Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Wailing Wall Street's "Days of Awe"

With less than two weeks before the Jewish Judgment Day, people on wailing Wall Street are already muttering, on a daily basis, “Who shall live and who shall die?” People are suffering greatly; many are losing their shirt, but the death sentence has been pronounced not on human beings, but on brands that for so long had been considered rocks of stability, companies like Merrill Lynch and AIG.

I’m no economist; balancing a checkbook is a major challenge for me. But real experts (even some not running for President) have told me that at the root of the current crisis is what Gordon Gekko, as played by Michael Douglas 21 years ago, in “Wall Street,” the movie, said it would be” – GREED.

“The point is, ladies and gentleman, that greed -- for lack of a better word -- is good.
Greed is right.
Greed works.
Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit.
Greed, in all of its forms -- greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge -- has marked the upward surge of mankind.”

If the High Holidays have a theme, it’s that greed is not good – guilt is. Judaism acknowledges that some greed is necessary for the world to go round. Without selfishness, without a smidgeon of lust and the other seven deadly sins, we would never have children, never create new inventions, never excel over previous generations. Greed, to some degree, is good – but only when there is also guilt.

Judaism calls it “Yetzer ha’ra,” the evil inclination. As described succinctly in in this essay on, “Yetzer hara is not a demonic force that pushes a person to do evil, but rather a drive toward pleasure or property or security, which if left unlimited, can lead to evil (cf. Genesis Rabbah 9:7). When properly controlled by the yetzer ha tov (good inclination), the yetzer hara leads to many socially desirable results, including marriage, business, and community.”

But what keeps that greed from getting out of control. Nothing but good old fashioned, grandma’s-chicken-soup GUILT. We joke about the destructive nature of “ Jewish guilt,” but in fact, we too often fail to realize its healing potential, confusing it with the far more toxic Christian notion of sin. As Eliezer Shore writes in an article about R. Nachman of Breslov in the current issue of Sh’ma, “The problem of sin is never in the act itself, nor even in the damage it causes, which is always repairable….If our failures lead us to despair and hopelessness, then we have doubly sinned; if they motivate us to change, then they are redeemed.”

Jewish guilt can lead to change and ultimately to redemption. Christian sin can be redeemed only through belief in an intermediary appealing on our behalf. We Jews can redeem ourselves, on our own. Jews are always “pro choice,” not necessarily because of any convictions regarding abortion, but because the choice is always in our hand: good or evil, excessive greed or cleansing guilt, it’s ours alone to decide.

The degree to which the sin of greed on Wall Street can be redeemed now lies solely in the ability of those who have the power to make significant changes to do exactly that. If it takes a degree of Jewish guilt for that to happen, plus or minus the chicken soup, so be it.

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