Rav Shagar On Money, The Soul, & Capitalism

In light of Vayikra 27, to be read as part of this week’s torah portion of Behar-Beḥukotai, and which discusses the monetary evaluation of different types of people (men, women, children, etc.), I thought it worthwhile to present a translation of part of a sermon Rav Shagar gave for Purim in 2002. The sermon talks about the biblical passage (Shemot 30:12-16) where the Israelites give half-shekels as ransom for their lives (נפש), a midrash that connects these half-shekels to the money Haman pays Aḥashverosh to enact his genocidal decree, and a midrash that problematizes the half-shekel ransom as bridging the gap between the finite and the infinite. From these sources, Shagar moves to a discussion of the nature of money, a critique of capitalism, and a suggestion of its positive potential.

One note on the translation: I have consistently translated the word “נפש” as “soul” in line with its popular usage and because it’s clear that the religious connotations of that word are part of Shagar’s intent. However, Shagar’s usage is also more concrete than how the word “soul” is often used. He’s not talking about a mystical substance bearing an unclear connection to the individual person, he is talking about the individual person herself, in all her infinite subjectivity, and in this sense it is similar to how Tanakh uses “נפש” to mean “living thing.”

Without further ado, the translation, followed by my explanation.

Money is a quantitative measure that lacks substance, while the soul is quality and substance. Money signifies a relationship of interest with that which is outside me, it turns self into property and meaning into control. Money’s value flows from its role as a tool, from the unending movement of exchange where everything is evaluated in regard to something else. In contrast, the soul is internality, totally independent being-as-itself. And thus Moshe’s question: how is it possible to exchange money for the soul?

Indeed, just as Haman thought it was possible to buy those lives with money, so too in the capitalistic world the soul receives its value via exchange. A person’s soul depends on money; the verse says “and his life (נפש) depends on it” (Devarim 24) regarding the worker’s wage. In Rebbe Naḥman’s story of the Master of Prayer, a person’s self-image is based on his money, and so instead of improving himself he is able to just buy a more successful self. Redeeming the soul is the flip-side of this reality: instead of turning the soul into money, he makes a soul out of money. If the absolute control that money gives is taken as the highest value, then passing it up for the sake of the soul establishes the soul as independently valuable in and of itself. Haman pays for souls and turns them into objects, while giving charity subordinates money to the soul. Passionate commitment (mesirut nefesh), and the self-overcoming bound up in it, grant the soul its freedom; it no longer exists in what it is not, but rather in what it is.

Additionally, redeeming the soul with money grants the soul the value of something external to it. This is the flip-side of capitalism, which sees everything as a commodity: if monetary value grants everything its substance, then giving up on this for the sake of the soul gives it a an objectivity that it was lacking. The soul receives its substance via its ability to give up on its lack of substance, to accept the superficial rules of the game and to overcome this imposition. This ability flows from the infinite, which knows no distinction between interior and exterior, for the exterior is itself a revelation of the interior. (Original Hebrew: http://shagar.co.il/?page_id=1502)

Rav Shagar sees the dichotomy between the soul and money as the difference between substance, identity, and the lack thereof. The soul is what it is, a person is who she is, and cannot be defined in terms of something else. Money has no substance or identity, and is nothing but a way of putting one thing in terms of something else. Money enables evaluation of otherwise entirely different objects by the same standard of evaluation. A person or object can be represented not as itself but by way of its monetary evaluation. This enables the continuous exchange that Shagar sees as characteristic of capitalism, where nothing has any substance or identity of its own.

This lack of substance and identity, and the constant exchange that flows from it, is the basis of Shagar’s critique of capitalism. That Shagar is critiquing capitalism is clear from the comparison to Haman, the villain of the Purim story: “just as Haman… so too in the capitalistic world…” (this puts Shagar in company of the many rabbis who have critiqued capitalism or supported socialism).

Shagar then moves onto a more specific moral problem that arises from the state of constant exchange. Elsewhere, he says that it leads to a state of “man to is wolf to man.” Here, he focuses more specifically on issues of evaluation. When money is the standard of evaluation for all things and even for people, then what a person produces might be valued more than her life. Hence the dependence of the worker’s life on their wages and the necessity of Devarim’s law protecting the worker and requiring the payment of wages each day.

Shagar then moves onto a more existential problem, regarding self-improvement. In a world of constant exchange, a person simply acquires a new self rather than improving her old one, an idea that is basically incoherent if the self has its own unique substance and identity. Essentially, in a system of exchange we feel like we can spend money and acquire improvements, in whatever form, from outside ourselves, instead of attempting to work within ourselves to improve. This is expressed rather clearly Rebbe Naḥman’s “Master of Prayer” story, where there is the “Money State” where a person’s identity and position in society are identical with their degree of wealth.

Despite the problems he describes, Shagar also sees great potential in the state of constant exchange. When nothing possesses inherent value, the means of evaluation, in this case money, is the only thing of substance and inherent value. This creates problems, but also the opportunity for sacrifice. Willingness to sacrifice the only thing of value, money, for the sake of something else, the individual soul, establishes the soul as independently valuable. Instead of subordinating the soul to money, money is now subordinated to the soul.

Rav Shagar takes this one step further, arguing that subordinating money to the soul grants the soul not just substance but “objectivity.” In a world that isn’t based on monetary exchange, everything has its own substance and identity, but this is a totally subjective substance, private unto itself. The shared medium of evaluation that is money takes away things’ inherent value, but also creates an objective space that all belong to, where the substance of a thing is comprehensible outside its own subjectivity. It exists unto itself, but itself alone. Subordinating money to the soul thus grants the soul not just inherent value, but inherent value that is objective, something that could not be achieved without monetary exchange.

In summation, Rav Shagar’s relationship to capitalism is somewhat complex. He thinks that it cause both moral and existential problems. However, it bears within it the potential to not only solve those existential problems but to, in doing so, create an objectivity that could not be achieved otherwise. Moreover, it’s worth noting that Shagar’s discussion of two passages in the Torah, from Shemot 30 and Devarim 24, both assume that the Torah is speaking to a world where monetary exchange is a reality, though this doesn’t tell us if the Torah approves of that reality or just accepts it. Regardless, it is clear that Rav Shagar’s approach to capitalism is multifaceted. The common thread throughout, however, is that we ought to be thinking about what we value and why.

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