By Simon Eder
In Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan, Lord Darlington quips that a cynic is ‘’a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.’’ Reading a number of economists analyses of the state of the world, we may well conclude that we are all cynics now.
The former governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney puts it well in his new book Value(s) Building a Better World for All where he raises that so often the things that we value the most from frontline nurses to the natural environment to keeping children well fed and educated seem to be of such little importance to economic markets. Economic values and social values have become blurred as he argues and we have gone from living in a market economy to a market society.
Reading a number of economists analyses of the state of the world, we may well conclude that we are all cynics now.
Judaism provides an important corrective to cynics and indeed aligns well to the three key areas that the economist Mariana Mazzucato advocates should be a focus reframing what we mean by value.
The first she shares is that we must learn to value our common resources.(1) How we currently measure growth in our economies does not take into account the all important benefits of public education or health for example. We know the costs of hospitals, social care or teachers but we rarely discuss their value. Judaism too gives pride of place to our common resources none more so of course than education. In a Talmudic debate about the importance of Torah study, the question arises as to whether study or action is greater? ‘’Rabbi Tarfon answered and said: Action is greater. Rabbi Akiva answered and said: Study is greater. Everyone answered and said: Study is greater, but not as an independent value; rather, it is greater as study leads to action.’’(2) According to Judaism then the whole of life should be underpinned by the value of education. Wider Jewish values too of community, social justice, tzedakah amongst others all point to the prominence which Judaism places on public goods.
The second focus that Mazzucato suggests is a collective value creation process.(3) At times of adversity we come together in extraordinary ways. We saw this during the pandemic. The young running errands for those elderly neighbours who were afraid to venture out, people giving of their time to support those in need. The learning does not last long however and Covid has in many ways left us with greater divides. There is a digital divide, a larger divide between rich and poor than ever and a generational divide too. What Mazzucato calls for is a massive collaboration effort.
Judaism, whose emphasis is perfectly balanced between the collective and the individual adheres strongly to such collective value creation. There is a favourite Jewish folktale told of Rabbi Haim of Romshishok, an itinerant preacher, who often began his talks with the following story which illustrates this exquisitely:
I once ascended to the firmaments. I first went to see Hell and the sight was horrifying. Row after row of tables were laden with platters of sumptuous food, yet the people seated around the tables were pale and emaciated, moaning in hunger. As I came closer, I understood their predicament.
Every person held a full spoon, but both arms were splinted with wooden slats so he could not bend either elbow to bring the food to his mouth. It broke my heart to hear the tortured groans of these poor people as they held their food so near but could not consume it. Next I went to visit Heaven. I was surprised to see the same setting I had witnessed in Hell – row after row of long tables laden with food. But in contrast to Hell, the people here in Heaven were sitting contentedly talking with each other, obviously sated from their sumptuous meal. As I came closer, I was amazed to discover that here, too, each person had his arms splinted on wooden slats that prevented him from bending his elbows. How, then, did they manage to eat? As I watched, a man picked up his spoon and dug it into the dish before him. Then he stretched across the table and fed the person across from him! The recipient of this kindness thanked him and returned the favor by leaning across the table to feed his benefactor. I suddenly understood. Heaven and Hell offer the same circumstances and conditions. The critical difference is in the way the people treat each other.
The implication here is that our work should enable us to truly live and implement the profound truths of Torah and in so doing transform the physical world.
In previous generations Christian theologians used to try to demonstrate the superiority of Christianity by asserting that it is rooted in the soul of the individual, whilst Judaism is nothing but a social religion and hence a primitive one.(4) The reality is somewhat different and what we see here in this story, representative of Judaism at large, is the veneration of the individual for the service of the collective good, rather like a magnificent orchestra, made up of individuals coming together to create harmony. It is this power of collaboration that is a crucial part of our wake-up call today.
The third area that Mazzucato urges us to focus on is that of ‘stakeholder value’ or essentially bringing purpose back to the capitalist system. There is perhaps an unexpected line at the opening of the book of Joshua which aligns to this importance of purpose in its discussion of Torah as not merely for studying but also to yield right action. As it says: “you shall meditate day and night, that you may observe to do according to all that is written therein; for then you shall make your ways prosperous, and then you shall have good success”.(5) The implication here is that our work should enable us to truly live and implement the profound truths of Torah and in so doing transform the physical world. In a similar vein the 20th Century French Jewish philosopher Levinas reminds us that the transcendent is never situated in some realm apart from our daily interactions. Through conscious action and the harnessing of purpose, the workplace is on this basis very much an opportunity for individual and collective spiritual growth.
As we emerge from the pandemic the clarion call to focus on the value of our common resources, collaboration and purpose must be heeded and Judaism’s contribution to these important areas is paramount if we are to build a better world.
(1) Mariana Mazzucato, Rethinking Value in Rethink edited by Amol Rajan, p. 260
(2) Kiddushin 40b:8
(3) Mariana Mazzucato, Rethinking Value in Rethink edited by Amol Rajan, p. 261
(4) Heschel, The Insecurity of Freedom, p.224
(5) Joshua 1:8
Simon Eder is Editorial Director of Jewish Quest. He writes regularly for the site and has written for the Judaism column of the Jewish Chronicle. He is a founder of the Jewish Community in Dubai and due to feature in a documentary later this year.