Judaism teaches that the economy must rest on justice and righteousness

There is a scene from an old movie that has been playing in my mind recently, triggered by Alan Greenspan’s testimony before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform last week.

In that scene, the tough guy thug, who was a neighborhood hero, is about to be executed for a murder that he willingly admits to having committed.

In his last minutes, he is strutting and boasting about how he is not afraid of death. Just before his execution, he is visited by the priest from the old neighborhood. The priest tells him the following (reconstructed from my foggy memory): “Johnny, your life has been a waste. You haven’t done nuthin’ good since you were a kid. You’re a bum. Worst of all, the kids in the neighborhood think you’re a hero, and they all want to act like you, be tough like you, and kill like you.”

“If you go to the chair bragging and boasting, those kids will think you are a hero, and it will ruin some of their lives. There is one thing you can do to save your immortal soul. You can go to the electric chair crying and screaming. Perhaps then they will realize that you are not such a glorious role model and this is not the life they should choose.”

The priest leaves, and in the final scene, the thug is dragged to the gas chamber crying and screaming.

Alan Greenspan finally cried and screamed. After serving several terms as the high priest of free market idolatry, the “oracle” admitted that greed was not a way to guarantee that banks and financial institutions will behave justly or ethically.

Or, in his words: “Those of us who have looked to the self-interest of lending institutions to protect shareholder’s equity (myself, especially) are in a state of shocked disbelief.” (It sounds better if you say this in the voice of Capt. Renault from “Casablanca,” when he finds gambling in Rick’s tavern.)

Toward the end of his tenth decade, Greenspan recognized a “flaw in his worldview:”

The market is not self-regulating!When faced with a choice between profits and the greater good, the market will not choose the greater good.

If Greenspan had perhaps spent a little less time with Ayn Rand and a little more time with Pirke Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) he might have arrived at this insight slightly earlier. “Those who believe that mine is mine and yours is yours,” says the Mishnah in Avot, “some say these are like the Sodomites.” That is, those who believe that ownership is a moral category on which to ground a community’s interactions are just like those who caused Sodom to, literally, go to hell.

The midrash (Genesis Rabba) relates that God decided to destroy Sodom when God saw that one of its citizens, a young woman, was killed for sharing her provisions with a needy person. The Sodomites saw this as the highest breach of the principle of ownership.

Yet, ownership is not a principle. It is a social convention that is helpful in ordering our affairs. Therefore, when it is unhelpful, when it morphs, as it is wont to do, into unrestrained greed, it must be restrained by the community through regulations.

Perhaps now, as Greenspan walks off into the night, a pathetic has-been idolator, we will be empowered to see justice and righteousness as the principles on which to ground our economy.

Aryeh Cohen is associate professor of rabbinic literature at American Jewish University.