Judaism Today: The Economics of Religious Faith

On a warm Boston evening a few weeks ago, 19 men alighted from a row of cabs and gathered on the sidewalk before crowding into one of the city’s few kosher restaurants for dinner. Only a handful were Jewish; the rest of the group comprised Catholic and Protestant theologians and economists. Among those attending were the editor-in-chief of Crisis and myself. We were participating in an academic conference that might have been the first of its kind, entitled Judaic and Christian Perspectives on Economic Freedom.

Two-hundred years ago, political economists like Adam Smith and David Hume were primarily theologians or philosophers and frequently drew their wisdom from Scripture. Since that time, the study of economics has become increasingly detached from any Judeo-Christian foundation. Modern economists speak as if man’s hunger for money and possessions bears no resemblance to his appetite for food or sex. Talmudic tradition declares quite the contrary and treats the three urges as comparable. One distinction is made: food and sex can reach a point of satiation, whereas desire for money knows no limit.

Wheaton College economist P.J. Hill noted at the conference that the God of the universe has spoken to humankind, largely through the Jews, and that God’s truth does have relevance for modern life. In airing this idea, the conference showed how mistaken it is to view economics in isolation. Virtuous men do behave quite differently with money than do the unrestrainedly self-indulgent. Societies suffer or thrive when this effect is multiplied by millions throughout a population.

Anyone who donates money to charity, who elects to have his wife remain home with his children, who conscientiously holds down a low-wage job rather than draw a larger sum from government welfare programs, or who postpones consumption, does so at least partly as a result of religious beliefs and moral principles. These are difficult ethical decisions that confront each member of a society almost daily. How they are decided has a large cumulative effect on the economy, for the economy of a country where most people save and invest will be far stronger than that of another country whose inhabitants compulsively borrow and spend. And of course, whether an individual behaves frugally and productively, or instead dissipates wantonly, reflects his character, which in turn is shaped by religious and moral education.

The Shema, the “Hear O Israel” prayer that observant Jews recite three times daily, emphasizes this point: “And it shall be, if you listen to my commandments… you will gather in your produce… and you shall eat and be satisfied.” The clear message is that a group’s fiscal fortune depends on preaching and practicing religiously inspired regulations that restrain the desires of the body. One obvious example of these commandments is the precept to marry and raise children. This is far from universal practice. Those segments of society that have rejected tradition as a guide to life suffer low rates of marriage. Yet couples that do marry, even if their religious beliefs are tepid, overwhelmingly tend to opt for a religious marriage ceremony. Deep down, people seem to realize that when a man marries a woman and dedicates his life to her and their children, he is pleasing God. What the Shema reminds us is that he is also doing something that is “good for business.”

Twelve years ago, George Gilder persuasively documented the magical effect that marriage and family have upon a man’s earning power. Paul Johnson recently wrote, “The fear of the Lord, in short, is the beginning of capitalist wisdom, as of any other kind.” Imagine the effect on poverty in American cities if all males felt societal pressure to obey the Divine mandate to marry and raise their children.

Time will reveal that when Professor Walter Block and the Liberty Fund of Indianapolis created this conference, they began the pendulum’s swing back to a more accurate view of economics, one that acknowledges the contribution that traditional religion makes to the health of an economy. Economists will once again appreciate the importance of this crucial influence and how it can affect the way populations think and act.

Perhaps the new trend set in motion by the conference will stimulate a brave economist to study the correlation between Judeo-Christian religious commitment and net worth, factoring out differences due to age and income. This would show us how much of every earned dollar is saved by various people with differing religious commitments. Would it really be surprising were we to find that, given a certain income level, religious involvement is one of the most reliable factors in predicting net worth?

How did the kosher restaurant get into the story? It had been selected as the venue for the entire group’s dinner as a gesture of friendship for the few rabbinic economists. Both the food and the service were embarrassingly mediocre, or perhaps our numbers overwhelmed the small facility. Everyone was good-natured and even gracious about a meal that was not remotely close to the culinary standards set at the conference.

This camaraderie and good humor characterized the entire conference and contributed to its uniqueness. Warm fellowship was felt not only between Christian and Jew, but more surprisingly, between theologian and economist. I believe that no other country on Earth could have hosted this milestone conference.

America, founded on Judeo-Christian principles, launched history’s finest partnership between those principles and economic freedom. It is surely also the country destined to rescue economic freedom by restoring respect for God’s timeless and indispensable commandments.

By

Daniel Lapin (born 1947) is an American Orthodox rabbi, author, public speaker, and heads the American Alliance of Jews and Christians. He was previously the founding rabbi of the Pacific Jewish Center in Venice, California. and the former head of Toward Tradition, the Commonwealth Loan Company and the Cascadia Business Institute. Lapin currently hosts a daily television program with his wife Susan and provides spiritual advice to people through his website.

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