Tag Archives: Prosperity Theology

The Tzedakah Life

tzedakah-to-lifeThe Code of Jewish Law (YD 248) states: “Every person is obligated to give tzedakah, even the poor who themselves are recipients thereof.” Maimonides writes that nobody ever became poor from giving tzedakah. In fact, the Talmud (Ta’anit 9a) states that when you give Ma’aser properly, it actually earns you additional wealth. “Which Charities to Give to?”

-From the Ask the Rabbi series

The Tzemach Tzedek writes: The love expressed in “Beside You I wish for nothing,” (Tehillim 73:25) means that one should desire nothing other than G-d, not even “Heaven” or “earth” i.e. Higher Gan Eden and Lower Gan Eden, for these were created with a mere yud…. The love is to be directed to Him alone, to His very Being and Essence. This was actually expressed by my master and teacher (the Alter Rebbe) when he was in a state of d’veikut and he exclaimed as follows: I want nothing at all! I don’t want Your gan eden, I don’t want Your olam haba… I want nothing but You alone.

“Today’s Day” Wednesday, Kislev 18, 5704
Compiled by the Lubavitcher Rebbe Translated by Yitschak Meir Kagan

In yesterday’s morning meditation I mentioned that Christian financial adviser James W. Rickard was a special guest speaker last Sunday at the church I attend. As I was listening to what he was saying (the vast majority of which I was quite familiar with), I couldn’t help but think of how “Jewish” it sounded. For instance, he talked about being content with what one has and quoted New Testament scripture to back it up (I don’t have my notes handy, so I can’t tell you the exact verses). And yet, how much does that echo the sages?

Who is rich? One who is satisfied with his lot. As is stated: “If you eat of toil of your hands, fortunate are you, and good is to you” ; “fortunate are you” in this world, “and good is to you”—in the World to Come. -Pirkei Avot 4:1

Of course, Rickard’s “source material” is all Jewish (though he probably doesn’t think of it in those terms) so I guess it shouldn’t be surprising that his financial advice and comments on charity should sound Jewish as well. For instance, he also said that the Bible does support God providing for us when we give to charity, but unlike those folks who preach a prosperity theology, he didn’t say that God would automatically return material goods and money to us in exchange for our generous giving to the church. He said that God could provide many spiritual gifts such as the ability to show abundant grace, mercy, compassion, courage, and so forth. In fact, Rickard didn’t have many nice things to say about some “Preachers” who urge their audiences to send in their “seed money” with the promise that those folks who do will become wealthy materially. In that scenario, usually the only one to become rich is the Preacher collecting the money.

But you can see that giving is a value that is shared by both Jews and Christians and that even those people who have very little can still provide something to those who have even less. It’s so hard to even think about giving when we’re in the middle of tough financial times. It seems this “recession” or whatever it is, has lasted longer than other, similar recessions of the past 20 or 30 or 40 years or so. When times are tough, the natural tendency is to reduce spending and to try to save up. kindnessOK, Americans are addicted to credit card debt, but imagine instead of being able to use a credit card, you have to hand over cold, hard cash. Now, you’ll see the reluctance to part with money that is “real” and not just a bunch of digital information traveling over a network. If all you had was cash, you’d want to save.

The simple reason I believe all people should give charity is that we are put here to serve God. Even an atheist may serve God unknowingly by giving to charity or providing some kindness to the poor and disadvantaged. If we wait for someone else to do it or for God to provide some sort of miracle to help the needy, we may miss out on the fact that God created you and me to be “the miracle.”

Lead a supernatural life and G‑d will provide the miracles. -Rabbi Tzvi Freeman “Be a Miracle” Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe Rabbi M. M. Schneerson Chabad.org

What is a supernatural life? Perhaps one composed not only of “practical” or “common sense” but one that also utilizes faith and trust in God as its tools. It’s expecting God to be more faithful to us than we are to Him, and if we’re faithful, even within the bounds of human limitation, He is certain to be abundantly faithful. This doesn’t mean spending ourselves into debt, even for the sake of charity, but it does mean trusting that investing in another human being is not a waste of resources, nor will it cause us to suffer loss. No, you can’t give five bucks to every panhandler you encounter, nor can you write five dollar cheques to each and every charity that mails or emails you a request, but you can find a particular need and choose to satisfy it.

Many people will spend themselves into debt to satisfy the “requirement” of Christmas, with all of its gift giving, social obligations, and so forth. If instead, you took a sizeable sum of the money you would otherwise spend on gifts that people probably don’t need (still gift them if you must, but it doesn’t have to be extravagant) and bought food for the local food bank, purchased and donated clothing and blankets to a homeless shelter, or donated funds to a worthy cause in the name of a loved one, how much more would your giving really mean?

acts-of-kindnessIf you are a person of faith and trust, then God will allow you to do what He considers good, but have a care. If you’re giving in order to cause God to give back to you, then your motives are shot through with holes. True, the needy will still be provided for, but you may be cheating yourself out of drawing nearer to God if what you want from Him is dollars and cents. If December seems too much like the stereotypic month to give for the sake of the Christian holiday, there’s no law that says you can’t give in January or in some other month. People get hungry and need shelter every day of the week, fifty-two weeks out of the year. And God is always there.

To a fool, that which cannot be explained cannot exist. The wise man knows that existence itself cannot be explained. -Rabbi Tzvi Freeman “The Inexplicable” Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe Rabbi M. M. Schneerson Chabad.org

Where Is Your Heart?

A guest who had traveled from afar once visited the saintly Chofetz Chaim, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan zt”l, and was taken aback by the Rabbi’s simple living conditions. The home was lacking the most basic furnishings! When he relayed his surprise, the Chofetz Chaim asked him, “And where is your furniture? Why didn’t you bring it?” The guest replied with the obvious, “I’m just passing through here. I live quite a distance from here, and there I have many furnishings to decorate my home.” “I’m following the same practice,” responded the Chofetz Chaim. “In this world I’m just passing through. My real home is in the next world, and with the eternal treasures produced from my service of the Al-mighty I am furnishing that future home.”

-Rabbi Mordechai Dixler
“Those People Are In Tents!”
Commentary on Torah Portion Balak

“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Matthew 6:19-21 (ESV)

I know. This is pretty elementary. Most relatively new Christians are taught that what we have in the here and now is transitory while our true home and treasure lies with God.

Rabbi Dixler uses this principle in his commentary on last week’s Torah Portion, but adds that it’s not just living here temporarily that’s important, but our attitude about it.

Bilaam was hired to curse the Jewish nation, but was denied the ability to do so. In fact, he eventually formulated a number of blessings and praises, including “How goodly are your tents, Jacob, your dwelling places, Israel!” (Numbers 24:5) The Jews were indeed dwelling in tents at the time, but the message was that they not only dwelt in tents, but their attitude was in tents. All the wealth and possessions they had, whatever “stuff” they collected, was understood for what it was — temporary, like a tent. What they really valued and focused on was their everlasting spiritual acquisitions in their service of the Al-mighty. (Sefer Taam V’Daas)

Of course, this is midrash and not necessarily absolute fact as far as the Children of Israel are concerned, but it is also long-established Jewish tradition and this tradition teaches a lesson.

But maybe not the lesson you are thinking about.

Let the faith of God be in you. For amen, I say to you, anyone who says to this mountain, “Be lifted up and moved into the middle of the sea,” and does not doubt in his heart, but rather believes that what he says will be done, so it will be for him as he has said. Therefore I say to you, all that you ask in your prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be so for you. And when you stand to pray, pardon everyone for what is in your heart against them, so that your Father who is in heaven will also forgive your transgressions. But as for you, if you do not pardon, neither will your Father who is in heaven forgive your transgressions.

Mark 11:22-26 (DHE Gospels)

This verse is used to fuel the “name it and claim it” theology, which seems to be a subset of the prosperity theology; a gross distortion of the intent of Jesus when he’s describing faith. Faith isn’t about greed and it isn’t about “magic tricks.” We see by the words of the Master in the latter portion of the quote, it’s about mercy, grace, and compassion.

It’s also about conditional forgiveness.


I thought God’s forgiveness through the sacrifice of Jesus and the grace of Christ our Lord was unconditional. I thought we couldn’t merit salvation or buy our way into Heaven. I thought it was a free gift. All I have to do is believe.

Sure. Except that’s not exactly what Jesus said, is it?

There seems to be a bit of craziness involved in some of the beliefs of the church (or at least some churches). If our treasures are stored in Heaven rather than on earth, and we are told everything here is temporary, then why are we so concerned with praying for “stuff” so we can get “stuff?” I don’t get it.

What’s more, we seem to see that while material “stuff” isn’t supposed to be such a big deal, people are. In fact, people are such a big deal to God that Jesus tells us we are only forgiven to the degree that we forgive others.

I’m sure I’ve written about this before, but it needs to be repeated from time to time.

According to midrash, the Israelites lived in tents realizing that their true hope was with God and not their physical possessions. When Jesus tells us to “love your neighbor as yourself” in Matthew 5:43 and Mark 12:31, he’s quoting what God said to the Israelites in Leviticus 19:18, so the lessons of Jesus are not disconnected from the understanding and faith of the ancient Israelites.

If you claim to have faith, what is your faith in? How far does that faith go? Is it dependent on what God gives you, or could your faith endure living in a tent as a homeless person or a homeless family? Does your love of other people only extend to how much stuff God gives you (so you have tangible proof of God’s love) or could you love your neighbor, even if you were destitute?

We tend to feel more forgiving when we believe God has forgiven us, but turn the equation completely around. Forgive others first. Grant people mercy, compassion, grace, and hope. Value human beings more than the crap you collect in your living room and your garage.

Then turn to God and ask Him to forgive you.

God so loved the world that He gave His only Son. How does God show love today? By giving us stuff? No. By how much you give your love to others because you love Him.

If you want to receive love and forgiveness, give them away first.

The Rabbi and the Flood

Although many prosperity churches hold seminars on financial responsibility, Catherine Bowler of the Duke Divinity School alleges that they often offer poor advice. Rosin argues that prosperity theology contributed to the housing bubble that caused the financial crisis of 2007–2010. She maintains that home ownership was heavily emphasized in prosperity churches and that reliance on divine intervention caused people to make unwise choices.

Prosperity Theology page at Wikipedia

Once, I asked Garay how you would know for certain if God had told you to buy a house, and he answered like a roulette dealer. “Ten Christians will say that God told them to buy a house. In nine of the cases, it will go bad. The 10th one is the real Christian.” And the other nine? “For them, there’s always another house.”

-Hanna Rosin
“Did Christianity Cause the Crash?”
the Atlantic

As our forefather Yaakov (Jacob) prepared to encounter his brother Esav again after 34 years, he did three things: sent presents, readied for war, and prayed. He balanced his prayers and trust in G-d with appropriate “worldly” efforts. He neither trusted in his own efforts, nor expected G-d to protect him with open miracles.

Not everyone knows how to strike this balance correctly. At one end of the spectrum are the people who believe that everything is up to them, who panic when they encounter a challenge or pat themselves on the back when things go well. At the other end of the spectrum, perhaps, is the rabbi of a town seated downstream from a dam that was about to break.

-Rabbi Yaakov Menken
“Balanced Trust”
Commentary on Torah Portion Vayishlah
Project Genesis

I suppose there are Christian Pastors who preach a balanced approach to a life of faith, but I more often find such a lesson taught by Rabbis. It seems like, in our current and rather dismal economy, that the poorly-considered Prosperity Theology promoted at some of the rather famous megachurches, is just power-surging through Christianity these days. This phenomena reminds me of how some Christians believe people get sick and even die, just because they don’t have enough faith. After all, if you have enough faith, God will heal you of any injury or disease, right? The mother who died of breast cancer or the father who perished from a sudden heart attack just weren’t “real Christians”, right? There have been “men of God” such as Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Bakker, Benny Hinn, and Joel Osteen who have, at one time or another, preached the basic message that God wants all Christians to be wealthy in this lifetime and if we have enough faith, money and prosperity will drop in our laps like proverbial “pennies from heaven.”

That’s hardly the reality of the Bible. A quick look at any of the Prophets in the Tanakh (Old Testament) and the lives of the Apostles, including Paul and Peter, shows us that often a life of extraordinary faith is also one of extraordinary hardship. No, I’m not saying that a life of faith always results in hardship, but it’s ridiculous to believe that being a “true Christian” means always being “filthy rich”. God has a wide variety of paths for each of us. Some people are “rewarded” (seemingly) in this life and some, by faith, live in financial difficulty and believe they have a reward in the world to come (Matthew 6:19-21). Rabbi Menken uses Jacob as an example of a man who, through a lot of hard work and faith, did well materially, though not without sacrifice. Jacob was a man who, in spite of success, continued to struggle with the world around him and with the Divine, but who was balanced sufficiently to make his own best effort, to pray, and then to trust God.

Most of us aren’t that well-organized and, as people of faith, we forget many of the lessons God has taught us.

People, despite their wealth, do not endure;
they are like the beasts that perish.

This is the fate of those who trust in themselves,
and of their followers, who approve their sayings.
They are like sheep and are destined to die;
death will be their shepherd
(but the upright will prevail over them in the morning).
Their forms will decay in the grave,
far from their princely mansions.
But God will redeem me from the realm of the dead;
he will surely take me to himself.
Do not be overawed when others grow rich,
when the splendor of their houses increases;
for they will take nothing with them when they die,
their splendor will not descend with them.
Though while they live they count themselves blessed—
and people praise you when you prosper—
they will join those who have gone before them,
who will never again see the light of life.

People who have wealth but lack understanding
are like the beasts that perish. –Psalm 49:12:20

We cannot rely only on our faith nor only on our own efforts; rather it is a combination of both that God expects of us (James 2:14-26). But sometimes we get lazy and jump at the sort of message that says God will “do it all” as long as we “bathe it in prayer” and have enough faith. Lack of prosperity, in this particular spiritual framework, means it’s our fault when we don’t prosper, and we haven’t prayed hard enough or prayed some sort of “magical” or “secret prayer” someone wrote a book about, as if God could be manipulated to give us our wishes like a genie in a lamp.

The flip side is when we have success and attribute it entirely to our own efforts, ignoring the graciousness of God. We look at our own magnificence and tell ourselves that people who are destitute are just lazy slackers who want the Government to give them everything rather than really working hard, like we did. The examples of people who are out of balance in one way or another are just endless. Here’s the end of Rabbi Menken’s story to illustrate my point (and I’m sure you’ve heard this joke before):

The sheriff found the rabbi sitting calmly on his front porch, studying. “Rabbi!” yelled the sheriff, “it’s a flood, we have to evacuate!”

“Don’t worry,” said the rabbi, “G-d will help me. I don’t need to go.”

Soon the water flooded the town, and firemen in motorboats were picking up the stragglers. One of them noticed the rabbi, and called him to come with them.

“Don’t worry,” said the rabbi, “G-d will help me. I don’t need to go.”

But the waters rose, and rose, and by the time a helicopter was sent to find the last residents, the rabbi was calmly sitting on his roof. Yet once again, the rabbi refused to go.

Once in Heaven, the rabbi demanded an explanation. “I followed Your ways, I learned Your Torah, I did Your will… why didn’t You help me?!”

“What do you mean?” came the response. “I sent a car. I sent a boat. I even sent you a helicopter, but you refused to be helped!”

The reason the joke is so well-known is because it tells something true about people of faith who only have faith. We look for supernatural miracles as the only answer to prayer, but often God sends us very real-world solutions to our dilemmas which require that we take some sort of definitive action. God opens the door, but we still have to get up off of our rear ends and walk through it.

Rabbi Label Lam at Torah.org quotes the pre-World War II treatise of Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman ztl, “The Epoch of the Moshiach” as an example of how many of the Jews in Europe trusted in the powers of the world around them for safety and prosperity and instead were led into the Holocaust.

“Before the redemption, the Jews will err after various forms of idol- worship… “Any matter which appears to man as a controlling factor independent of HASHEM’s will, and as capable of doing good or evil is included in the definition of idolatry. (Sanhedrin) …

He writes, “Let us now review all the “idols” which were worshipped in the last one hundred years. The Enlightenment of Berlin promised a great salvation. As soon as the breeze of liberalism began to blow, the Jews hastened to stand in the ranks of the foremost exponents. After Liberalism had made its exit, they turned to Democracy (worship of public opinion), Socialism, Communism, and to other “isms”… To these idols they made sacrifices of blood and money- and were betrayed by all of them. Not even one justified the faith that was pinned on it…”

Anything can become an idol if we depend on it beyond God’s will, even faith itself. Having faith in a “system” of Government or economic strategy can and has led to tragic consequences, but walking out in the middle of a busy street, standing directly in the path of a speeding truck, and expecting God to send His angels to rescue us from our own folly is also a kind of idolatry. Whether it’s some corrupt “holy man” telling us what we want to hear or we are telling ourselves the same foolish message, we are not so strong that we do not need God, nor can we neglect the responsibilities God has given us and not expect to collide with the consequences. Like Jacob, we must do the equivalent of “sending gifts, praying, and preparing for war” in every challenge we face. Only then are we fully equipped and worthy children of our Father.