In the beginning, there was economic theory.
In the story of Abraham, from Genesis, the Hebrew word for property, a stand-in for wealth and how to use it, is mentioned no less than seven times. The story of Noah and the Flood is a lesson in the pitfalls of economic abundance. And the fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden — despite having all their needs taken care of — seems to argue against the very modern notion of a universal basic income.
These nuggets of economic and ethical wisdom gleaned from the first book of the Torah form the spine of Israeli-American venture capitalist Michael Eisenberg’s The Tree of Life and Prosperity: 21st Century Business Principles from the Book of Genesis, which was recently released in English. Eisenberg readily admits that he views most things through an economic lens. But what drives him are the core values and morals he finds in Biblical teachings — what he has come to call “the wisdom of the ancients for the moderns.”
“My wife thinks I look at everything through an economic lens, and I am guilty as charged,” Eisenberg, 50, told Jewish Insider at a café in his Jerusalem neighborhood. The New Jersey native has made Israel his home since 1993, raising his eight children in Jerusalem with his wife, Yaffa, a former Torah studies teacher who, after earning a master’s degree in Judaic Studies and having their fourth child, took on the task of being a mother full-time. “Anybody who goes to a text of any kind, but certainly a Biblical text, brings their own baggage with them, their own perspective which is borne of their life…so my lens is my daily life and my daily life is a venture capitalist investor, it is economics, macro and micro, and it is technology. I don’t think I read that into the Bible. I think you illuminate areas of the Bible because of your unique perspective.”
In the English version of his book, Eisenberg, co-founder and general partner at Aleph Venture Capital Fund, uses the weekly Torah portions from the Book of Genesis as a base to explore ethical and moral principles for successful business and economics.
“[This] is what makes it a living text, for over thousands of years,” he said.
He believes his economic perspective on the Torah is rare because there are few people in the tech, business and investing worlds with “Biblical fluency” who read the text over many times and are not embarrassed to discuss them.
“People are embarrassed to bring their hearts into their business, but I think that is what makes the world interesting,” said Eisenberg.
Through Aleph VC, an early-stage venture capital fund, Eisenberg focuses on partnering with Israeli entrepreneurs to build meaningful companies and brands that have an impact in their respective fields.
Eisenberg has been a contributor to The Marker, the Hebrew-language daily business paper, and has published in Hebrew the first three books in his planned five-book series discussing the economic model of the Torah and what it can teach modern economies and businesses. The Tree of Life and Prosperity, published by Simon and Schuster under the Wicked Son imprint, hit bookshelves on August 24 and is the first of the series to be published in English.
“We live in a time of a lot of uncertainty, and it feels like there is a lot of chaos in the world. I think in times of chaos and storms we need timeless wisdom. The Torah’s timeless wisdom has lasted 4,000 years, and I guess it will last another 4,000 years,” he said, noting that in today’s terminology, the Torah “has the largest number of unique users in history—more than Google, more than Facebook.”
“That is not an accident,” he added. “It has had more commentary written on it than anything, and that is not an accident either.”
Eisenberg, who has been blogging on “Six Kids and a Full Time Job” since 2006, on topics ranging from politics, technology, Judaism and macroeconomics, said writing the book was not something he had planned out. The book evolved from weekly discussions on the Torah portion at the Shabbat dinner table, to short notes written out on Google Docs to a Whatsapp group where every week he sent out a “missive” interweaving modern issues with the weekly Biblical portion.
Then one of his readers suggested he write a book. So he did. The Hebrew version came out two years ago.
“What was really interesting was it found a very broad audience—very, very broad. It was almost unpredictable. You had tech CEOs and investors and bankers and religious people and not religious people and ultra-Orthodox and national religious people of all types,” said Eisenberg. “It turns out that the Torah, the Bible, speaks to everyone if you put it in language that makes sense to a modern person.”
At the end of the day, he said, the real intended audience of the book is the younger generation, and more specifically his own children — two of whom work in startups with an intended social impact, one who is studying the Torah, another in the Israeli navy and the younger ones still in school.
But in a wider sense, he hopes the book will reach people who care about the world, about innovation and financial success on a broad scale and care about “timeless values and principles.”
These are principles that should guide a society of abundance, he said.
“We are not the first society to have abundance. The generation of Noah had relative abundance and they destroyed themselves, so there is a cautionary tale there about the challenges of abundance and we can take from this timeless wisdom. I hope people will apply it,” said Eisenberg.
In his view, everyone should care about these timeless values and principles. The “relativist mumbo-jumbo” he sees so much of today “drives me nuts,” he said, referring for example to the recent decision by ice cream giant Ben & Jerry’s to not renew the license selling rights of their product in the West Bank.
“I think Ben & Jerry’s are political relativists. Just the fact that they decided to single out Israel with what is going on in China, Afghanistan, Syria is beyond absurd. It is to scratch a political relativist itch rather than some fundamental principle that is time-honored,” he said.
As for himself, said Eisenberg, he does not invest in China — a decision based on the Torah-based principles he writes about in his book, though financially it may not be the best decision.
“One of the lessons the Torah has taught me is that if you are not free you don’t own anything. Private property comes into being after the Exodus, and the notion of ‘thou shalt not covet’ you can only have if you own private property. But if you are a slave, you have no freedom, you don’t own private property. So when China strips many of its technology companies of their money, innovation and money cap, it should be obvious it is because you don’t own anything because the Communist Party owns everything,” he said. “Economically I am a loser for [not investing in China]. I probably lost a lot of money doing that, and Ben & Jerry’s scratches a political itch that costs them no money. If they were really true to their principles, they would stop selling ice cream in China, but they’re not.”
Tamara Harel-Cohen, co-founder of the startup Riseup which helps Israeli families manage their cash flow and make informed financial decisions, recently appeared in a symposium with Eisenberg. Every entrepreneur should read the book as an essential guide to making value-driven decisions, which ultimately also create more economic value, she said.
“Michael does an incredible job of making the teachings of the Torah relevant to the daily lives and decisions of entrepreneurs,” she said. “He speaks about many values which I hold very dear, but he gives them a context that was new to me, as a secular entrepreneur. He reinforces that these are age-old Jewish values that are rooted in the Bible and he uses the Torah’s teachings to reinforce how important it is to harness the power of economics for positive change.”
Before they married, Eisenberg recounts that he told his wife that their wedding ceremony was six hours, but after that they would build a life together. And that concept is true of a book launch, which lasts 24 hours, he said.
“After that launch, hopefully you can build a conversation. You write books to get feedback and to start a conversation. So when people get the book in their hands and we start a conversation that will be gratifying,” said Eisenberg. “None of us lives forever, and we are like a relay racer who hands the baton off to the next generation. We are all on a march to improve our country, our society, our people, which is our family and our nuclear families, for the next generation. That is our job.”
Eisenberg sat down with Jewish Insider to discuss some of the Biblical principles and modern economic issues he writes about:
Adam and Eve and Universal Basic Income:
Eisenberg is not surprised that Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) introduced a universal guaranteed income bill in Congress, but is surprised that entrepreneur Elon Musk would support the idea, he said.
“When I wrote the book there was no pandemic so I had no proof, but since the pandemic started we gave out money to people and we discovered something amazing: They don’t go back to work. It is true in Israel, it’s true in the United States,” he said.
“This notion of universal basic income has been around forever, since the Garden of Eden, and it failed. Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden had universal basic income; all their basic needs were taken care of so they didn’t work. They became bored and so they ate from the tree. They did exactly what God said not to do,” said Eisenberg.
In addition, he pointed out, children are only born once Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden. There is also no bread in the Garden of Eden, where there are the raw ingredients but no creativity.
“Without work and productivity there are no children; there is no creative endeavor. And there is no higher creative endeavor than having children,” said Eisenberg. “Maybe some pessimists…think it is a good idea not to have children. I think it is a terrible idea not to have children.”
Children, he said, are the ones who will become the innovators and creators of the future, solving problems rather than creating them.
“The world has been coming to an end from acid rain and climate change and nuclear power and God knows what else for a hundred years, and it hasn’t ended yet. And some people say they are not having children because the world is a terrible place. To these people I would say: ‘You have lost your mind. Have children.’ Children will innovate our way out of these problems like they continuously did because young people innovate.”
Noah and Ethical Frameworks:
Though Noah is generally associated with his ark and surviving the Flood, those aren’t the two most important biographical bits of information in Noah’s story, Eisenberg argues.
The two most crucial facts are that he invented the plow, increasing food production, and he invented fermentation to make wine.
But despite Noah’s invention, which created abundance, he did not build an ethical framework around his inventions, so society destroyed itself, explained Eisenberg.
“The world became abundant after Noah, because Noah invented the plow and he increased food production. The population expanded, but then humanity destroyed itself not out of scarcity but out of abundance.,” he said. “That’s very clear from the Biblical texts…society becomes wealthy and corrupt, trust is lost…and God decides we need a flood, which means humanity has destroyed itself.”
This happened a second time when Noah plants a vineyard after the Flood, said Eisenberg, and makes wine. He becomes drunk after drinking the wine and is abused by his son.
“Noah was a great innovator who didn’t put a timeless, ethical, principled framework around his innovation. We need to do that,” Eisenberg said. “We need to do that for artificial intelligence, we need to do that for synthetic biology. We have amazing innovations coming; they will move society forward but they need ethical and principled frameworks.”
He intends to do exactly that with Israel’s first synthetic biology institute he is in the process of setting up, he said. While it will be a scientific endeavor, it will partner with an ethical institute.
“Otherwise, you can go awry. And we want to be a thought leader and a practical leader in the principle frameworks around these ideas,” said Eisenberg.
Abraham and Sarah and Wealth
Abraham, said Eisenberg, arrives in the Land of Israel a wealthy man but does not rest on his laurels. He plants a vineyard and begins to travel and pursue spiritual pursuits, spreading the word that the purpose of wealth is to enrich other members of society.
Abraham also comes with his orphaned nephew, Lot, and takes care of him. Both men return wealthy from Egypt, where they have gone to escape a famine, added Eisenberg.
Indeed, he noted, in the story of Abraham the word “rechush,” property, is used seven times — a significant number in the Torah — denoting the importance of this concept of wealth.
“Abraham uses his talents and skills to help Lot enrich himself — that’s the society the Torah is after. That successful people — and we want successful people — should use their talents and wealth to spread the blessing to enable other people to become wealthy,” he said.
However, Lot, continued Eisenberg, chooses to go his own way and asks to go to Sodom, the richest and most fertile land, but also a place of selfishness, to make his own wealth.
“Sodom destroys itself because of its xenophobia and its pathological hatred and selfishness. Abraham becomes the father of the three great monotheistic faiths and persists, and nobody knows who the hell Lot is,” said Eisenberg.
Relating that in modern terms to Israel, Eisenberg said that, as a wealthy country, Israel faces a challenge of how to approach wealth, and he holds that the Torah should be used as a guide book for that conversation.
“I think what my book has done is shown a very broad audience of religious and non-religious people, Jews and non-Jews, that the Torah has what to say whether you actively believe in God or not, or whether you are actively religious in practice or not,” he said.
The Tower of Babel and One Language:
Eisenberg sees a modern parallel in the story of the Tower of Babel, where people decide they will all be the same and build a big tower “making a name for themselves,” to today’s debates over the idea of deplatforming, or blocking someone holding views regarded as different, offensive or unacceptable from posting on websites or social media such as Facebook.
“The Tower of Babel is an interesting story in that [why] shouldn’t we all just be the same? One language, one thing. You hear a lot of that in modern society, particularly among progressives: we are all the same,” said Eisenberg. “The answer is we’re actually not all the same and real diversity, diverse languages and diverse cultures is what makes humanity interesting.”
Today the deplatforming can occur not only on social media but also in financial institutions such as PayPal, he noted.
“With the very powerful platforms like Facebook, Google, PayPal, if they decide you are out of bounds — and we can debate what out of bounds is — you can be deplatformed,” he said. “That is like the Tower of Babel. What we need to do in my view is what God did, which is scatter the Tower of Babel [the platforms]…where people own their own language, culture…The modern currency is data, so I can control in a centralized manner if I have your data. But if I give you your data and you own it, you can be different.”
That would be the job of a “regulator,” said Eisenberg, who in theory gets elected by the people.
“Regulation is a double-edged sword in which sometimes regulators overstep their bounds and they create [a] huge amount of reduction in productivity… but sometimes they have a job to do, which is to reflect the need of people to be different,” he said. “Unfortunately God is not coming down to scatter big tech right now, so we need to rely on a far more important power called the government to go do this.”