Judaism: Credit Cards
Rabbi Berel WeinRabbi Berel Wein is a noted scholar, historian, speaker and educator, admired the world over for his audio tapes/CDs, videos and books, particularly on Jewish history.
One of the more fiendish banking creations of our modern society is that of the credit card. This simple piece of plastic is the greatest source of personal convenience and freedom of opportunity. It is also the source of angst, bankruptcy and even greater forms of tragedy to families and individuals. For credit cards like everything else in human existence come at a cost. Some of it is immediate and most of it is long term.
It is not only that the monthly bill has to be paid – here in the Holy Land the money is taken out of your bank account with no prior notice – but that there are all sorts of other worries that come with a credit card – identity theft, embarrassment when the card is not accepted for some unknown, implausible and unjustified reason and the hassle involved if, God forbid, one loses the card, to name a few problems that constantly hover in my mind.
The freedom to go on a purchasing spree with a credit card, like all other freedoms in life, can be dangerous. Many a family has been destroyed financially and eventually domestically because of outrageous credit card debt. And supplying a credit card to teen-age children can, if not controlled and limited, be a prescription for personal and familial disaster. So, like most advances and seeming conveniences in life and society, credit cards are a double-edged sword depending on how it is wielded and sheathed. The basic rule in life, that there is no free lunch, applies here with a vengeance.
In Avot we are informed that this world is likened to a magnificent store, full of all sorts of goods that one can purchase and enjoy. Not only is the store open for business 24/7 but the storekeeper is willing to extend generous terms of credit with no immediate cash required as a down payment. But like the Israeli credit card system, payment is regularly exacted and collected and usually without any prior notice to the credit card holder/debtor.
We are always surprised and if not even blindsided by the events and challenges that confront us constantly. And Avot makes this reality crystal clear to us. We are all, so to speak, living on credit card debt. And in the spiritual world, no less than in the physical and financial world, debt must eventually be paid or at least somehow successfully negotiated and settled. The current financial crisis in the Western world is a powerful illustration of the inexorable iron rule of debt and credit.
The consequences of defaulting on spiritual debt to the Almighty are made clear to the Jewish people in the Torah. All of Jewish history can be summed up as simply the story of borrowing on credit and eventually being forced to repay the debt incurred. Much of our spiritual debt, like one’s personal financial debt, has been incurred by foolish and unnecessary purchases.
Our spiritual credit card like our financial one has limits to the amount of credit available. I imagine that there is much in Jewish history that we now wish to return to the store. But the Torah store has a very limited return policy based solely on true repentance and further probity in using our moral and spiritual credit cards. And these terms certainly appear to limit our purchasing freedoms in this life.
One of the great problems in current Jewish society is identity theft. Our true self, our personal credit card, has either been stolen or lost due to ignorance, alienation, apathy or terrible negligence. If asked to identify one’s self successfully to our storekeeper many Jews are simply unable to do so. Millions of Jews have been robbed of their heritage and history, their value system and their true mission in life and the world. Their credit card is no longer valid, having expired over a few generations of assimilation and physical and spiritual annihilation.
There are many Jews today, especially here in Israel, who are in the process of applying for a new credit card for themselves and their families. We are all aware that such applications are not easily processed nor are they always approved. Nevertheless the willingness of many Jews to attempt to recapture their true identity, and the fact that Israel as a whole has become more traditionally Jewish in outlook - and even in behavior, is a most heartening development. It augurs well for our future here in our land. Credit can be a blessing but it must be used wisely.