In a startling statement, Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler (1892-1953) divided the world into givers and takers.[1] Takers, he stated, are always agenda-driven – they give in order to take. For example, they may bring presents for their hosts but only as a means to being liked so that they will be invited again.

Can an entire society be a giving or a taking one? Can we cultivate a culture that will promote the development of givers, or their opposite? Ayn Rand’s famous formulation, “the Virtue of Selfishness,” stands as a purist idea against the harsh realities of those whose selfishness apparently isn’t vast enough or clever enough to put bread on their table. This is all for the good, goes the argument, because if not for incentives for capitalists to make as much money as possible, we will all be poorer; their wealth creates the trickledown effect. But, does capitalism mean that, in order to work, we have to sacrifice our character? Is selfishness built into our human fabric, right down to Richard Dawkins’s selfish genes[2]?

No “capitalist” country today proposes a system that allows the fittest to survive and the rest to perish. Health care, unemployment and disability benefits, even food stamps and shelters, are all testimony to a global consensus that Smith’s capitalism requires a little taste of François Hollande’s socialism to round off the recipe. But, whereas in France the wealthy are actually now a bit embarrassed to admit it, the American super-rich wear their achievements as badge of pride.

A little over two hundred years ago, the Englishmen Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) suggested that the basis of society should be Utilitarianism, defined as the greatest good for the greatest number of people. John Stuart Mill (1806-1873)[3] explained that by “good,” we really mean happiness[4], and that the basis of society is therefore a doctrine of advanced hedonism.[5] Indeed, Mill acknowledged his indebtedness to Epicurus, the original proponent of hedonism. By Mill’s time, Epicurus had been rediscovered in a big way.[6]

Utilitarianism is really a doctrine of how most people in the world can be selfish and still get on with each other.[7] The nice way of saying this is that it is a doctrine of enlightened self-interest. “Enlightened” because this is really quite a sophisticated and educated form of selfishness. But enlightened self-interest can never turn a sinner into a saint.

In fact, Bentham had an enormous influence on how our societies are structured today.[8] It was Bentham who taught us to evaluate potential legislation or policies by asking the question, “What’s in it for us?” He had the ear of Presidents Adams and Madison.[9] He lived just after Napoleon when Russian, German and Spanish jurists were involved in reframing their constitutions. His influence spread to South American constitutions as well.

But what forces me to buy into all of this? To answer this, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and the Frenchman Jean Jacques Rousseau invented the idea of the Social Contract Theory.[10] By living in a particular country, it is as if I have signed a contract, committing myself to obey the laws of that country. I can of course leave for another country or, if I so desire, for the middle of the jungle. But so long as I stay, I have made this implicit commitment.

Hobbes made no bones about the fact that his social contract was predicated on the selfishness of man (Leviathan, 1651). Human beings always act in their self-interest. Left to their own devices, Hobbes stated, the life of people would be ‘nasty, brutish and short.’ So there we go again – another pillar of society appealing to our selfishness.[11]

The father of capitalism, Adam Smith, made clear in his The Wealth of Nations (1776) that enlightened self-interest ought to be elevated to a level of unquestioned truth. People are not only greedy, they are rationally greedy. The market has a logic which, left mainly to itself, produces the greatest wealth for the most amount of people.[12] It is people’s selfish interests which, when pooled, produce a rational marketplace which benefits society as a whole.[13]
The remarkable resilience of capitalism – and its twin corollaries, utilitarianism and the social contract – has certainly been part of the central story of modern history. Even after the economic downturn, most citizens in capitalist countries enjoy not only security from hunger and homelessness, but in the main, jobs which are less and less physically intensive.[14] It is not overly optimistic to feel that in most of Asia and South America, poverty could be reduced by similar means over the next few decades.

Indeed, it seems that Judaism took for granted the capitalist system, long before our man Smith allegedly invented it, though it placed fair-trade limitations on commercial practice[15]. But Judaism also anticipated capitalism’s social face – tens of laws to protect the poor, and even to prevent too much land accumulation by the wealthy (the Jubilee year).

Capitalism may make us all richer. In the process it may allow virtue; but it doesn’t consistently produce it. It can produce a Bill Gates who lives to give and help, but also a Steve Jobs who was, in simple terms, just not a nice guy and who is nevertheless glorified as a capitalist hero.

Even should we decide to be one of the nice guys, what price do we pay when two of our major social values are based on our instinct for selfishness? What does it do to me, to my character? How do I become one the givers and not one of takers? Is Judaism, in condoning capitalism yet urging us to be givers, setting us up with contradictory values?

The solution lies with a strange word we call “holiness”. I call it strange because we picture the holy saint as a solitary figure, fasting and meditating, sitting on top of some snow-clad mountain in his flowing white garments. But this is a mistake. This is someone who has given up on the world – an aesthete – not a holy person. In fact, in his isolation and refusal to engage the messiness of this world, our mountainous saint is something of a sinner. “A man is destined to give an accounting on everything which his eyes saw, and which was permissible to him, but of which he did not partake.”[16]

We know this from the first Jew, Avraham (Abraham). Avraham actually sacrificed a lot of his esoteric (Kabbalistic) wisdom in favor of tending to the physical and spiritual needs of mankind.[17] It is a messy business, running out and washing off the dust of idolatry from the feet of strangers, running – the pain of circumcision at its acute stage – to slaughter three cows. It is not conducive to the soaring heights of holiness. And yet, when God came to choose the father of the Jewish people, it was not from these Kabbalistic others. Avraham’s giving WAS in fact just the holiness that God was looking for.[18]

Avraham himself was absolutely clear about this. “G-d has tens of thousands of angels already”, he reasoned to himself. “He doesn’t need another one.”[19] He found himself in the middle of a prophetic revelation with G-d when the three idolatrous guests arrived.[20] Without hesitation, Avraham broke off the prophetic conversation and rushed to serve the idolaters[21]. Reflecting on this, the Sages declared: גדולה הכנסת אורחים מקבלת פני השכינה – hospitality is greater than receiving the face of God Himself.[22] Engaging the world is holier than having private conversations with God. This is the Jewish message to the world![23]

The Torah recognizes the complexity of man. Smith, Bentham and Hobbes were right in pointing out man’s selfish side. They were wrong in reducing man’s entire being to this one thing. There is another whole spiritual side of man that yearns for fulfillment. Man wants to give and he wants to take. The giver can take his selfish side and harness it for the good. In fact, there is hardly a management book out today that doesn’t say the same thing: Appeal to employees higher sense of purpose if you want to bring the best out of them. Show them trust. Show that the company has values. Show humility. Connect people to a mission…

But it goes deeper.

The Torah not only commands us to be holy, it tells us that we are capable of being God-like: “and you should walk in His (God’s) ways”.[24] And what are God’s ways? Just as He clothes the naked, visits the sick and buries the dead, so should you,[25]etc. You should harmonize yourself with His actions. And that means becoming a giver as He is. Develop the underlying character traits that will allow for sustained giving: Just as He is merciful so should you be[26]. Develop your character to become more giving, more merciful and hence more God-like. Our happiness lies not in self-actualization of our selfish genes, but in self-transcendence of ourselves to a vision beyond ourselves. The opposite of selfishness then is holiness.

Capitalism is an opportunity for man to free himself to pursue higher and nobler things. But it can just as easily pull him down. There are messages inherent in the system that can push one to materialism rather than giving. Material success becomes a yard-stick for a person’s self-worth and one becomes condescending to the have-nots. I know people who will insist on saying about everyone they know, “A fine man; never made much money though.” This is an extreme version of saying, “What’s he worth?” What’s he worth?! He is worth infinity – he is a human being!
And so, to the thread of being God-like we need to add a second thread: The person that we are being God-like towards is made in the image of God.[27] The giver has to want to be holy and the recipient has to be seen to be holy. Making the social contract between our capitalist earned wealth and the recipient is God Himself. And that contract tells us that our money is but a holy trust. It is not ours – we are but His fund-managers. Our fellow human beings are extraordinary end-recipients, extraordinary because they are made in the image of God. That is why the Hebrew word for charity is Tzedaka – “righteousness”. The implication is that we are doing nothing remarkable by sharing our wealth. We are simply doing what is righteous and just [28].

See how man lies poised between being a giver and a taker – his two sides. About that dilemma, God tells us, “You are never giving anything up. You are gaining. Your real wealth is what you gave, not what you kept. Be like Me. Be holy.”

[1] Michtav MeEliyahu, Vol. I, “Kuntres Hachesed (Essays on Loving Kindness)”

[2] This is the name of a whole book Richard Dawkins wrote in 1976.

[3] Mill was the son of James Mill who was Bentham’s student. Mill’s real contribution to Bentham’s work was to define happiness.

[4] The rule then becomes: Act so as to produce the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people (or, in the words of modern philosopher Richard Hare, to produce the greatest satisfaction of people’s preferences).

[5] Although Mill tried to distinguish between lower, purely physical, happinesses and higher, more moral or spiritual happinesses, no proper definition of these higher happinesses has ever been consistently applied in practice.

[6] Epicurus (341 BCE – 270 BCE) had been saved by a genius of a poet, Lucretius, ”a near perfect integration of intellectual distinction and aesthetic mastery. ” (As quoted in The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt.) Lucreitius in turn had great influence on Montaigne, and the underlying ideas of Epicurus can be traced through Galileo on to Newton. (ibid).

[7] If the aggregate effects were good rather than bad, and a better result could not be obtained through different means, then the law or action was right and just. The hedonic calculus was a method for solving all moral dilemmas through simple addition and subtraction. (Zeno and the Tortoise, pg. 111).

[8] The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy describes Utilitarianism as “one of the most powerful and persuasive approaches to normative ethics in the history of philosophy”.

[9] Nicholas Fearn in Zeno and the Tortoise pg. 111.

[10] This theory either states that all men in any particular society have made a contract between themselves or that they have made a contract between themselves and the king. These 18th Century philosophers were preceded by the Rashbam, Rashi’s grandson in Baba Batra and others in their explanation of The Law of the Land is The Law (דינא דמלכותא דינא) by more than five centuries.

[11] In fairness, Rousseau had the opposite vision of man. Left in a state of nature, Rousseau asserted, man would be pristine, good and poor. It is society which corrupts man, has stated. But Rousseau was a member of the romantic movement which, although important in the history of ideas, was more of a rebellion against the dominant rationalist trend of which Hobbes was a part.

[12] Democrats would go for slightly higher taxes and slight increases in government programs. Republicans mutter about the evils of big government and big taxes, but some of the greatest spending increases occurred under Republican Presidents, such as President Reagan.

[13] Adam Smith in his Wealth of Nations … “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our necessities but of their advantages.

[14] For it is capitalism which has driven the increasingly high-tech, knowledge-based industry of the global economy.

[15] See for example the Talmud Baba Batra 21b with respect to fishing nets and Rashba (Teshuvos 3:83) thereon.

[16] Paths of the Righteous, Chapter 13, in the name of the Sages.

[17] Chasam Sofer, Introduction to his Responsa on Yoresh Deah.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Genesis 18:1.

[21] Ibid. Verse 3.

[22] Tractate Shabbat, 127a

[23] The Way of God, 2:4:9.

[24] Deutoronomy 28:9

[25] Talmud Sotah, pg 14 side one. And is it possible to walk after God. However [what this means is that] just as God provided clothing for the naked [as He did with Adam and Eve], so you should provide clothing for the naked, just as God vists the sick [as he did to Abraham on the third day of his circumcision], so should you visit the sick, just as God buries the deas [as He did with Moses and Aaron] so should you bury the dead. [And] just He consoles the mourners [as He did with Isaac], so should you console the mourners.

[26] Maimonides in the name of the Sifri, end of Parshat Eiekev: Just as He is called merciful, so should you, just as He is called gracious, so should you. (See also Tractate Shabbat, 133b for a different source). Nachmanides on Miamonedes’ Book of Commandments, Root Aleph, states that these two approaches, that of the Talmud in Sotah and that of the Sifri, do not contradict.

[27] Genesis, Chapter 1, verse 26.

[28] Maharal, Netiv Hatzedaka.


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