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Thought for the Week: Building a Better World

In Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan Lord Darlington quips that a cynic is ‘’a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.’’ The former governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney rightly contradicts this approach in his new book Value(s) Building a Better World for All, where he points out that so often the things that we value the most from frontline nurses to the natural environment to keeping children well fed and educated seem to be of such little importance to economists. Economic values and social values have become blurred as we have gone from living in a market economy (good) to a market society (bad).

Judaism takes a different view, in three ways.

Firstly, we must learn to value our common resources. How we currently measure growth in our economies does not take into account the all-important benefits of public education or health. We know the costs of hospitals, social care or teachers – but we rarely discuss their value. Judaism gives pride of place to our common resources, and none more so than education.

Secondly, Judaism adopts a collective value creation process. At times of adversity we come together in extraordinary ways. We have seen this during the pandemic, with the young running errands for those elderly neighbours who were afraid to venture out, and people generally giving of their time to support those in need.

One Jewish preacher often began his talks with the following story which illustrates this exquisitely:

“I once ascended to the firmaments. I first went to see Hell and the sight was horrifying. Row after row of tables were laden with platters of sumptuous food, yet the people seated around the tables were pale and emaciated, moaning in hunger. As I came closer, I understood their predicament. Every person held a full spoon, but both arms were splinted with wooden slats so he could not bend either elbow to bring the food to his mouth. It broke my heart to hear the tortured groans of these poor people as they held their food so near but could not consume it.

Next I went to visit Heaven. I was surprised to see the same setting I had witnessed in Hell – row after row of long tables laden with food. But, in contrast to Hell, the people here in Heaven were sitting contentedly talking with each other, obviously sated from their sumptuous meal. As I came closer, I was amazed to discover that here, too, each person had his arms splinted on wooden slats that prevented him from bending his elbows. How, then, did they manage to eat? As I watched, a man picked up his spoon and dug it into the dish of the person across from him, and fed him! The recipient of this kindness thanked him and returned the favour by leaning across the table to feed his benefactor. I suddenly understood. Heaven and Hell offer the same circumstances and conditions. The critical difference is in the way the people treat each other.”

Thirdly, Judaism advocates a focus on ‘stakeholder value’ - essentially bringing purpose back to the capitalist system. Joshua 1:8 emphasises the importance of purpose in its discussion of the Torah as not merely for studying but also to yield right action. As it says: “you shall meditate day and night, that you may observe to do according to all that is written therein; for then you shall make your ways prosperous, and then you shall have good success”. The implication here is that our work should enable us to truly live and implement the profound truths of the Torah and in so doing transform the physical world. Through conscious action and the harnessing of purpose, the workplace is on this basis very much an opportunity for individual and collective spiritual growth.

As we emerge from the pandemic the clarion call to focus on the value of our common resources, collaboration and purpose must be heeded; and Judaism’s contribution to these important areas is paramount if we are to build a better world.

Philip Goldenberg, member of the Jewish faith

Date: Monday 15th November 2021

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