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Re-examining The Taint of Jewish Money-Lending

I’ll never forget how furious I was with my Shakespeare professor in my senior year of college. He had just delivered a lecture that defended the bard in regards to the portrayal of the Jew Shylock. Yes, he admitted, Shylock fit just about every anti-Semitic caricature. But Shakespeare should be lauded for being the first European author to humanize "The Jew."

I objected strongly. Call a spade a spade, I wailed. Two thousand years of European oppression fell heavily on my shoulders as I confronted the professor, causing the frat boys and cheerleaders in the back of the class to wake up and wipe the drool from their faces, entertained by the sudden dispute in the classroom.

These days, I’m not so sure that I would still try to argue with the prof about Shylock. He is a caricature (a particularly well-rounded one, I admit), but that’s part of what Shakespeare was getting at. Everyone else saw Jews as usurers and nothing else (in the same way that many of us mistakenly assume all lower-class Italian-Americans are mafiosi).

In fact, moneylending is a foreign practice for Jews. The Rabbis of the Talmudic period were so infuriated by the practice that they railed against it and decried it as one of the greatest sins. Later on, Rabbis would make dispensations that allowed some Jews to lend to non-Jews at usurious rates. But that was obviously a political move, and one that the religion should rightfully denounce as chauvinistic.

Jews dominated the moneylending business in the medieval Italian city-states because the Church gave some of them permission to ply the loan-sharking trade so that the moral stain of such practices wouldn’t touch good Christian souls. Jews had no other options because they were forbidden to enter the traditional tradesmen guilds.

All of this goes to show that there is no "natural inclination" towards banking in the Jewish genome. Nevertheless, there’s no disputing that the banking industry — and the dishonor roll of the key titans who have fallen in the last few months — still has an awful lot of Jews in it.

I think the answer to that puzzle lies in a book called Shylock’s Children by Derek Penslar. Amongst the many theories Penslar mentions in his excellent book is that modern capitalism required an ability to comprehend an artificial realm where numbers and math ruled, but where nothing real was actually changing hands. Jews, he claimed, already were born and inculcated with the concept of a homeland that didn’t really exist (until 1948) and a community whose bonds were all hypothetical. They fell naturally into the banking industry because they were much more comfortable with the kind of abstract thinking that came unnatural to their Christian colleagues, who found it difficult to separate the value of something from the thing itself.

In modern society, such thinking is commonplace for everyone. That should be a warning for us Jews. As the banking industry rebuilds itself from the bottom, there’s no guarantee that the "Jewish advantage" in banking will still be there when it comes time to compete for jobs.

Sam Jaffe, co-author of Jewish Wisdom for Business Success, is guest-blogging on Jewcy with fellow co-author Rabbi Levi Brackman. He’ll be here all week.

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