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Jewish Journal

Economics and the Human Soul

by Rabbi Ed Feinstein

May 22, 1997 | 8:00 pm

We don't know who discovered water," Einstein said. But we do know one thing: "It wasn't a fish!" Why not a fish? Because a fish -- born into water, living, eating, breathing water -- is never sufficiently separated from water to become aware of its presence. The unnoticed condition of its existence, no fish will ever know water. As for us, what surrounds and contains us of which we are unaware? What is the ubiquitous medium of our existence?

I asked my children where they wanted to spend a few free hours one Sunday afternoon. "Let's go to the mall!" they said. Not the beach? The mountains? The park? No, they insisted on the mall. Arriving in midafternoon, we find thousands of people. Welcome to the New American Neighborhood, replete with Bloomingdales, The Gap and Victoria's Secret! No longer just a place to shop, the mall is where they grow up, where they date and fall in love, where their families gather, where they grow old together. What does this do, in the long term, I wonder, to the souls of our children?

"You are what you eat," said the philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach. It is economics -- our relationship to the means of production and the opportunities for consumption -- that determines our values, attitudes and identity. Out of our awareness, the marketplace saturates us. It tells us what's important, what's valuable, what's real. It infiltrates our perceptions of others. It even penetrates the self -- telling us who we are and what we're worth.

Ask any man to introduce himself. Listen carefully for the answer. See if he begins by telling you that he's been married 18 years, is the father of three, a huge opera fan, a committed gardener, a volunteer for Big Brothers. Chances are, he'll tell you his occupation: "I'm an attorney, a physician, a stock broker." This is his identity. Homo economicus -- he has become what he "does for a living."


The poor must be supported
Money lent in assistance may not accrue interest.
Lands auctioned to meet debt must be redeemed and kept in the family.

The Torah, in this week's portion, worries about the impact of the economic struggle on the lives of human beings. It is concerned for the poverty of the body. Four times in this brief portion, we find the words, "Should your brother sink into poverty...."

The poor must be supported. Money lent in assistance may not accrue interest. Lands auctioned to meet debt must be redeemed and kept in the family. And most radical of all: To prevent the accretion of systemic poverty, generation after generation, a Jubilee is proclaimed every 50 years. In the year of Jubilee, all properties

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