Free-Market Theology

January 1, 2005
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Adena K. Berkowitz

Some time ago, walking down Broadway with two of my older children, we passed a sign in the window of the indoor playground where they played as children. The sign said, “LOST OUR LEASE — CLOSING.” Shocked, my children asked, “Why is this happening? It was always so crowded.” And thus began an attempt to explain the vagaries of the free market system — large retail chains can pay higher rent. It led me to wonder what we, as Jews, contribute to this economic system.

Economics guru Adam Smith wrote of the invisible hand that guides the free enterprise system and the market forces that paradoxically harness the selfish motive to serve the social interest. Judaism, though, does not leave this to chance. Trying to balance the need to do well with the need to do good, Jewish tradition endorses a view of tzedekism-righteousness, fair play and human compassion that should lead to kiddush haShem . Yet over the past 20 years we have watched, much to our chagrin, many business scandals emerge that involve prominent Jews. The rich Jewish legacy that tempers the business person’s aggressiveness with moral and ethical restraints is too often ignored. We fail to incorporate these moral and ethical precepts into our lives, choosing, rather, to compartmentalize and separate our business practices from our ritual observance.

Long before the Department of Consumer Affairs, the Jewish community was put on notice that unethical business practices were not to be tolerated. A look at rabbinic history during talmudic and medieval times reveals the tensions that existed in making an honest and ethical living, especially during peak holiday seasons, such as Passover, when businesses were tempted to squeeze out more profit. Talmudic debate emphasizes price controls and unique means to frustrate monopolists. The Talmud sets requirements for disclosing information in a business relationship and leveled penalties for exploiting a person’s ignorance of fair pricing and for creating emotional duress in a buyer-seller relationship. Wealth was viewed as divinely inspired; consumption was to be modest. And formulas were devised for taxes to be allocated in a just and equitable fashion. Employer-employee relationships were viewed as reciprocal — fair wages for a fair day’s work. And many times the talmudic principle of lifnim meshurat hadin was invoked to deem certain conduct unethical and unbecoming, even if technically legal.

A number of years ago, Gerald Levin, then CEO of Time Warner, Inc., remarked that he would shape a corporation that “operates according to standards other then survival of the fittest.”* In his view, companies that create humane work environments, which seek to serve the public good and their shareholders, will do better in the long run because they will attract the best people. At the end of the day, the corporate bottom line will benefit. This long view of how an ethics and Torah-infused approach is good for business should animate us in creating moral environments, whether we are talking about a Fortune 500 company or synagogues and non-profits; weaving together the ethical and spiritual can also produce economic benefits.

It is a fitting time to apply some of these Jewish economic standards in Israel. Why have so few rabbinic leaders suggested halakhic and ethical approaches to issues that are affecting disenfranchised and impoverished groups? Why have so few rabbinic leaders questioned economic strategies that affect broader economic factors such as pension rights and treatment of foreign workers? We would do well to emphasis glatt yosher as much as glatt kosher.

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Dr. Adena K. Berkowitz is an independent consultant in New York. With a background in law and Jewish ethics, she has lectured across the U.S. A board member of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, she and her husband Rabbi Zev Brenner are the parents of five children.

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