Is it right to bash the bankers over bonuses?

What the Torah has to say about contemporary economic values


By Rabbi Leo Dee, December 22, 2010
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A recent letter in the Guardian sardonically remarked: "Good to know the figures add up: £7 billion in bankers' bonuses this year and £7 billion off the welfare budget. Makes sense."

The outcry over bonuses at a time when the rest of the country is tightening its belt seems to reflect a wider sense of economic unfairness, rekindling the old debate over the merits of capitalism over socialism - the needs of the individual against those of the masses. Can it be right that some earn a hundred times more than others? But then without the contribution of high earners, who pay tax and create jobs, would not society simply grind to a halt?

A barmitzvah student of mine asked me which does the Torah believe in: capitalism or socialism? I pondered, before answering "Both". Let me explain.

We were studying the portion about the sabbatical year. "You may sow your field for six years… But in the seventh year, the land shall have a complete rest, a Sabbath to the Lord," says Leviticus (25: 3-7).

For six years we can make as much money as we wish from cultivating our land and selling the produce: it is ours. But in the seventh year, in Israel, we are not allowed to work the land. The fruits on the trees and grapes on the vines are available to everyone who wishes to take them.

For six years we are encouraged to be vehement capitalists - exploit the land for its maximum yield. But in the seventh year we must learn to share what we have with the rest of society - Jews and non-Jewish residents alike- a sort of socialism.

Shabbat has a similar message. "For six days you shall work, but the seventh day shall be a rest for the Lord". Our rabbis called Shabbat "a taste of the world to come". It is a day when all mankind is equal. No one is occupied in their daily job; we can all attend synagogue together, rich and poor, lounge about with friends and family. On Shabbat we cannot drive fancy cars or trade shares and commodities; we should not even talk business. We should focus on spiritual matters in which everyone has an equal share.

Ten years ago my wife and I travelled the world and we lived and worked in Surfers' Paradise, Australia for a couple of months. Earning the minimum wage in Australia (A$10 per hour at the time), I sat in shul next to the fifth richest man in Australia, a billionnaire, on Shabbat and throughout the High Holy Days. Every morning I put on my tallit, and he put on his. Every morning I prayed from the prayer book and so did he. Every lunch time we were invited out to hospitable families in the neighbourhood and so was he. On Shabbat and festivals, there was nothing dividing me, the lowest wage earner in the community, from him, the highest. But during the week he flew around in his private jet and I walked.

The Torah seems to have no problem with private enterprise and rewards. It would support private businesses paying whatever they wished to their employees and owners, assuming the correct taxes are being paid. So banks should be able to pay their employees the bonus they think fit. But what about the current situation, where taxpayers have bailed out the banks?

In the sidrah Vayigash, which we read a couple of weeks ago, seven years of famine follow seven years of bounty. In the first year of famine, Joseph acquires all the animals of the Egyptians in return for grain. In the second year, Joseph acquires all the land of the Egyptians in return for grain. But at that juncture, Joseph resettles all the Egyptians in different cities; he moves them around so that no one is living on the land that they inherited.

Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin (1813-1893) asks why Joseph moves the Egyptians around after acquiring all their fields and assets on behalf of the state. He answers that the Egyptians had to realise that their land was no longer their own. Had they stayed in their family homes, but now been told that the land was now owned by Pharaoh, after a couple of generations they would conveniently forget that the land was no longer theirs and stop paying the taxes to Pharaoh. Moving people around was a reminder that they were living and working on Pharaoh's property.

What is lacking in our current climate is an appreciation by some banks that things have changed. When the Government owns a majority of a company, the employees become public sector employees. A bank that has been bailed out is not a privately owned business that is free to pay its employees and owners what it likes, but a quango that should be controlled by the government until the investment is paid back.

The Torah teaches us a balanced view of economic life: a vision of human equality - Shabbat, the Sabbatical year, every person sitting under their own vine and fig-tree - along with a practical message of how best to achieve it, through hard graft and motivational rewards.

Leo Dee is assistant rabbi at Hendon United Synagogue, who entered the rabbinate after a 10-year career in management consultancy and private equity

    Last updated: 11:41am, December 22 2010