It’s the panhandler dilemma: Someone walks onto the subway and asks for help. “I need $10 to find a place to sleep tonight.” Do you pretend you don’t hear, bury your head in a book, or give some change or a leftover snack?
Next time consider the wisdom offered in “The Sacred Exchange: Creating a Jewish Money Ethic,” published in April by Central Conference of America Rabbis (CCAR) Press.
“We are directly obligated to the person in front of us,” writes Rabbi Nicole Auerbach, director of congregational engagement at Central Synagogue in Manhattan, in a chapter on panhandling. She extrapolates from the teachings of Maimonides, the 11th-century rabbinic scholar, who “lived at a time when there was a general welfare fund within the Jewish community.” Even so, he didn’t believe that donating to a general fund could “discharge one’s obligation to a particular needy person.”
In the end, Auerbach concludes, you don’t have to give $10, but you have to give something.
Practical solutions to ethical questions abound in this book, edited by Rabbi Mary Zamore, executive director of the Women’s Rabbinic Network, a national advocacy group affiliated with the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis; a resident of Westfield; and a member of Temple Emanu-El. In a phone interview with NJJN she said money is even more critical to our everyday lives than we realize, though the topic is seldom discussed.
“So much of the way we relate to one another in the world is through the lens of money,” said Zamore, who will discuss her book on Oct. 6 at Temple B’nai Or in Morristown, where she had served as associate rabbi. “And Judaism has so much to teach us about how to look at money, at wealth disparity, our role in tzedakah, and how to do that in an ethical, solid way that is working toward making a life of meaning and making the world better.”
The opening section of “The Sacred Exchange” is a review of Jewish approaches to money, wealth, and charitable giving. (Spoiler alert: Jews do not aspire to poverty, but neither is wealth the goal.) Other sections cover ethical giving, socially responsible investing, the changing face of Jewish philanthropy, how to talk about money to your children, and treatment of employees. In summary, it’s a Jewish guide to money in the contemporary world.
“I think people are very thirsty for conversations about how to have difficult money conversations,” she said.
The book wanders from ancient wisdom to modern challenges, and it’s sometimes striking how prescient the ideas of rabbis, who lived centuries ago, are. In one chapter on Jewish values in the marketplace, written by Rabbi Arthur Gross-Schaefer (also a lawyer and accountant), we learn that in the Talmud a rabbi ruled that a storekeeper “may not distribute parched grain or nuts to children” to entice their parents to shop in the store. Gross-Schaefer interprets that to mean that today storekeepers should not offer free giveaways or prizes: “The only attraction should be the quality of one’s product at a fair price.”
Another chapter urges readers to consider hiring female rabbis to officiate at lifecycle events in Israel because of the financial, social, and political impact. The writer, Rabbi Ayala Ronen Samuels, refers to the group of which she’s a part of as “Israeli Female Rabbis” or IFRs, noting that “IFRs officiate at one to four weddings per year on average, compared to ten to twenty per year by many of their male colleagues.”
As a result, she notes that some IFRs have stopped offering to lead lifecycle ceremonies beyond their congregations, an impulse she urges them to resist. “Your choice supports the fight for pluralism and egalitarianism in Israel!” she writes.
Other times the book takes a kind of Talmudic turn; it’s not that the conversation becomes theoretical, but rather the respective chapters sometimes address one another, reminiscent with how rabbis in the Talmud who lived in different generations converse through their commentary.
For instance, Dov Ben-Shimon, executive vice president and CEO of Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest New Jersey, writes a chapter on the importance of federated giving and the ways it has to change to stay relevant. Meanwhile, Andrés Spokoiny, president and CEO of Jewish Funders Network, writes another on how philanthropy has evolved to become more individually driven and with a focus on impact. The two authors sometimes make conflicting points, but taken together, both sections provide a deeper understanding of the issues at play and the various ways of framing them.
Zamore herself authored two chapters, one on the family as employer and how hired help should be treated (for example, babysitters or landscapers), and the second on her inability to purchase an etrog for Sukkot from sources that support her pluralistic values.
She hopes the book will prod readers to talk more about the values behind money. “We should not be scared as a Jewish community to be talking about the obligation of tzedakah, for instance, and what tithing is, and to be inspiring people within their homes, to have honest open conversations … so money doesn’t become the focus of our lives, but rather a vehicle of our values.”
“The Sacred Exchange” is the fourth in a series of books, and the second one edited by Zamore. The collection includes “The Sacred Calling: Four Decades of Women in the Rabbinate,” “The Sacred Table: Creating a Jewish Food Ethic” (also edited by Zamore), and “The Sacred Encounter: Jewish Perspectives on Spirituality.”
Several local rabbis and Jewish professionals, in addition to Ben-Shimon, are contributing authors to this volume, including the late Rabbi Daniel Allen of West Orange, executive vice president emeritus of the United Israel Appeal; Rabbi Doug Sagal, until recently senior rabbi of Temple Emanu-El in Westfield; and Rabbi Robert Scheinberg, spiritual leader of United Synagogue of Hoboken.