Mammon In Light of Torah
I read the recent essay ”Torah Umammon” by my friend Rabbi Yitzchak Blau with great interest, as I do his writings in general. In fact, I have been enthusiastically sharing one of his previous articles, “Rabbinic Responses to Communism“ (Tradition, Winter 2007), with my students at the Sy Syms School of Business for more than 12 years.
Part of the beauty of that richly researched and greatly valuable article is how it was able to take an issue that to many is a matter of money, income, labor and capital, and display how beneath the surface, major principles of our worldview were at stake, being honored or breached.
I am privileged to have the opportunity to attempt something similar (if not as skillfully) several times a week, in teaching multiple courses at Syms. It is true that Syms is different in many ways from Yeshiva College. However, the differences do not reflect negatively on either school; Syms is structured to best accomplish its particular mission, which is unique in the world.
The students at Syms are indeed largely headed for a world that is defined by a goal to succeed financially at all costs, as quickly and as single-mindedly as possible. Recognizing that, the leadership of the school has created a framework that is dedicated to preparing these students to encounter that world equipped with the values to navigate its challenges, the moral grounding to appreciate its implications and the internal fortitude to maintain their character throughout.
Yeshiva University as a whole is committed to both protecting and projecting its traditions and its values within the modern world. Every division of YU ideally seeks to accomplish those directives in the fashion best suited to its particular aspects. For students who will eventually be told that the dollar is everything, a program must first be provided that will teach them what it is and what it is not, what it can accomplish and what it cannot, and what must not be sacrificed in its pursuit.
Over the course of many years and with much careful attention, focus, collaboration and creativity, the Syms administration has created and recreated, refined and then refined again, a program that surrounds its top-notch preparation for business success with a deep and broad grounding in Jewish values. Courses are crafted with a deliberate, tailored approach to best fit the specific needs of the bnei Torah who will confront the modern marketplace.
Further, it is not only the Jewish Values Program that is harnessed to this purpose. The class in which I teach Rabbi Blau’s communism article is “The Ethical and Legal Environment of Business.” It is a secular class with a secular textbook. Still, on the first day, I tell the students, “a class such as this in Yeshiva University must be different than this class in any other university.”
The Yeshiva this year is learning Masechet Bava Basra, and when I gave the first shiur in Elul to my students in MYP/RIETS, we introduced the first mishnah with an explanation of the foundations of halakhic ethics. It was exhilarating to realize how much overlap there was with what I would be teaching a few hours later, in the introductory “Ethical and Legal” class. It was of further inspiration to me that I was able to share that realization with Dean Wasserman (along with the recording of the shiur) and know just how meaningful that would be to him as well.
The Talmud teaches that a professional gambler is disqualified from testimony because he is disconnected from any productive employment (eino osek b’yishuvo shel olam; Sanhedrin 24b). It follows that, conversely, one who is actively involved in building up the settlement of society –– and does so with honesty and integrity –– is accorded affirmative credibility. It is not merely that he is fulfilling the imperative of supporting his family in dignity; he is making contributions to the advancement of society that ideally reflect his value system, and, through implementation, expand it further.
Rabbi Blau makes reference to the high cost of Orthodox Jewish practice, due to tuition and other expenses. This is undeniably true, and it is relevant to Syms for more than just the school's ability to train financially successful professionals. The ever-increasing problem of the affordability of Jewish life is an existential challenge practically, and a profound and underappreciated moral challenge in the priorities it creates and the decisions it provokes.
Syms did not create this problem, but perhaps it will be some of our school’s students who will solve it. Perhaps our students, proficient in both the principles of business efficiency and the values of a Jewish community that cherishes family harmony, genuine spirituality and broad educational opportunity (and knowledgeable that this, too, is a sugya in Bava Basra) will have the initiative, insight and inspiration to positively remake our society.
Rabbi Blau wishes that Syms students would take a class with Rabbi Shalom Carmy. As a grateful student and tremendous admirer of Rabbi Carmy, I share that wish. However, college requirements are not the only or even the most effective way to encourage exposure to great teachers. The overall impact of the Syms educational message is to instill the students with an appreciation for Jewish practice, ideals and learning so that they will seek out inspiration and instruction throughout their lives, in and out of the classroom, during and after their college years.
I know this to be true because I see it every day. I see it in the questions I get from current students, that are not only about their final requirements or attendance records but about navigating the demands of their internships and interviews while maintaining their integrity and intensity. And I know it because so many of these questions come a year, five years, 10 years after graduation.
This past week, the yeshiva hosted a conference in which fellows of the Post-Semicha Kollel Elyon presented to the public on the themes of the values of Shemittah. I take some pride in the fact that a number of these fine young rabbis were my students –– in courses at the Syms School. And all of them were taught Rabbi Blau’s communism article in preparation for their presentations. Together, this deepened the message that while to too many in today's world, the dollar is the goal, we know it to be a tool: a tool of kindness, to establish one's integrity and to build and perfect the world in G-d’s Majesty.
It is an unavoidable reality that the demands of the business world will govern the circumstances of our students’ lives. A YU/Syms education can, nonetheless, govern their minds, and, most importantly, their souls. For that, we can all be grateful.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons