America’s fastest growing form of gambling is state lotteries. While I don’t think that gambling is immoral per se, I do think it is dumb to lose a lot of money gambling, but we all do dumb things from time to time. If someone wants to waste his/her resources in the pursuit of unearned riches, that’s his or her business; it’s a free country. But for the state to allow irrational behavior on the part of its citizens is not the same as the state encouraging such behavior, let alone exploiting it. Government is supposed to try to make its citizens smarter, not take advantage of their stupidity. I believe that today, state and local governments are playing upon and encouraging an attitude toward life which must be opposed – the fantasy of having our lives dramatically changed for the better in an instant. Lotteries lure the poor into a dream of easy escape from poverty. I don’t believe in living in a fantasy world. Judaism recognized there is a certain dimension of our life which is subject to mazel, luck, chance, fate. We believe in luck, but we certainly do not depend on luck.
As usual, our tradition is so realistic; Judaism did not attempt to declare gambling an absolute sin. There is no, “thou shalt not gamble,” in the Bible or in Halacha. Indeed, the rabbis sometimes defined “joy” on the holidays as a drop of schnapps and a game of cards. And in fact, they were encouraging gambling in order to discourage it. Given the well-known dangers and the costs of pathological gambling, the rabbis felt it is useful to try to restrain addiction by keeping gambling within the limits of a harmless game. The dreidel, which every Religious School child in the land receives at Chanukah time, is a case in point. You know that the dreidel is no more or less than the one common gambling top. We tell our children what the letters stand for – when the nun comes up, nicht – nothing happens; gimel – ganz, you take the whole pot; hey – halb, you take half of the pot; shin – shtell, you lose; you put in a sum. The medieval gambling top became the dreidel as part of a strategy designed to transform a serious gambling game into a child’s past time, and no one can become bankrupt losing nuts and M & M’s or raisins.
While not prohibiting gambling, the rabbis ruled that the professional gambler is to be classified in legal matters as an unreliable witness. He is to be considered along with thieves and robbers among people who are not to be trusted. Maimonides explains that a professional gambler who has no other source of income contributes nothing to the welfare of the community, and whether he gambles with dogs or pigeon races or with dice, he should be recognized for what he is – a sleazy, underworld character.
While I recognize that there is chance, fate, mazel, luck in this world, it does not mean that life is crapshoot. I believe that God has created a world in which many more good than bad things happen. We find life’s disasters unsettling not only because they are painful but because they are exceptional. Most people wake up most days feeling good; most illnesses are curable, thank God. Most airplanes take off and land safely. Most of the time when we send our children out to play, they come home safely. The accident, the robbery, the inoperable tumor are life-shattering exceptions, but they are the rare exceptions.
To recognize that there is an element of luck in life is not the same as to depend on luck. We Jews believe in mazel, but we don’t depend on mazel. Cities should not have to depend on casinos, nor should states on lotteries. No important human services should be dependent upon gambling. Meeting human needs is no game of chance. At best, lotteries, bingo games, betting in casinos are a suckers bet. At worst, they are a serious indictment of a society which refuses to face reality and to make the difficult decisions to help itself. As responsible citizens, as sensitive human being, as committed Jews, let us resolve in the New Year, not to bet on free lunches.