The story of Dives and Lazarus has no parallel in the Hebrew Scriptures. This is not to say that, in Judaism, riches are gloried in for their own sake.
'Who is rich? He who is satisfied with his portion,' proclaims the Mishna, the earliest collection of oral laws based on the Hebrew Scriptures. From this standpoint of relativity, comments Rabbi Pinchas Rosenstein, the Chief Rabbi's spokesman on business ethics, the poor man is often richer than the wealthy man because he may be content with less. In a similar vein is a passage from Proverbs, cited by Rabbi Dr Norman Solomon in his recent book Judaism and World Religion: 'Give me neither poverty nor wealth, provide me only with the food I need. If I have too much I shall deny thee and say, 'Who is the Lord?' If I am reduced to poverty, I shall steal and blacken the name of my God.'
In Chapter 5 of Ecclesiastes, the vanity of wealth is variously depicted: 'He that loveth silver shall not be satisfied with silver . . . the abundance of the rich will not suffer him to sleep . . . as he came forth of his mother's womb, naked shall he return to go as he came, and shall take nothing of his labour, which he may carry away in his hand' (5:10-15). Rather than highhandedly declaiming against worldly possessions, Ecclesiastes presents a subtle psychological reality which sharply conveys their limitations. In contrast, the chapter ends with a picture of wholeness, in which riches play a significant part: 'Every man . . . to whom God hath given riches and wealth, and hath given him power to eat thereof, and to take his portion, and to rejoice in his labour; this is the gift of God' (5:19).
So, can the rich man aspire to the kingdom the gospels have denied him? Judaism's answer has always been a qualified 'Yes'. Yes, provided wealth is earned in a way which does not exploit others, and if it is recognised as a gift from God and used for the benefit of others. Yes, but wealth and the pursuit of wealth should never become ends in themselves.
'The Jewish religion is the only religion where the founders, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, were wealthy men,' argues Dr Meir Tamari, a former economic adviser to the Governor of the Bank of Israel and now director of the Jerusalem Institute of Ethics. 'From this it is evident that Judaism has never said you can only be pious if poor.' Judaism teaches that rich and poor are equal in God's eyes.
Nevertheless, a minefield of injunctions and regulations which far extend the usual meaning of 'theft and robbery' faces the man hoping to get rich but remain virtuous. Withholding wages, using faulty weights and measures, failing to make full disclosures, and exploiting ignorance of the market price in order to defraud are all considered forms of theft, as is what the sage Maimonides refers to as 'undue influence' - the use of power to drive a hard bargain.
The next limitation Judaism imposes is how the money is to be used. Rather than succumb to the temptations of a life of profligacy, the rich man who seeks higher ends should act philanthropically. Certainly the report on Foundations and the Rich recently published by the Directory of Social Change contains a disproportionately high number of Jewish benefactors among Britain's 100 wealthiest people and there are numerous charitable trusts and funds maintained by prominent Jews who cannot aspire to such rankings. But personal philanthropy is not enough. Although, legally, people cannot be taxed today for the purpose of charity, autonomous Jewish communities were, in the past, able to impose such a tax as a form of social justice.
Closely linked to the obligation to provide for the needy is the obligation not to gain extortionately from lending money. Contrary to the Shylock myth, usury was frowned upon in Jewish teachings; traditionally, wealthy Jews were obliged to lend part of their money interest-free and 'invest' part at interest. In many immigrant communities in the past and in Israel today 'helping hand' societies enabled people to borrow without interest to obtain short-term liquidity or to set up businesses, thereby breaking the cycle of poverty. 'This, not a handout, is the highest form of charity,' says Tamari.
With these conditions to satisfy, the number of rich men queuing at Heaven's gate must be few indeed. And these are only the exterior trappings of virtue. Where are the seriously rich who are content with their lot, who can withstand the pressures to make the accumulation of wealth - or power - an end in itself? Sir Moses Montefiore, the Jewish philanthropist and centenarian who retired from his business activities before the age of 40, and devoted the remainder of his life to serving the interests of his less fortunate co-religionists, provides an example hard to emulate in today's brutal economic world.
If wealth is in some degree a reward for virtue, as elements in the Jewish tradition suggest, then must its sudden loss imply a preceding sin?
The recent collapse of Olympia & York, the developers of Canary Wharf, occasioning the minimum of the schadenfreude usually reserved for the fall of the mega-rich, is a poignant indication that even good deeds are not enough. The Reichmann brothers were praised for their piety, their modest lifestyles and their devotion to charity. Clearly they were not impelled by greed. But it seems to have been brought on by a compulsion for ever-greater achievement.
If balance is the central tenet of the Jewish approach to business, then the Reichmanns' change of fortune may be seen as a punishment for their lack of moderation. But there is another way of looking at it. Rather than a punishment, they have received an opportunity to reflect like Job, away from the maelstrom of commerce, that the price of wisdom is far above rubies.