The Arty Semite

The Meaning of Money

By Jenna Weissman Joselit

  • Print
  • Share Share

Crossposted From Under the Fig Tree

Many moons ago, when I was a graduate student in Jewish history happily spending my days doing little else but reading, one of the most intriguing books I encountered was not Maimonides’ “Guide to the Perplexed,” or “Transactions of the Paris Sanhedrin” or, for that matter, Hannah Arendt’s “The Origins of Totalitarianism” but Werner Sombart’s “The Jews and Economic Life.”

Published in German in 1911, this work sought to account for why, time and again throughout history, the Jews were to be found on one side, and one side only, of the ledger book — the side that placed a premium on money, on matters mercantile, rather than on agriculture and the production of organic matter. How was it, Sombart asked, that the Jews seemed characterologically drawn to capitalism?

Instead of turning to the usual suspects for answers — to statistics, say, or government records — the German sociologist turned to Judaism or, more to the point, to the desert where Judaism was born. Linking religion to topography and culture to climate, he allowed how the religion of a rootless, desert people accustomed to reckoning with the hard, tree-less environment of the desert gave birth to a way of thinking that rewarded abstraction. And, in the fullness of time, this predilection for abstraction flowered into capitalism.

Wild, wooly, fanciful and fantastic, Sombart’s theory drew me like the proverbial moth to the flame. Whether it was right or wrong, grounded in a willful misreading of the Bible or a skillful, daring reinterpretation of it — none of this mattered to me. What mattered was the way Sombart transformed a mode of thinking into a cultural position, a way of being in the world, a social value. To put it another way, I liked the way Sombart thought.

His conclusions, laced with a kind of racism that precluded change, was something else again. But his imaginative process was nothing less than captivating, prompting me to range a bit more freely in my own work on the modern Jewish experience.

It’s been years since I’ve had Sombart in my thoughts. But now, thanks to Jerry Muller’s provocative and perceptive new book, “Capitalism and the Jews,” Sombart is back in my sights.

Muller’s lucid and gracefully written account not only devotes a couple of pages to Sombart’s musings about the Jews but also makes abundantly — and at times even painfully clear — how money is not simply an economic transaction but a cultural and social phenomenon, whose consequences transcend the marketplace.

Money has meaning, a social meaning, especially when it comes to figuring out the place of the Jews in the modern world.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Werner Sombart, The Origins of Totalitarianism, The Jews and Economic Life, Maimonides, Jerry Muller, Jenna Weissman Joselit, Hannah Arendt, Guide to the Perplexed, From Under the Fig Tree, Capitalism and the Jews, Books

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • Lusia Horowitz left pre-state Israel to fight fascism in Spain — and wound up being captured by the Nazis and sent to die at Auschwitz. Share her remarkable story — told in her letters.
  • Vered Guttman doesn't usually get nervous about cooking for 20 people, even for Passover. But last night was a bit different. She was cooking for the Obamas at the White House Seder.
  • A grumpy Jewish grandfather is wary of his granddaughter's celebrating Easter with the in-laws. But the Seesaw says it might just make her appreciate Judaism more. What do you think?
  • “Twist and Shout.” “Under the Boardwalk.” “Brown-Eyed Girl.” What do these great songs have in common? A forgotten Jewish songwriter. We tracked him down.
  • What can we learn from tragedies like the rampage in suburban Kansas City? For one thing, we must keep our eyes on the real threats that we as Jews face.
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • "Sometime in my childhood, I realized that the Exodus wasn’t as remote or as faceless as I thought it was, because I knew a former slave. His name was Hersh Nemes, and he was my grandfather." Share this moving Passover essay!
  • Getting ready for Seder? Chag Sameach! http://jd.fo/q3LO2
  • "We are not so far removed from the tragedies of the past, and as Jews sit down to the Seder meal, this event is a teachable moment of how the hatred of Jews-as-Other is still alive and well. It is not realistic to be complacent."
  • Aperitif Cocktail, Tequila Shot, Tom Collins or Vodka Soda — Which son do you relate to?
  • Elvis craved bacon on tour. Michael Jackson craved matzo ball soup. We've got the recipe.
  • This is the face of hatred.
  • What could be wrong with a bunch of guys kicking back with a steak and a couple of beers and talking about the Seder? Try everything. #ManSeder
  • BREAKING: Smirking killer singled out Jews for death in suburban Kansas City rampage. 3 die in bloody rampage at JCC and retirement home.
  • Real exodus? For Mimi Minsky, it's screaming kids and demanding hubby on way down to Miami, not matzo in the desert.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.