Open Letter to My Students 23: The Jewish Gold Standard

We all know the word “capital”: a synonym, roughly, for our assets, usually the financial kind, what we calculate to decide our economic worth. But there are many kinds of capital, the way there are many kinds of worth. Social capital, for example, comes from influential social standing; cultural capital depends on whatever a culture values as educational accomplishments, artistic standing, and social class.

So too, there is “Jewish capital,” what we take to be our Jewish “worth.” For some 2,000 years, Jewish capital has been measured by “Talmudism”: knowledge of the Talmud and the literature it has spawned (like commentaries, responsa, and codes); and a halachic lifestyle derived from that literature. More than anything else, these two things, Talmudic knowledge and halachic practice, have functioned over time as the measure of Jewish worth, a determiner of Jewish status and what counts as Jewish authenticity.

The proper economic analogy would be gold: Talmudism is the historical Jewish gold standard. 

Under the gold standard, a country is worth whatever gold it has. Paper money, by itself worthless, accrues value only insofar as the country issuing it can back it up with gold. Alternatively, governments can determine the value of their currency by legal fiat: the British pound, the American dollar, the Japanese yen and so on, now rise or fall relative to one another, without regard to how much gold a country stockpiles. 

Just as most countries today no longer feel obliged to measure their economic wealth by gold, most Jews today need no longer measure their Jewish worth by Talmudism. To be sure, gold is not a bad thing to own, and Talmudism is not a bad thing to master, but knowledge of Talmud and fealty to halachah are not the only ways to measure Jewish worth. 

There were always other forms of Jewish capital: philosophical or kabbalistic expertise in the Middle Ages, for example, but under the prevailing gold standard of Talmudism, these were always secondary to Talmudic/halachic loyalty, without which, regardless of intellectual acumen or personal piety, one was religiously bankrupt. 

All that changed in the 19th century, when an explosion of alternative Jewish capital occurred: academic Jewish scholarship, Zionism, and religious (but not halachic) Judaism. That explosion continues, with creative Jewish ritual for example: feminist rosh chodesh groups and novel life-cycle events, where those creating them do not worry overly much about what — or even whether — Talmudism has anything to say about them.  

When ultra-traditionalists insist that a Jewish state be halachically based, they are arguing, in effect, to retain the Jewish gold standard, without conceding that we are in an age of fiat capital. Governments proclaim their euros or yuan as legal tender, and as long as we agree to honor them, they function as actual wealth. So too with Jewish culture, Judaism as religion, and even Talmudism itself: these are all forms of fiat capital nowadays, for those who decide to honor them.  

But old ideas of capital die hard. Jews who say they are not “religious” (i.e., “they do not use the currency of Talmudism”) may be devotees of other Jewish capital instead. The negative consequence of denying authenticity to them is staggering. No matter how frequently people visit Jewish museums, travel to Israel, read Jewish books, and zoom Jewish programming, they will get the message that they lack “real” Jewish worth.

When the gold standard came under attack in the late nineteenth century, it was the eastern banking establishment with mastery of old-school capital who insisted that gold alone was real wealth. So too, it is the Jewish religious establishment – rabbis and halachah-keepers, by and large – who are most likely to argue that Talmudism is the only real form of Jewish wealth. They have spent lifetimes mastering it, after all. They, as it were, own big chunks of it.  

When I say “they,” I also mean “me,” because I too was raised to value Talmudism as the only real Jewish capital. To be sure, I am Reform, and never was halachic, but for my doctorate, I almost majored in Talmud; I still read it avidly; if I had to choose a single “book” to take with me to a desert island, it would be The Babylonian Talmud. But I have come to admire other forms of Judaism as valid capital too. I am not unique in this realization; this is not news to most of the serious Jews I know. 

But still, I worry: because not just anything goes. The purchase value of fiat currency fluctuates with the underlying health of the economy for which it stands. Take Talmudism itself. Supporting an argument by cherry-picking Talmudic snippets taken out of context doesn’t count for very much. If such “convenience quoting” is Talmudism’s currency, it is debased currency, a kind of Talmudic inflation that drives the worth of talmudism down. So too with other forms of Jewish currency. They too must mirror enough Jewish depth to guarantee their worth. Worship services in Reform synagogues, for example, must be more than rote reading of prayers and a pleasant guitar sing-along.  If services are not just a case of following the Talmudic standard of what has to get done (these prayers, that Torah reading, and so on), then what are they, if not an artistry of their own, which has yet to receive very much attention? 

We Jews have no “Fed” to oversee our fiat currency. We largely still trust rabbis and cantors to do it. But laypeople too bear responsibility for making sure that our offerings do not flood the market with counterfeits. Economies are supply and demand. Let synagogue boards demand only the best, and give their clergy the mandate, budget, and time to produce it. Shallow Judaism may still attract some people, but in the end, counterfeit is counterfeit. Serious people will go elsewhere. And the world will be bereft of a messianic Jewish presence.

This messianic Jewish presence (for lack of a better metaphor) is what ultimately makes Jewish capital more than monopoly money or pokemon finds. In one way or another, Judaism has always promised a transcendent purpose for human life, and dispatched Jews into the world to fulfil it. In the gold standard of Talmudism, mastering Talmud pages and mitzvot are the means to bring the messiah. Every alternative Jewish capital — religious reform, Zionism, even Jewish socialism — substituted its own preferred currency, but remained true to Judaism’s messianic purpose. In their own way, Ahad Ha’am’s Jewish state and Reform Judaism’s “Mission of Israel” are equally redemptive. Their forms of capital were new, but the final resolve was not. Authentic Jewish capital provides the currency for the Jewish People to address the human condition and attain a better world. 

2 responses to “Open Letter to My Students 23: The Jewish Gold Standard

  1. HI Larry,

    I finally read your blog and have questions on it. I am not sure what you mean by “remaining true to Judaism’s messianic purpose”. I don’t believe in a messiah and I thought reform believed in a messianic age when people would care for each other, a time of peace – a time I believe will never come in our world.

    As a reform Jew, I read Torah and try to keep learning, through synagogue and on-line lectures, reading books. I lead a club where I send all types of information to the group. Shalom has people of all faiths (mainly non-Jewish spouses) but I try to make the purpose of our group be more than Jews getting together socially. We live in a Christian community and I am trying to bridge an outstanding of Jewish culture, values, holidays for our Christian neighbors. People of all faiths can come to our meeting and some do just for that meeting.

    I just left leading our building’s social meeting after being on it for four years. The purpose was more than monthly activities to entertain people – Shell Point offers a lot of entertainment, whatever you can think of. It’s purpose is for neighbors to get to know neighbors, important for new residents and especially single ones. I bake banana bread or other goody when new residents move into our floor- i just want them to have something to nibble while they are unpacking. And, I give them our address card and let them know they can knock on our door with questions or concerns. It helps them, but it also helps us learn whom are new neighbors are. We know have 9 Jewish people in our building – all belong to Shalom.

    I believe in Jewish ethics, like the Kadoshim portion of Leviticus. I try to lead a life where I help my neighbors, volunteer for Shell Point activities which benefit others. I know when I die, that people will not remember what I have accomplished in life. I just want them to think of me as a kind, caring person, one who helped others.

    I am involved in our Democrat party which will probably lose the next election, but meanwhile it tries to help people. I donate to our Jewish Federation which helps people and provide food for their food bank which helps people of all faiths.

    Is any of this considered capitol? Is it part of Judaism’s messianic purpose?

    Hugs,

    Eve

    >

    • It is exactly a kind of Jewish capital of the sort I am describing. You say, “I try to make the purpose of our group be more than Jews getting together socially.” Now even if Jews just get together socially, that is in itself a form of Jewish capital, but it won’t buy very much. When you try to move the conversation to being (as you pout it), “more than monthly activities to entertain people,” at that point you are really searching for currency that buys more that simple card games, say, or another movie night. I know, for example, that you like Torah’s study, and that, again (as you say), “I believe in Jewish ethics, like the Kadoshim portion of Leviticus. I try to lead a life where I help my neighbors, volunteer for Shell Point activities which benefit others.”Insofar as you arrive at that sort of behavior from the ethical perspective of Kodashim, then you are accessing Jewish capital and of a more serious kind. Similarly, insofar as you try to share Judaism with others, learning from them as they learn from you, that too is a higher sort of currency.

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