Oren Cass's book succeeds masterfully as a work of politics regardless of what one thinks of its economics.
Reflection on business and the economy from the standpoint of texts deemed by many people to be sacred has produced decidedly mixed results over the past century. Far too often, the authors of such analyses have already decided their preferred business model or favorite economic theory and then go looking for Scriptural verses to prop up their position by appeals to religious authority. Airport bookshops are littered with such publications.
This state of affairs was not always the case. In the writings of the Fathers of the Christian church and medieval and early-modern scholastics, for example, the insights offered by Scripture into something like the character of money were regularly brought to bear in a measured way that didn’t amount to biblical cherry-picking. I was reminded of this recently while reading a book written by an Israeli business leader who happens to be a life-long Torah student.
Michael A. Eisenberg is a prominent Israeli venture capitalist and exemplifies the Israeli economy’s slow shift over the past forty years away from its Labor Zionist foundations towards more market-orientated arrangements. In The Tree of Life and Prosperity: 21st Century Business Principles from the Book of Genesis (2021), Eisenberg concedes that he looks at “everything through an economic lens.” But Eisenberg, a religious Jew, has also engaged in Torah study for decades. He takes this seriously because, for Eisenberg, the Torah “is real life.” It contains “eternal truths” and, for that very reason, they need to be applied. Eisenberg insists that “we can only learn [these truths] if we are willing to say they are applicable.” Through orthopraxis, in other words, we discover how orthodoxy can shape us and our world.
Truth Informs Truth—and Vice-Versa
The Tree of Life and Prosperity is the first of five volumes in which Eisenberg seeks to explore all five Torah books to uncover basic economic truths but also to show how contemporary economic life can shine new light on Torah wisdom. At one point, he even argues that “a significant part of the wisdom inherent in Scripture can be investigated and understood only in our time.” I wondered about that comment—until I realized that it reflects the conviction that the knowledge contained in the Torah is inexhaustible given that it reflects the mind of God himself, and different aspects of that revealed truth will become more apparent to humans in light of what is happening around them at any given point of time.
In the midst of Eisenberg’s inquiries, we also learn a great deal about his approach to venture capital, how he understands his successes, and his willingness to speak candidly about his mistakes. For Eisenberg, the business disappointments are not so much economic as they are failures to grasp the deeper meaning of Torah wisdom. This latter point is basic to Eisenberg’s central contention: that “Principles, ethics, and morals are not merely questions of lifestyle that parallel the laws of economics; they must also be part of the foundations.” Capitalism, he maintains, is perhaps one of the greatest sources of improvement in human history. But Eisenberg insists that without the type of moral outlook revealed in the Torah, that same economy can subvert humanity itself.
Here Eisenberg has tough things to say about social media platforms like Google and Facebook. Having opened wider access to knowledge, they have fallen into a type of self-idolatry by setting themselves up as the arbiter of what may be thought and said. They are, Eisenberg says, “a digital Tower of Babel, seeking to glorify themselves while suppressing human difference and promoting uniformity, as in the Biblical description: ‘Everyone on earth had the same language and the same words (Genesis 11:1)’.”
The insistence that markets need lubrication from non-economic sources if they are to create value and avoid fueling mindsets that undermine our capacity to pursue truth, beauty, and the good, is hardly new. Prominent theorists of the market economy, ranging from Adam Smith and Wilhelm Röpke to Michael Novak and Vernon L. Smith in more recent times, have long insisted that this is a sine qua non for markets that serve humanity and its flourishing. Eisenberg, however, brings out in fresh ways how the verses of Genesis and study of their context, the placement of particular narratives, and even specific word choices can illuminate the workings of business and markets, their achievements, and how and why they can go wrong.
Part of Eisenberg’s success here owes much, I would argue, to his decision not to order the chapters according to economic themes that would naturally build upon each other (creativity, entrepreneurship, business, and so forth). Rather, Eisenberg arranges his book according to the Torah’s traditional division into portions (each is called a parashah) which are read in synagogues across the world every week. In each chapter, he weaves reflection on particular economic questions into a careful exegesis of the portion under consideration. The effect is not only to diminish radically the temptation to engage in proof-texting. It also puts the author, his topics, and his readers in the very presence of Genesis, drawing them into the moral universe of one of the most influential texts in history.
Ancient Amidst the Modern
Bringing the many levels of knowledge contained in Genesis to bear upon the complexities of commercial activity and post-industrial economies is not a simple exercise. When we look, as Eisenberg does, at the economics of something like a Universal Basic Income (UBI) or the insights into business negotiation offered by Game Theory, the sheer number of variables that characterize these subjects might cause some to imagine that only the most superficial of analyses from a Torah standpoint is possible.
Eisenberg shows that this need not be the case. He identifies, for instance, the core assumptions underlying UBI, explains why UBI has become a live policy option for many governments, before diving quickly into Parashat Bereishit (the first portion of Genesis) and its portrait of the creation of the world and the Garden of Eden. That brings Eisenberg squarely to the topic of work, which he shows Genesis as understanding as good in itself for the man (and, by extension, humanity), even before the Fall.
And therein, for Eisenberg, lies UBI’s fatal flaw. UBI proponents talk about how it provides people with the means to live, be creative, and enjoy the benefits of leisure. But, Eisenberg stresses, none of this is work. That matters because, Genesis demonstrates, it is through work that we can become responsible for ourselves and others and enter into relationships of a type that UBI cannot realize.
It is part of the genius of the Jewish people (even what I sometimes call the Jewish civilizational mission) that they have long stressed work’s god-like character. Work, Genesis tells us, is part of what it means for humans to be the imago Dei. The man alone received a mandate from the Creator of the universe to subdue the earth, and, in that way, to mirror the very action and mind of that same Creator. In the ancient world, this message directly contradicted the indifferent-to-negative attitude towards work (especially of the commercial variety) embodied in Hellenic and Roman cultures. Pagan societies tended to judge a citizen’s worth in terms of his prowess as a soldier or success in politics. Work was for women, slaves, and assorted non-citizens. In our time, Eisenberg demonstrates how Genesis’s conception of work and its importance for what it means to be human presents a stark counterpoint to what has become contemporary wisdom among some policymakers: that we address what some believe will be a shortage of employment (a prospect that I consider unlikely based on economic history) by using UBI to effectively devalue work.
Succeeding chapters follow a similar methodology. Whether the topic is the nature of innovation, the origins and content of trust, the meaning of integrity in commercial relationships, or the willingness to take risks and venture out into the unknown, Eisenberg patiently teases out the implications of particular portions of Genesis to highlight what is going on beneath the surface of these dimensions of economic life.
Especially fascinating is how Eisenberg deploys the final verses of the Parashat Vayigash to illuminate how Joseph, as the Pharaoh’s powerful vizier, inadvertently opened the door to weakening free economic and associational activity throughout Egypt by entrusting the government with such a prominent and lasting role in addressing crop-failures and famine. The negative effects of the state taking on such responsibilities may, Eisenberg says, have been tempered by Joseph’s prudence and probity. But there are always unintended consequences, one of which, Eisenberg suggests, was to undermine the self-reliance of ordinary Egyptians and the social ties that bound them together. Economies, Eisenberg stresses, are delicate things, and there are always many unknowns which follow from government interventions into complicated economic ecosystems.
From this standpoint, the Joseph narrative underscores the considerable gap between good intentions and unanticipated negative consequences, and provides a biblical anticipation of what F.A. Hayek called the knowledge problem. At the same time, Eisenberg’s account sheds new light on Joseph himself and his inherently human limitations. Joseph was a wise and just man; but he was not all-knowing. His decisions seemed to make sense at the time, but they also contributed to a gradual inner disintegration of Egyptian society. Subsequently full of resentment at what they had become, the Egyptians proceeded to enslave the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
Spiritual and Material Wealth
Examining the effects of government intervention is not, however, where Eisenberg ends his commentary. Instead he turns to a different but perennial topic: that being the significance and value of material wealth. Widespread material prosperity is a relatively recent phenomenon in human history. Yet the possession of material wealth has long been viewed in ambiguous terms by religious and secular thinkers alike.
I’ve often thought that many Jewish thinkers have a better grasp of how to think about the benefits and risks associated with wealth than, for instance, most contemporary Christian commentators on the topic. With the latter, one often encounters either 1) a basic suspicion of anyone who possesses significant wealth, sometimes accompanied by an exaltation of pauperism, or, 2) the Prosperity Gospel—something which, I’d argue, is hard to reconcile with any serious reading of Scripture.
Eisenberg shows that neither of these views is consistent with the wisdom of Genesis, not least, he argues, because “it is the use, not the avoidance of wealth,” with which Genesis is concerned. In a way, the wealth question is the underlying theme with which Eisenberg’s book wrestles from start to finish. What emerges from his exploration of Genesis’s treatment of the topic is a more nuanced approach to the topic than one typically hears from most religious (or, for that matter, secular) commentators.
According to Eisenberg, the Torah “seeks to model a successful society from both a spiritual and material perspective.” In figures like Jacob, he finds attitudes and practices that affirm enterprise and risk-taking and which create prosperity for himself and others. In this sense, wealth is a blessing, and precisely for that reason is not to be an occasion for debauchery, decadence, or having contempt for the poor. The same texts also point to the less-exciting but nonetheless indispensable tasks of those who make the economic trains run on time (logistics, accounting, financial systems, etc.) and thus help buttress and sustain wealth-creation. Moreover, these particular functions and responsibilities which affirm the importance of transparency, honesty, trust, and accountability are, Eisenberg argues, especially “anchored in the native values of ancient Israel.”
Those anchors tell us many other things: that hedonism and greed are always wrong; that the prosperity which springs from the human mind is to be valued but is no guarantee of perfect results; and that everyone, rich or poor, needs to be humble in the face of a God who is good but also just and who sees everything. Yes, these may be old truths. But they need retelling if market economies are to persist and if humans are to prosper in ways that include but go beyond life’s economic dimension. To say such things over and over again may be a burden. Yet it is also what it means for Israel to be “a light unto the nations” (Isaiah 49:6).