be despised for their poverty, the rich don't deserve to be hated simply because they have money.

October 30, 2011

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Visitor Comments: 142

(107) Robert Rabinoff, November 10, 2011 8:49 AM

Not only how you use wealth, but how you acquire it

I'm guessing R. Blech felt this was too obvious to have to state, but I'm going to state it anyway. It's not just how you use the wealth you have that's Gd's test, but how you get it to begin with. If you get it like Esau, by oppression and violence, then you may have "rov," but in the end, compared to an infinite Gd, "rov" is nothing. If you get it honestly like Jacob, you have "kol" -- everything. You're connected to the infinite Source of all good and can never be lacking anything.

(106) unemployed programmer, November 9, 2011 4:36 PM

more microsoft shenanigans..

(This is copied from ... Microsoft's corporate policy says that climate change requires "a comprehensive and global response" and "dramatic innovations to transition the world to a sustainable low-carbon economy."1 So why was Microsoft a "gold" level sponsor at the Koch brother's Tea Party Conference in Washington, DC last weekend?2 It is thoroughly irresponsible for a corporation as mainstream as Microsoft to be backing the radical climate denial lies at the heart of the Koch's conference and fossil fuel agenda. And to do it in clear violation of the company's policy is sheer hypocrisy. We need to make sure Microsoft is held publicly accountable. ... 1. 1. "Microsoft Funds Koch's Climate-Denying Tea Party Conference," Think Progress, November 4, 2011

(105) Luz Marina Delgado, November 7, 2011 8:41 PM

Clearly, OWS is against those responsible for the World's finantial and economic breakdown: corporate power, bankers, financial institutions and US government.

Occupy Wall Street is talking about cleaning up corruption: financial recklessness, corporate lobbyists and corporate power interfering with politics, all that plunged the country (and the World) into the Great Recession. Now, who are the perpetrators of highly immoral business practices that hurt millions of innocent victims? Is anybody making them pay back? Why is there special protection to powerful thieves? – OWS righteous causes deserve our prayers, money and support. This is a matter of ethics and the future of our families. Lets be fair...OWS is a peaceful, powerful and growing movement. There have been few violent incidents. Lets try to understand the positive implications of civil organization to demand democracy to lead us out of this painful turn of events. Lets demand our government to take positive actions and not violent ones. Is the US going to stand tall for its own people? G-d is our Perfect Judge, nothing will blur his vision.

madeleine, December 11, 2011 6:41 PM

Well Said Lus Marina Delgado

Also, it's true some small businesses are hurt by the local of the OWS protesters. The same might have been said in relation to the protesters during the Civil Rights struggle and those attempting to end the Viet Nam war. The Occupy movement and marches are the only way we got our corporate owned media to notice and acknowledge the 99% of us. OCW is a genuine peoples movement demanding our country's leadership return to honoring the basic humanitarian ideals and principals upon which this nation was founded as against the reactionary fascistic Tea party funded by Koch Bros and other far Right corporate interests..

(104) Sue, November 6, 2011 3:11 PM

They are destroying property that is not their own. They are not coming against the 1%, but small businesses, in their downtown districts where they protest. They move in to hurt the businesses of honest people that are not corporate, but individually own with only one store. Obama renewed the tax breaks for the wealthy. This didn't apply to the small business owner, who is not the 1%. They don't know what they are doing, or what they are trying to voice. They are saying one thing, and doing another. Tear gas wouldn't have to be used, if these protest were peaceful. This is left wing, copying from England's protest. The opposite of the teaparty. These protester need to join the military, put some of that rage to good use for the country and be REAL freedom fighters.

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