Why A Jewish Perspective?
What does it mean to be “religious?” Most people tend to associate “religious” with punctilious observance of the ritual commandments. Punctilious observance of the dietary laws, the Sabbath, the laws of family purity, and studying Talmud make a person “religious” in the eyes of many.
Yet Israeli prisons are full of “religious” Jews. There is no question that when it comes to serving God, God is far more concerned with your morality than your rituals. In the Haftarah we read on Yom Kippur the prophet Isaiah admonishes the people who fast while oppressing other people. The prophet tells us that’s not what God wants.
Being a “good Jew” is first and foremost about being a “good person.” Being a mensch. In today’s complicated world, however, it’s often difficult to figure out what’s the right course of action. A business is certainly allowed to present its product in the most favorable possible light. But when is the line crossed between ads that are normal marketing and ads that are unethically deceptive? What responsibilities does a business have relative to the way subcontractors treat their employees? When does an employee have a responsibility to report on employer wrongdoing, to be a whistleblower?
The Jewish tradition has deep wisdom on the values that go into informing our answers to these and many other questions. Torah – in the broad sense, the collected Jewish wisdom of the ages – is not just a history lesson. It’s a guide for life in today’s world.
Remember the old rye bread ads, “You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s?” You don’t have to be Jewish to benefit from the Jewish approach to business ethics.
Judaism has an incredibly rich repository of ethical teachings that has been accumulating for over 2,500 years. Judaism approaches learning in a “layered” fashion. The Torah (the Pentateuch in the Old Testament) is the foundation, but it’s just the starting point. The rabbis of the Talmud – finalized about 1,500 years ago – continued to develop, and in many cases radically changed, our understanding of the biblical text. When we look for answers in the Jewish tradition we don’t just study the Bible, we study what our scholars have been saying about the issues raised in the Bible for over 2,000 years.
The particular situations we find ourselves today are new, and unimaginable and unrecognizable to the rabbis of old. However the values the rabbis explicated, and human nature itself, has not changed so much as we might like to think. People then had both greedy and altruistic sides, some more one than the other, and people today are the same. The rabbinic process toward ethical issues – applying traditional sources reflecting different values to particular cases or situations – remains the best way to approach ethical quandaries. It’s also possible to use this same approach, and bring in non-Jewish sources to complement Jewish sources. Wisdom can be found in many places.