Jewish mythbusting at the Wharton School

340px-shylock_e_jessicaAs we’ve seen in press coverage over the past couple of months, the 50 billion dollar fraud allegedly perpetrated by financier Bernard Madoff has sparked debate and some soul-searching about Jewish identity in the Jewish community.

So while it’s coincidental, as Stacey Burling of the Philadelphia Inquirer recounts, it’s still a fascinating time for the University of Pennsylvania to delve into the history of Jewish commerce.
The lede makes it clear that Burling wants, appropriately enough, to focus on the groundbreaking topic from a business perspective:

The scholars approached their topic with considerable nervousness, and that was before the Wall Street meltdown, before Bernard L. Madoff.

Would a series of lectures at a premier business school on the history of Jews making money feed negative stereotypes?

In the end, the Wharton School and the Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies decided to go ahead and tackle a topic that has gotten short shrift from academics until recently.

The goal, said the center’s director, David Ruderman, is to understand Jewish economic history “more profoundly, which is what a university does

The writer tells us that three lectures are linked to a yearlong focus at the Katz Center on “Jews, commerce and culture.”

Burling quotes Jonathan Karp, the first speaker in the series at Wharton, saying that: “We don’t want to be intimidated by the perceptions of Jewish economic life.”

The two paragraphs that follow are so jammed with information and short-hand that it leaves the reader aware that something is missing.

Karp and other visiting scholars at the center said many Jews had indeed done well in modern business and finance. They trace the financial success of Jews in the Western world to a cultural emphasis on education coupled with centuries of persecution that forced Jews to disperse around the world – creating the foundation for global trade networks – and discrimination that shut Jews out of the most prestigious jobs. That honed a talent for spotting opportunity on the fringes of the economic world. Jews were among the first, for example, to see the mass-audience potential in movies and recorded music by black artists, Karp said.

The downside of economic success throughout much of Jewish history was that it fueled resentment and harsh treatment from competing groups, the scholars said.

If this is the case, it an extraordinary story of resilience and survival on the part of a group that has suffered a lot of historical persecution.
What created that kind of resilience? Is it possible that it is rooted in belief and practice?

Apparently not, if you buy this enigmatic paragraph:

The historians said they had found nothing inherent in Judaism that would lead to financial success or a predisposition to entrepreneurship. In fact, commerce and religion have largely been kept separate in Jewish cultural life, they said.

I have no idea what that means — do you? It may just simply mean that commercial activities were done outside the home and the synagogue.

The subject of Jewish economic history really deserves coverage that gets beyond the cliches. Burling does a nice job of presenting a panoramic perspective, talking to a number of diverse sources, and getting good quotes.

But because she doesn’t spend much time talking about where Jewish faith and commerce intersect, or don’t intersect, that may leave readers with the impression that Jewish ethical teaching, rooted in the Hebrew Scriptures and the Talmud, had nothing to say about how one spends money, or practices justice –which is not the case.

And aside from a general, glancing allusion, she also doesn’t analyze the role of other faith groups (in some eras and some nations) in portraying Jews as usurers, greedy, and worse.

Perhaps it’s time, as some quoted in the article seem to imply, for more nuanced, more upbeat look at Jewish economic history.

In that context, the practice of Judaism, historical persecution of Jews by various faith groups, and the social history of the Jewish community are all parts of this complex story-one that continues to unfold on a global scale, and one that I wish had gotten a bit of scrutiny in this article.

Portrait of Shylock and Jessica in the public domain from Wikimedia Commons

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  • Bill

    I believe that the paragraph referring to the separation of commerce and religion may be referring to the fact that many yeshiva students and scholars do not work, and have been supported by their wives, their fathers-in-law, or wealthy patrons in order to give them a life they can dedicate to Torah study.

  • dalea

    I would read the quote as being in the tradition of Max Weber who wrote on the connectedness of Protestantism and the Industrial Revolution; something like the Protestant Ethic. Linking religion and commerce is a fairly common theme among economic historians, going back into the 19th century. When I studied this long ago, even then economic history was an obscure subject, the texts dealt with religion and commerce. One of the favorite groups to study were Quakers who played a major role in the industrial revolution. This is standard economic history talk.

  • Ira Rifkin

    Commerce and religion did come together in Jewish culture via halacha – rabbinic Jewish religious law that.

    Halacha included detailed guidelines for how business was to be conducted, and threatened excommunication should the guidelines be flagrantly ignored.

    In the 15th- through 18th-centuries, the period in which global commerce was crafted, halacha and excommunication were still a big deal to Jews throughout the diaspora. This built trust among Jews before the advent of modern, internationally recognized business law, allowing for the growth of global Jewish enterprises and the practice of Chritians and Muslims to rely on Jews as business intermediaries.

    The rest, you might say, is a function of habit and history.

  • Ira Rifkin

    Excuse me. First sentence should read:

    Commerce and religion did come together in Jewish culture via halacha – rabbinic Jewish religious law.

  • E.E. Evans

    Thank you, Ira — how interesting. So do you think that the reporter didn’t know this or somehow the scholar she spoke to never raised the rabbinic law issue. What do you think the scholars were talking about?

    I had no idea excommunication was also a Jewish concept — although I suppose it can broadly mean being cast out of the community. What did that mean in the Jewish community?

  • Ira Rifkin


    I of course have no idea what the reporter or scholar either knew or said.

    As for excommunication, it consisted of various levels of separation from the community – which was all each Jew really had prior to the era of widespread assimilation and acceptance by non-Jews – and had to be decreed by a rabbinical (religious) court.

    The most severe degree (there were several degrees, including some very mild) of excommunication included shunning by all but immediate family. Excomunication could be overturned, and its most severe form was rare and generally limited to religious disputes (remember Spinoza?)

    Today, only the most extreme ultra-Orthodox attempt to use excommunication to keep people in line.

  • str1977

    “The historians said they had found nothing inherent in Judaism that would lead to financial success or a predisposition to entrepreneurship.”

    It means precisely that. That there is nothing in the Jewish religion predisposing one to become a financial entrepreneur. Rather the contrary, as the condemnation of interest and usury is after all orginally a Jewish concept.

    That doesn’t mean that external, social factor have contributed to Jewish participation in the finance sector.

    PS. Max Weber’s thesis is probably one of the most overrated half-truths around. Yes, Protestantism brought forth capitalism – tell that to Lorenzo di Medici, Jakob Fugger and the Cistercian order.