The Jew as Money Lender

Sermon delivered March 11, 2005, by Rabbi Barry H. Block


Next month, my family will gather to mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of my grandfather, Irvin Shlenker, of blessed memory. My grandfather died when I was eight years old, so I did not have the opportunity to know him well. Even at that young age, though, I knew that Irvin Shlenker was a legendary figure in the Houston Jewish community. He seems to have been President of just about every Houston Jewish institution, and to have been the first Jewish person to lead several organizations in the wider community.

Professionally, my grandfather was bank president. However, I have been told that he was far too generous and soft-hearted for the tastes of the bank Board. It’s not entirely clear to me whether he occasionally lent the bank’s money, without appropriate approval, or whether he would lend his own money when the Board said “no.” At the very least, he often talked the Board into making loans against their better judgment.

In the years following my grandfather’s death, when I was still a child, I was occasionally approached by older Jewish folks with thick accents. They would tell me that they could never have made it in America, had my grandfather not believed in them and given them their start. One man, a Holocaust survivor who went on to become a very successful furrier, continues to contact me and other family members, more than three decades after my grandfather’s death, to tell us what a difference my grandfather made in his life. Irvin Shlenker lent him money when nobody else would do so.

Whether he was familiar with the teaching or not, my grandfather regularly performed what Rabbi Moses Maimonides declared to be the highest form of tzedakah, or righteous giving: He helped other people to help themselves. The truth be told, though, none of the recipients of my grandfather’s loans has ever credited him with an act of charity. None has ever suggested that Irvin Shlenker, the banker, didn’t charge interest on those loans. Yes, they say he would accept slower payments when times were tough. Yes, I’ve heard that he wasn’t always right when he believed a person would succeed with the loan, so either he or the bank wouldn’t always be repaid. But yes, too, he always charged interest.

Each year, on Yom Kippur afternoon, our own congregation’s recognized authority in finance, our Past President Mickey Roth, reads the holiness code, from Leviticus 19. When he offers the verse commanding that laborers be paid on the same day of their work, Mickey opines that the Torah acknowledges the time value of money. Delayed wages aren’t worth as much as salaries paid in a timely fashion. The fact that a dollar today is worth more than a dollar next year is the basis for charging interest on loans.

Other evidence from the Torah, though, suggests that God abhors the idea of charging interest, and that our ancestors might not have been so aware of money’s time value.

Tonight we observe Shabbat Shekalim, the Sabbath on which we read that section you just heard from Exodus 30, about the poll tax our ancient ancestors paid at the Temple. Although this passage really doesn’t have to do with giving or lending, here in San Antonio, Shabbat Shekalim has become the customary annual occasion to remember the good work of the Hebrew Free Loan Society.

The idea of interest-free loans, given by Jews to Jews, comes from a passage in Deuteronomy: “You shall not lend on interest to your countryman . . . You may charge interest to a foreigner, but not to your countryman, that the Lord, your God, may bless you . . .” In this context, the distinction between “countryman” and “foreigner” is correctly interpreted as meaning that interest may not be charged to fellow Jews, but only to gentiles.

My grandfather, then, would seem to have been less righteous than the furrier suggests, and certainly not scrupulous in his observance of Torah.

As we study our ancient Rabbis’ understandings of the commandment not to charge interest to fellow Jews, though, we begin to realize that the kinds of loans they contemplated were very different from the loans on which most of us pay interest. In the ancient mind, loans were to be offered to those who were in desperate need, who did not have food to eat or a roof over their heads. A loan was indeed a form of tzedakah, of righteous charitable giving, for the lender, even if repaid, would sacrifice the time value of the money lent. In many cases, the lender might not actually have expected to be repaid. However, the borrower could accept this kind of tzedakah, head held high, with the intention, often fulfilled, of repaying the loan.

Only in modern times have people really come to understand that money has time value. Therefore, charging interest for loans was considered to be immoral, as though one were charging for tzedakah, until the last couple of hundred years. Today, of course, banking is a perfectly legitimate and honorable way to make a living. People take loans, on interest, because we want to buy things, like a house, which we can’t afford to purchase in cash. Also, businesses take loans in order to get a start or to expand. Without access to capital, loaned on interest, people would not be able to achieve their fondest dreams or their most noble goals in life.

The same was true during the Middle Ages, long before anybody acknowledged the fact of the time value of money. Feudal lords, for example, needed money to plant their crops, at a season when they might not have much cash on hand. At the same period of time, Jews were generally not permitted to own or work the land, which was really the only way to support a family back then. With regret, Jews often turned to the practice of lending money to gentiles on interest. The Torah permitted the practice, but Jewish money lenders knew that their business was viewed as less than noble. Moreover, the practice of money lending often cast Jews in a bad light, in the eyes of their Christian neighbors. Too many times in our history, Jewish people were persecuted, even murdered or expelled from their homes, when the Christians to whom they lent money could not repay the loans. Even more often, when wealthy medieval lords faced an economic crunch, they continued to live high on the hog, while their serfs suffered. When the poor workers would begin to rebel, they would be told not to blame the wealthy Christian land owners, but rather that the fault rested with supposedly greedy Jewish money lenders. Inevitably, a pogrom would ensue, as understandably angry serfs, their rage displaced, would attack the Jewish village. Tragically, these violent outbreaks of anti-Semitism were not isolated and did not end in the pre-modern era. Hitler, too, utilized calumnies against Jewish bankers to stir up anti-Semitism among his people and to justify genocide.

The Jewish people need not be ashamed of our history as money lenders to gentiles in medieval Europe. The oppressors offered our ancestors very few legitimate methods of earning a living, and in fact needed Jewish money lenders. In some times, and in some places, Jews were highly valued and greatly respected by European nobles who knew they could not achieve their goals and feed their people without borrowing money on interest from Jews.

We may delight, too, in our tradition of loaning money without interest to those in need. Our local Hebrew Free Loan Society continues to do that good work today. Surely, as individuals, we may well want to extend that method of tzedakah to needy people of every race and nation. Loans, more than gifts, offer great dignity to the recipient, whether or not interest is charged.

Whenever we run across a person who may need assistance, be that person a Jew or not, let us remember the wisdom of Maimonides, even as I recall the example of my grandfather, of blessed memory. When we help another person to become self-sufficient, sustaining that person’s dignity, we engage in the highest form of tzedakah, the greatest level of righteousness.

Amen.