Money & (new) (Jewish) Culture

(Symbol of the Barberini popes at the base of the baldacchino at St. Peter’s Basilica, the Vatican)

I don’t think to date that there has been an honest conversation in the world of Jewish culture and religion about money. For the record, I don’t think there is a cabal of Jewish neoconservative trying to take over the Jewish community. Nor do I believe that money is the root of all evil. But maybe more than anything else, money needs to be transparent. It’s my own political bias that nothing is free, not even the movement of money, which again according  to my bias, which is a liberal one, needs to be re-formed, regulated, and redistributed.

Who doesn’t love the marriage of money-patronage and the arts? My favorites are the Barberinis. Their symbol was the bee. Barberini bees are all over Rome. Like bees, the Barberinis were great disseminators of culture and power. You can even find the bee on the base of the baldacchino at St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican. It’s not like people were not unhappy with this marriage even then. Pope Urban VIII was a Barberini and he elevated his brothers and nephews to positions of power. Of them, someone wrote, Quod non fecerunt barbari, fecerunt Barberini (“What the barbarians did not do, the Barberini did) (I got this from Wikipedia). But on the other hand, look what they left us, proving Benjamin’s point about culture and the history of barbarism

We don’t live in Baroque Rome or in some Gilded Age, or do we? In a democracy, we’ve gotten used to the idea that money and power should be regulated, that it’s operation should be transparent and governed by law and moral-political norms, that resources should be pooled for the common good, not just for the good of this or that single, already privileged sector of society.

Who decides the norms? “We” do. “The popular will” (Rousseau) or “catholic Israel” (Zecharia Frankel ). Not just the people who own means of production, but also those of us whose labor, the presence of whose bodies, whose moral choices and commitments make that money possible in the first place. And just like “we” don’t want the money to determine the science (think the tobacco industry of yore, the gun makers, big pharm, cellphone makers) to determine science, “we” don’t want the money to determine the culture, the politics, or the Judaism.

We are in an interesting cultural moment now, in which money, new Jewish culture, cultural politics, and the internet are all getting all sloshed up together. How to create and deliver content? Examples include Jewish Studies Departments and chairs in Jewish Studies, Tablet, Haaretz, Birthright, Foundation for Jewish Culture, Zeek, not to mention blogs, Facebook, and emergent social media. How much does Jewish culture or a Jewish culture-product cost, how much should be free, who pays for what? How much are these products and costs consumer driven, and how much of these floated by deep pockets? What kind of political quid pro quo should one expect to see in terms of shaping agendas? Was it ever the case that donors settled for putting their name on the institution? Was it more true once than it is today? What are the fine lines between discourse-products and costs, dependence and independence?

It’s not the money that bothers me. I don’t think there’s anything without it. But the first order of the day is to be honest about the material and monetary frames that shape our discourse, and to make sure that moneyed interests don’t determine the social good.

I haven’t read the whole book yet, but maybe it’s time that I did. I like this line from the preface to the Philosophy of Money, where Simmel writes, “In this problem-complex, money is simply a means, a material or anexample for the presentation of relations that exist between the most superficial, ‘realistic’ and fortuitous phenomena and the most idealized powers of existence, the most profound currents of individual life and history”[[Georg Simmel, The Philosophy of Money, p.53 (3rd enlarged edition) (the strike-outs are mine)]].

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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