Jewish Advice, in the Spirit of Capitalism

A new trend of Jewish self-help books sees Jacob advising on business matters and Harav Kook helping to overcome fears.

Tomer Persico
Tomer Persico
Tomer Persico
Tomer Persico

“Parasha Ve’isha” ‏(“Portion and Woman: Feminine Study of the Portion of the Week”‏), by Yemima Mizrachi. Yedioth Ahronoth Books ‏(Hebrew‏), 143 pages, NIS 118

“Neviot” ‏(“Ebb and Flow: Notes, Suggestions and Insights to Restore the Spirit, Based on the Teachings of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hacohen Kook”‏), edited and elucidated by Yuval Freund. Yedioth Ahronoth Books ‏(Hebrew‏), 150 pages, NIS 98

“Tzohar Le’asakim” ‏(“Window into Business: The Weekly Portion in the Light of Business, Management and Leadership”‏), edited by Itamar Mor. Danny Books ‏(Hebrew‏), 408 pages, NIS 118

In the early years of the 20th century, a new and original literary genre became widespread in the United States: “self-help” books. These titles offered readers a colorful array of useful advice and outlined paths to scoring achievements in a particular field, which was generally mentioned in the title. The most famous of these books was Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People” ‏(1936‏), which has sold more than 15 million copies worldwide to date, and which gave rise to many successful imitations.

Quite a few of such works, which continue to roll off the presses and star on best-seller lists to this day, deal with financial advice, but there is no need to turn to them to understand that the capitalist, utilitarian logic is the spirit blowing through this genre as a whole. Life is presented in self-help books as a development project, with the reader as its facilitator and operational contractor. He must attack his life vigorously, mine its resources and net as much profit from it as possible. If need be, he can and should ignore such useless considerations as moderation, sensitivity and common sense. “Democracy introduces an industrial spirit into literature,” the political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville observed back in the mid-19th century − and Tocqueville was right, as usual.

Most self-help books relied on the assumption ‏(whose roots are to be found in the Romantic movement‏) that man possesses inner resources he must discover and exteriorize. Therefore, the advice they offered usually revolved around the ways and methods by which one could dredge up those hidden treasures. A human being is called upon to find within himself courage, determination or creativity that he had no idea existed − hidden stores that, the book explained, even if they had gone undetected until now, were nothing less than their deepest, innermost self.

The notion that redemption begins from within built its foundation on the basis of the modern individualism and ideal of independence and economic initiative characteristic of American culture. Together with the spirit of invention and technological innovation, self-help books gave their readers a feeling that not only in the economic sphere, but in each and every area of life, is to be found “a method” that will make it possible to manipulate the data, and ultimately maximize profits.

Inevitably, self-help books began to be written in the religious-spiritual realm, as well. This domain is not limited to systematic instructions for the most effective ways to communicate with the upper worlds, but often is actually meant to assist us in secular areas − only on the basis of advice derived from religious and traditional sources. As an example of this, we can cite more than 50 different titles in English alone that proclaim they teach “the Tao of” − parenting, gardening, sexuality, cooking, business. These works profess to glean insights from the ancient Chinese tradition for the purpose of improving the quality of our Western lives in the present.

Everything, as you know, makes its way to us belatedly, but the good news is that not only hath Israel not been forsaken by his God, but that he has been bequeathed a fortune. Thus, in recent years, Israeli Judaism has joined the trend, and self-help books based on the wisdom of Jewish tradition now crowd bookstore shelves.

Yedioth Ahronoth Books is the clear leader in this market segment, a fact that corresponds to its overall, and praiseworthy, efforts to enrich the so-called Jewish bookcase with many and diverse offerings. Two years ago, this publisher came out with a book ‏(in Hebrew‏) bearing a subtitle that leaves no room for doubt as to the book’s role in the genre in question: “Once a Week: Insights and Self-Empowerment from the Portion of the Week,” by Aharoni Berenstein. The ways to draw insights and self-empowerment from the weekly Torah portion have only grown more numerous since then.

Women’s liberation

The new book by Yemima Mizrachi, “Parasha ve’isha: Limud Nashi Leparashat Ha’shavua” ‏(“Portion and Woman: Feminine Study of the Portion of the Week”‏) is a fine example of this. Rabbanit Mizrachi is one of the most prominent of the popular spiritual female leaders in Israel. A lawyer and rabbinical pleader by training, today she gives lessons on Jewish tradition and the weekly Torah portion all over the country. Thousands of women are on her mailing list, and her appearances always draw a big crowd. As may be learned from her new book, the weekly portions serve her as a pliant and productive base on which to offer advice and insights meant to contribute to the empowerment of her disciples.

This is Mizrachi’s first book on the weekly portion, and it is limited to the first two books of the Pentateuch: Genesis and Exodus. The motto may be distilled from the introduction: “Everyone is a treasure of wisdom, but it must not remain locked up. In order for the wisdom to be affected and to affect, connecting feminine study is required.” Our inner wisdom can be uncovered, then, with the help of the weekly portion, and Mizrachi does this with great wit and creativity.

But the study required here, as stated, is feminine. According to Mizrachi, this means that it “emerges from the chambers of the heart and hearth, different from the hum of studying that rises from the benches of the yeshivas. Women simply learn differently.”

What does this feminine study look like in practice? According to Mizrachi’s book, it entails using the biblical narratives to understand how one ought to anticipate a match, manage relationships and raise children. The portion “Hayei Sarah,” for example, deals with problems of couples’ relationships, and “Toldot,” with parenting. “Miketz” teaches us that being chubby is perfectly fine, and “Vayigash” elucidates the importance of crying. In general, feelings and their management are the main topic one can learn from the weekly readings, but eliciting them from the biblical text known for its stinginess when it comes to sentimental expression is no mean feat.

Mizrachi delivers her commentary with great talent, and it’s not difficult to understand her popularity. On several occasions in her book, she emphasizes women’s superiority over men, and yet at the same time she never for a moment challenges the traditional gender-role division. A woman’s business is in the home, and the home is the business of women. When “women’s liberation” is mentioned, we learn that this movement is responsible for our stress and fears. But this, too, is for the best. “What is the role of fear? First of all, to reveal to you how much strength you have. You are awesome!”

Kook’s wisdom du jour

The very same bit of advice may be learned from Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hacohen Kook: “Many times, it is the cataclysmic situations that teach man about himself ... The acquisition of new traits in the difficult periods causes a great and sophisticated increase afterward.”

That is Yuval Freund’s interpretation of an excerpt from “Orot Hakodesh,” in which Rav Kook ‏(1865-1935‏) explains that, “from the depths of the abyss you must draw forth precious pearls. Then you will rise and renew your abilities, in strength and tranquillity.”

The subtitle of Freund’s “Neviot” ‏(“Ebb and Flow”‏) − “Notes, suggestions and insights to restore the spirit, based on the teachings of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hacohen Kook” − makes it clear that here, too, is a self-help book that culls its life wisdom from the field of religion. This time, not the weekly Torah portion but rather Rav Kook has been chosen to restore our spirit. Freund’s explications look out upon the rabbi’s words on the facing page, whereas the words of Kook are arranged in short lines and centered, like poetry. Here, too, the guiding principle is mining the treasures hidden in the depths of the soul: “In man ... there are great and enormous spiritual powers of an entirely different order, which he must appreciate and respect,” Freund writes.

Kook is easy to translate into romantic selfhood, for he himself was greatly influenced by the Romantic movement. For decades, however, the message that was conveyed by his letters was purely national and messianic. The reason for the transition to the language of sentiment in this case is not merely the awakening of the genre − of religious self-help books − but also the growing competition between Kook and Rabbi Nachman of Uman for the hearts of youngsters in knitted skullcaps. The emotional language and psychological insights of the tzadik ‏(righteous man‏) from Bratslav are winning over many souls in religious Zionist circles, and the latter have decided to fight back. Envy among scribes generates wisdom − though in this case, it’s more like street smarts.

Kook is a giant thinker and outstanding poet, and the words of his presented in this book are inspiring. Praise is due to the compiler, Freund, who also was not afraid to present excerpts that might jeopardize the readers’ automatic allegiance to halakha ‏(Jewish law‏). Kook calls for, among other things, deviation from the familiar structures and listening to our inner voice. The tension between the inner voice and obedience to the heteronomic halakha should be obvious, and for anyone interested in unquestioning loyalty to tradition, a certain risk is inherent in encountering such things from the mouth of such an authority. Advice on coping with this inner conflict, incidentally, is not included in the book.

Articles by ‘stars’

We return to the weekly Torah portion with another title that represents a similar spirit: “Tzohar Le’asakim” ‏(“Window into Business: The Weekly Portion in the Light of Business, Management and Leadership”‏). This book is a collection of short articles by some of the rabbis from the Tzohar organization (a more moderate, public-oriented segment of Israeli Orthodox Rabbis), including its “stars”: Rabbis Yuval Cherlow, David Stav and Shai Piron ‏(currently Israel’s minister of education‏). It should be noted, furthermore, that the female voice is not absent from this volume, and that several of the articles are by women. As the book’s title suggests, in this case, the weekly Torah portion serves as a source of insights into the business world.

The book is essentially an anthology of articles that were sent out over the past decade to a list of local businesspeople. The mailing list in question is the brainchild of Eran Rolls, a businessman who describes himself as someone with “a transparent skullcap” or “a religiously observant secular person,” and is himself one of the varied fruits of the Jewish renaissance the country is undergoing. Rolls initiated a weekly mailing of the weekly Torah portion to his own distribution list, which kept growing as the years went by.

The advice is nothing you could not guess in advance. Initiative, persistence, creativity, determination, taking advantage of opportunities, and originality − the weekly portion teaches us all of these to assist our success in business. To the credit of the Tzohar rabbis, they seek to advance not only the personal success of their readers, but also the conditions of those employed by them. Many articles emphasize the moral dimensions of conducting business, and demand that the reader turn his attention also to the ethical implications of his actions.

Utility of sentiment

The examples cited above indicate a gradually expanding trend of Jewish self-help books, or in other words: the assimilation of Jewish tradition into the main trends of the global book market. Moreover, the books mentioned here are not only representatives of self-help books, but also expressions of a broad cultural movement that presents increased preoccupation with our emotional life and an emphasis on a utilitarian worldview. It is a crossbreeding of the romantic inclination to find uniqueness, authenticity and meaning within each of us with the instrumental logic of the capitalist market. This match leads to a rich supply of “methods” and “systems,” with whose help we will put into practice the hidden lights in our inner selves.

That isn’t necessarily bad, of course, and it may well be that there really are hidden dimensions and unseen potential powers within us. But we should pay attention to this process, in which both tradition and the Jewish bookshelf become raw material in the hands of the market, and thus translate themselves into the patterns of that same familiar utilitarian logic.

Interestingly, fundamentalist religion, whether in Afghanistan or Mea She’arim, is one of the few focal points today of stubborn resistance to capitalist globalization. It resists a lot of other things too, but it is possible that precisely by posing a determined alternative, one that expresses a different worldview and a different logic, it invites us to learn something very important about ourselves − something no less important than how to wait patiently for a decent match or how to close the next deal.

Illustration by Hila Peleg.



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