Friday, December 04, 2009

Jewish Business Ethics In Light Of Current Events


Rabbi Avi Shafran

A number of Jews, including Orthodox Jews, have been implicated in financial crimes over recent months.

Some of the scandals have proven somewhat less scandalous than when they first appeared on front pages and were seared into readers' minds. Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin, for instance, currently stands convicted of misleading a bank to secure a loan. Although that conviction, amazingly, could result in an effective life sentence, charges that Mr. Rubashkin knowingly hired illegal aliens were dropped; and more lurid accusations – that he mistreated employees, abused animals and ran a methamphetamine factory – are no longer heard.

In some other cases, accusations have been made but evidence has not yet been heard; and both Judaism and American law insist on a presumption of innocence.

But there have certainly been cases in the Jewish community where guilt has been well established. Bernie Madoff may never have been Jewishly observant, but the Orthodox community has certainly had its share of fraud convictions, if on smaller scales, as well.

Jewish crimes, imagined, alleged or proven, have been prominently featured in the media. But they were prominent too at Agudath Israel of America's recent 87th national convention. The opening plenary session, on November 26, was dedicated to the Jewish mandate of honesty in business and personal dealings. Two of the Orthodox world's most respected rabbinic figures – Rabbi Yaakov Perlow, the Novominsker Rebbe and Agudath Israel's rabbinic head; and Rabbi Mattisyahu Salomon, the dean of students, or Mashgiach, of the famed Lakewood yeshiva – addressed the many hundreds who packed the large hall of the East Brunswick Hilton (with thousands more listening to a live broadcast of the proceedings or, later, on tapes and cd's). The speeches were pointed, pained and powerful, and their message came through clearly: Honesty is no less a Jewish imperative than any. In fact, in many ways it is a greater one.

There were, as it happened, two other speakers that evening, although they were not there, unfortunately, in person: Rabbi Shimon Schwab and Rabbi Avrohom Pam, may their memories be a blessing.

Video excerpts of addresses presented by those two revered figures years ago on the subject of business ethics were projected onto large screens before the crowd. As the men on the screen spoke there was utter silence.

Rabbi Schwab, who served as the spiritual leader of the Khal Adath Jeshurun Orthodox Jewish community in Washington Heights for nearly four decades, had addressed an Agudath Israel “Halacha Conference for Accountants” on January 24, 1989. In the excerpts of that speech broadcast at the recent convention, he minced no words about the wrongness of “cutting corners” when it came to honesty in business.

“Those who resort to… dishonesty,” he said, “while they may have the outward appearance of G-d-fearing Jews, deep down they are irreligious” – and he loudly emphasized the “ir” of “irreligious.” G-d provides us what He knows we need, Rabbi Schwab explained. To steal is to deny that fact, and any gains thereby ill-gotten are an inheritance bequeathed by evil.

He noted, further, that the dictionary has an entry for the word “Jew” as a verb, as in “to Jew” someone, i.e. to cheat him. How terrible a desecration of G-d’s name, Rabbi Schwab bemoaned, that His people are viewed as defrauders. Even if the definition carries the smell of anti-Semitism, he explained, it is a desecration of G-d’s name all the same.

“I live for the day,” he mused, with a pining, sad smile, “when there will be a new definition for ‘to Jew’: to be a stickler for honesty… ”

Rabbi Pam served as the dean of Yeshiva Torah Vodaath (where he taught for more than 60 years) and was a member of the Council of Torah Sages. His excerpted speech was recorded on November 22, 2000 and screened the next day at that year’s Agudath Israel convention. He was seriously ailing and it may have been the last public address of his life. The anguish in the rabbi’s face and words, though, were clearly the product not of illness but of the pain he felt at having to even address the issue.

Speaking in Yiddish, he characterized a good Jew as someone who is “ehrlich” – honest and trustworthy – “in his profession, in business, with one’s workers, with one’s partners…” and, like Rabbi Schwab, he stated clearly that the same honesty with which a Jew must interact with another Jew must characterize a Jew's dealings with non-Jews.

When one arrives in the next world, Rabbi Pam reminded his listeners, quoting the Talmud, “the very first question he is asked is ‘Did you conduct your business in [good] faith?’”

The word used there, he noted, quite literally means “faith,” because – here he echoed Rabbi Schwab – acting dishonestly in order to “supplement” our income denies G-d’s ability to provide us our sustenance.

When the screens went black, before applause ensued, the silence persisted for what seemed, at least to one person in the audience, a very long time.


[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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