Up Against a Wall (Street): The Financial Crisis and Jewish Values

11/20/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

This Succot marks the 80th birthday of Elie Wiesel, the world's greatest living Jewish personality and the Holocaust's most famous survivor. For this special occasion, the organization I founded, This World: The Jewish Values Network, hosted a celebration for Wiesel at the home of philanthropist Michael Steinhardt, where Wiesel gave us a class on forgiveness.
Wiesel has always been a hero of mine and I had the great pleasure of hosting him several times, both at Oxford and at a lecture for Mormon students in Utah. Wiesel's contribution to humanity has always excited me, not only for the voice he has given to the six million, but primarily for being the world's foremost exponent of Jewish values. Wiesel has excited more people about Jewish stories, Jewish mysticism, Jewish heroes, and Jewish ideas that almost anyone who preceded him. And he, above all others, has given the lie to that most harmful of beliefs that Judaism is only for Jews.

The tragedy of modern Jewry is to have produced only one Jew of world stature whose books on Judaism, rabbis, and Jewish spirituality are read the world over in every country and in every language. Had we produced nine more of similar stature, Judaism would today have at least the same spiritual power for world civilization as Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism. Instead, Jews today have financial but not spiritual power. We are known as great businessmen but not great spiritual lights.

Don't believe me? Try the following word association with your non-Jewish friends. Say "day," and they'll say "night." Say "boy," and they'll say "girl." Say "Jew," and in most cases, they'll say "money." Not because they're anti-Semitic, but because that's what the word "Jew" conjures up for most people. That Jews have money, are good at making money, desire money, and are very generous with their money once they have it.

It was a stereotype that was not particularly helped by a picture on the front page of The New York Times Business Section last week on the day after Rosh Hashana that depicted nervous Jewish Wall Street traders outside one of the largest synagogues in New York checking their Blackberries for the latest market news on this, one of the holiest days of the Jewish calendar. Could anyone imagine this happening outside St. Peter's in Rome at midnight mass -- a bunch of Catholics nervously checking market fluctuations, or Protestants outside the National Cathedral on Good Friday, checking to see if their portfolios were up or down?

Many people in the United States see Wall Street as synonymous with Jews, and that's why a wave of anti-Semitism has erupted on the Internet in the wake of Wall Street's collapse. The suggestion that Wall Street is "Jewish" is another anti-Semitic libel. Still, many Jews do work on Wall Street and the recent financial turmoil has forced us all to reexamine what constitutes Jewish security. Jews in the United States have influence well beyond their numbers because they are financially prosperous and well-organized. But is that what we wish to be principally known for?

The collapse of the American financial markets might, paradoxically, have given the American Jewish community a new idea with which they ought to become synonymous. Once, when Jews had no money, no homeland, and were the most persecuted people on earth, they found security in their families and communities. Whereas other nations mastered power and territory, Jews mastered relationships and human connections. We had rock-solid marriages that produced ethical and secure children who went on to form communities of steel. Crusaders could attack us and Cossacks could assault us, but they could never pry us away from one another, bonded as we were by ties of nuclear strength. Jewish values, emphasizing the value of human life ahead of any and all material objects, was the glue that kept these relationships so sturdy.

I propose that the Jewish community make an effort once again to own the world relationship. As I have repeatedly argued, the Western world's principal problem today is not that it does not know how to make money, but rather that it no longer knows how to sustain a relationship. Divorce affects about half of all Western families, singles date endlessly without committing, and children look to celebrities and sports heroes rather than their parents as their principal source of inspiration. Men do not know how to respect women and women do not know how to respect themselves. The crisis in the Western world is not financial, but a crisis of values. Isn't that what all our financial experts have been saying, that the Wall Street collapse was brought about by greed and material insatiability? A culture that conditions people to believe happiness will come from possessions rather than relationships is bound to collapse.

Why are all these families in America collapsing? What happened to family values? The Jewish community forfeited the conversation about "family values" to our Christian brothers and sisters -- too many of whom, unfortunately, turned it into a conversation about abortion and gay marriage. Since these were never the real issues affecting families, the values that men, women, and children so desperately need were never injected into the culture.

But the good news is it's not too late. We Jews can earn our seat at the table by bringing the light of Jewish values, especially as it pertains to mastering relationships, to a world thirsting to know how to start loving again.

The writer hosts a daily national radio show on mastering relationships onOprah and Friends, on Sirius and XM Radio. His upcoming book, The Kosher Sutra, will be published in January.