Monday, December 22, 2008

Greed Genes

It would appear that Shlomo Rubashkin and Bernard Madoff have little in common with each other. One is a hareidi the other isn’t even modern orthodox. although he might identify with the modern orthodox community. Rubashkin made his money in the low tech, blue collar industry as a slaughter house super butcher/entrepeneur; Madoff made his money in the rarefied atmosphere of the financial markets as the head of a fund and financial consultant. Rubashkin exploited the weak, uneducated underclass; Madoff took advantage of and defrauded the wealthy, sophisticated and educated upper tier of the American elite. So what do Shlomo Rubashkin and Bernard Madoff have in common?

The “greed gene” is a gene which many of us have. It is somewhat like the fat gene. In western society where so much value is placed on beautifully sculpted thin bodies a person with a fat gene is at a disadvantage when compared to someone without a fat gene. Someone with a fat gene will have to spend his/her entire life on dieting just to maintain an acceptable level of body fat, while the ones without the fat gene will have a much easier and more enjoyable experience. The greed gene operates in much the same way as the fat gene. Not all of us have this gene. For those who have the greed gene, so much of their life will be devoted to keeping it under control.

There are many people who don’t possess this gene. They are people who may be motivated to make money, make a lot of money, but aren’t driven or obsessed with the need to make more and more and more without ever being satiated. There are millionaires plus, who enjoy the daily challenge of making money, but this doesn’t mean that they are greedy, or have the greed gene. Similarly, there are many people who aren’t necessarily wealthy but obsessed with money and do possess the greed gene. So having lots of money isn’t a determining factor as to whether one has the greed gene or not. What determines whether one has the greed gene is defining their level of satiation.

Perhaps a good analogy for explaining this phenomenon is the disease known as diabetes. It is a fact that one of the symptoms of diabetes is that the untreated diabetic can never have enough water. The untreated diabetic is always thirsty and no mater how much water he drinks, he is thirsty. Someone with the greed gene is analogous to the untreated diabetic. He can never get enough money. He doesn’t need the money. It doesn’t enhance his quality of life, he has everything he needs, his family isn’t in want of anything, yet he is driven to accumulate more and more and more, never becoming satiated. Unlike diabetes, it is difficult to identify one who possesses the greed gene and it must be a very difficult, painful and conflicted existence.

Imagine someone who hasn’t the cues to know when he has had enough to eat or drink. This isn’t an unusual problem, and many people are plagued with this disorder. Once it is identified therapies can be introduced to manage the problem. But how does one identify the greed gene. It isn’t a physical ailment; there are no discernable symptoms. Just because a person is wealthy or aspires to wealth doesn’t in any way imply they have the greed gene.

I don’t think that this problem is a uniquely Jewish one. I think it is common and runs throughout the general community, however it may be pronounced within our own community since there is a premium placed on wealth and philanthropy. The wealthier and more philanthropic you are the greater the chavod, giving credence to the Hebrew expression “baal hamea who baal hadea” meaning “he who has the money has the last word”. Our weddings and bar /bat mitzvah celebrations are gauged by how much was spent and the venue. These things aren’t in themselves indicative of the greed gene. They do however add fuel to those with the greed gene and may even trigger the dormant greed gene.

The problem is exacerbated because the greed gene becomes the monster that ultimately controls the person, taking over the person who is no longer in control. It is the disease that is in control. As such, they will stop at nothing to feed their craving for more. Ethics are out the window and so is common decency. To defraud a friend isn’t out of the realm of possibility, nor is serving up treif under the guise of a hechsher to a frum person as was evident by the Monsey butcher only two years ago, who knowingly sold treif chickens for years to his hareidi friends and neighbors.

While the greed gene isn’t a diagnosed illness and certainly isn’t on the “spectrum”, I do believe that eventually it will be an identifiable disease with medical interventions. In the meantime those with the disease will continue to wreak havoc on the unsuspecting public as the likes of Rubashkin and Madoff have demonstrated.