Radically Jewish Business Ethics
from chabad.org by David Weitzner
In the wake of the latest business scandals in the news, let’s go ahead and ask the real question that sits in the back of the head of every businessman with a conscience: Is business inherently at odds with ethics?
Let’s probe deeper than that: What is the precise relationship between the world of business and the seemingly disparate world of morality and ethics? Does this relationship begin and end with a set of rules specifying the behaviors that are to be avoided while engaging in an inherently unholy, albeit necessary, task? Or, as a radical alternative, can business activity be celebrated as something with significant spiritual potential?
An authentically Jewish approach to business ethics begins by shattering our popular conceptions of morality. Unlike other spiritual traditions, Judaism does not view business activity as nothing more than a necessary evil. Like everything else that is meaningful in one’s life, the call to engage in business comes from Above. The classic Jewish discussions of morality in business veer considerably far away from the topics that dominate what we generally regard as the sphere of the moral. Morality is often conceived in the popular mindset as the realm of altruism and self-sacrifice. Yet Jewish business ethics push for the development of qualities and character traits that do not, at first glance, have specifically moral significance.
Perhaps you have heard of the classic Talmudic insight into our moment of judgment. The first question we will be asked after death, according to our sages, is, “Did you do business b’emunah (in good faith)?”
Now, what is the point behind this question? Is the heavenly court only interested in how honest I was, and business happens to be a good laboratory in which to test that honesty? It doesn’t sound that way to me. It sounds like they are really interested in whether I was occupied in a unique and particular activity called “business in good faith”—because that activity contains an inherent sanctity that is of such prime importance, it must be placed prior to inquiries on any other activity.
I can evidence this from the context of the question. After this first question, come several others, such as, “Did you set aside fixed time for Torah study?” The virtue under inquiry isn’t simply living by a schedule, or fixing time for good deeds, but rather there is something uniquely special about regular Torah study. Or, “Did you occupy yourself with being fruitful and multiplying?”—a very specific question demonstrating the holiness of a very particular action with particular results. Similarly here, the question does not seek to confirm that while doing business you did not cheat, lie or break any of the 613 commandments. It seems to suggest that there is a type of business activity that in itself is holy.
The Talmud wants us to know that when we face the Highest of Judges, His first inquiry is not for an account of the sins we avoided while doing business; not to list the negative behavior from which we duly abstained, or even to account the non-business related altruistic endeavors in which we engaged through our business activities (“I gave 10% to charity. I had a lunch and learn session in my office. I ran an appeal from Israel among my business associates.”). The sages are informing us that there is an ultimate need to tell in detail the seemingly mundane story of our actual daily good-faith business interactions. Why would the Heavenly Courts care for such an accounting, unless there is a deep moral good to be discovered in the particulars of how we performed the seemingly amoral activities of business? This question only makes sense if business activity and moral behavior have the potential to be one and the same: business “b’emunah.”
Or put it this way: They are saying that the essence of an authentically Jewish approach to business ethics is not to be found by criticizing business activities or simply delineating a set of rules and prohibitions. Authentically Jewish business ethics is about engaging in business in a way that changes the person, changes the environment in which that person works, and changes all those who come in contact with the business person through their daily business activities. Jewish business ethics is concerned with preparing that narrative that we all know we will need to eventually relay to the Heavenly Judge. We need to work on thinking about how we can tell the best possible story of what we do everyday in business—why it is a good faith activity. We need to think about how we are creating real and meaningful value. We need to think about how businesses are changing the world we live in via their work. The expectation is not to create a narrative telling of how we engaged in high-minded acts of self-sacrifice. That story is for a different time and place. The question of Jewish business ethics is to create a story of transformation through the seemingly simple acts of our good faith business activities.
The Talmud talks glowingly about our ancestor Jacob finding favor in the eyes of the local indigenous population. One might wonder about the details of the miraculous or altruistic endeavor of greatness which Jacob was required to engage in to attain this elevated state. And as often is the case in our tradition, there is no consensus. But let us look at the different opinions expressed in the Talmud and the similar theme on which they are all based. The debate focuses around three distinct activities: either Jacob established a stable currency for the people, or he set up local markets or perhaps he built a working public bathhouse. In other words, our forefather Jacob turned the establishment of markets, currency valuation and infrastructure developments into the highest of moral acts. These seemingly mundane activities, actions that we normally do not think of having any moral significance, are the basis for his transformational narrative. He changed the world through his righteousness. But he also changed the world with business. The two are forever linked.
This message is repeated again and again throughout the Jewish canon. Our Talmudic sages tell us that the guide to sainthood is to be found in the study of the tractates on damages. The path to sainthood is not locked in the lofty esoteric discussions of deep mysticism… it is available to all in the practical explorations of business interactions and compensation! Business ethics in classic Judaism is not about charity and altruism (which are absolutely moral goods in themselves)—they are about real business activities and the holiness and moral goodness found in those particular acts. The Chassidic masters taught that holiness can be found anywhere, so why should we be surprised to find that engaging in the seemingly mundane activities of business is an authentic path to righteousness?
There is a famous Midrash in Genesis Rabbah that talks about our forefather Abraham wandering through foreign lands and seeing people eating, drinking and engaging in frivolity. Clearly these people had lives of leisure and not suffering, yet Abraham intoned a hope that this land would not be his inheritance. Instead, when he passed a land of toil, where the people were engaging in the necessary tasks of life at their appropriate times, he expressed a hope that he could even have a piece of this hard-working community. G‑d looked down and said, “This is the land I will give your offspring.” What did Abraham see in this land that was so wonderful? The Lubavitcher Rebbe suggests that Abraham saw the dignity of the people… dignity that is found in self-sufficiency. Business activity allows the people to be partners with G‑d in re-creating the world they live in. Loving the Eternal is one thing—working with Him to provide for the world is another.
Practically speaking, what is the essential message found in the classic Jewish discussions of business? In short, go about your business. But always be mindful that good faith business is no small task. Create a level economic playing-field. The weak need to be protected from exploitation… but the powerful sometimes need protection as well. Our sages were very careful to ensure that creditors had the same protection as debtors. They wanted to strike a balance so that those with capital would not be discouraged from lending. They wanted to make sure that business transactions were just that, business transactions and not inadvertent charitable giving. Charity is good, but business is good as well. Both institutions needed to be solidified.
Jewish business ethics finds great moral worth in clarity. Clarity about the nature of the transaction, and clarity regarding what the results would be if the transaction goes horribly wrong. So much time is spent in Talmudic discussions outlining the most improbable of scenarios because the more clarity there is in the economic arena, the better markets can function. This is as true today as it was then. Study Judaism to understand good faith business. And study the details of business to understand Judaism.
An authentically Jewish approach to business ethics believes that businesses can do well while being good. Be mindful of your strategy, and be mindful of the greater narrative that you will one day have to relay. Are you creating more opportunities for business, opening doors for more people to join the transactions? Are you playing your role as authentically as possible, whether you are a buyer or a seller, a lender or a borrower? The moral good that comes from business activities done well is as real and meaningful as the moral good that may come from anywhere else. That is business b’emunah.