I found Rabbi Stern’s analysis of the economy as a faith-based institution interesting. It cast Alan Greenspan’s (now Ben Bernanke’s) cryptic musings about future conditions in a new light: the high priest of economics reciting just the right words (and perhaps sacrificing a goat) to attain the desired economic outcome.
Faith and the economy is also a tenet than can be seen going back to William Jennings Bryan’s famed speech at the 1896 National Democratic Convention, in which he spoke about the gold standard (as opposed to the more liberal “silver standard”) as being an agent of oppression for farmers and laborers who were having difficulty receiving credit. His speech concludes by alluding to a “cross of gold” on whom these farmers are crucified. One could just as easily imagine the imagery of a Golden Calf: that solid and substantive idol that people need as a concrete symbol and validation of their belief, rather than simply taking things on faith.
Then of course, there’s faith and there’s faith. Rabbi Grossman seems to be advocating an approach to charitable giving similar to the “Prosperity Gospel” preached by Joel Osteen and others–the idea that God wants you to be wealthy and successful and this is exactly what will happen if you turn your life over to Him. The couple with the den furniture, I’ve heard the story hundreds of times and once or twice it might even be true. But in real life (as opposed to trite Chassidic stories) it doesn’t work that way, and we need to recognize that we don’t give in order to get: we give because it is a mitzvah. If we get anything in return, it should be the feeling of satisfaction that comes with knowing we have done the right thing. In the words of Pirkei Avot (Ethics of our Ancestors): “The reward for performing a righteous deed is another righteous deed.”
Somewhere between these two popular and blustery Christian leaders, between Bryan and Osteen, the truth lies: we live in an interconnected world where we no longer thrive by the sweat of our own brow, where markets in Japan and housing prices in California affect the prices we pay and our ability to get loans, where our retirement savings depend on the actions of large corporations and are influenced by natural disasters on the far side of the world. We are radically dependent, and to survive in this environment we need a certain amount of faith and confidence–not that we will thrive and become wealthy, but that we be able to live out our highest values in spite of the pressures and difficulties we may face. These are the best riches we can confidently seek.