Business Ethics, On One Foot

Image: Girl holding pitcher in front of lemonade stand (Hurst Photo) All Rights Reserved.

I’m teaching a class on Jewish Ethics of Money at Temple Sinai in Oakland this month and next. The next classes will meet Nov. 3 and 10.

This week we talked about the ancient rabbis’ notion of the Worst People on Earth: Anshei Sodom, the Men of Sodom. I covered that set of midrashim in a another post, A Modern Day Sodom?

Then we moved on to talking about business and consumption, and the Jewish ethics attendant to each. I got to share one of my favorite quotes:

Everyone who does business honestly, such that people feel good about them, is considered as though they have fulfilled the entire Torah.

– M’chilta D’Rabbi Yishmael 15.26

That is a lot of merit to attach to “doing business honestly, so that people feel good about them.” It may seem on first glance like a low bar: “if people feel like Levi is a businessperson who can be trusted, then it is as if they have fulfilled the whole Torah.”

Think about it, though: it’s a very high bar. Our hypothetical good businessperson did business in such a way that they have a reputation for utter honesty and trustworthiness. There are no unresolved disputes, no ongoing feuds, no dissatisfied customers.

It also suggests, as do other quotes from the rabbis, as if they regard the area of business to be particularly fraught with obstacles to living a good life. Someone who navigates that successfully, leaving nothing but good feelings behind them, has indeed accomplished something. They have paid their bills and their workers on time. They have sold a good product, or provided good services. When there is a complaint, they work it out with their client until everyone is satisfied.

Maya Angelou once said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Seems to me that’s what the rabbis are driving at with “such that people feel good about them.”

Do you do business with anyone like that – anyone who leaves you feeling like it’s a pleasure to go in their shop or their office, because you know you will be decently treated? Tell us about them in the Comments, please!

It’s “Just Business,” Right?

Image: A man fastening his tie. Photo by unsplash/pixabay.

In the film The Godfather there’s a very famous line, spoken by Michael Corleone: “It’s not personal, Sonny. It’s strictly business.”

Michael Corleone is in the process of becoming a criminal, and the “business” to which he refers is a crime. I wonder sometimes if the people who say “It’s strictly business” about their own dealings realize that they are quoting a criminal.

Usually when a person uses the phrase, they are implying that if something is business, then the usual moral laws don’t apply. Perhaps the action in question is technically legal, or a loophole is found that can make it fall outside the purview of the civil law. And so they say, “It’s just business,” meaning, “Don’t bother me with that morality stuff – that’s for sissies.” Or simply: “It doesn’t matter. It’s just business.”

However, that’s not how Jewish tradition approaches business at all. In the Talmud, behavior in business is seen as so telling of a person’s character that it is the first question God asks at the Seat of Judgment:

When a man is brought before the [heavenly] court he is asked:  “Were you trustworthy in business?” – Shabbat 31a

An enormous block of the Talmud is taken up with business behavior, and it is the topic of a significant chunk of the medieval codes (Mishneh Torah, Shulkhan Aruch) as well. There are mitzvot having to do with weights and measures, with accounts payable and receivable, with payroll, and a myriad other aspects of business life.

Sometimes these mitzvot are remarkably similar to what an MBA would recognize as “Business Ethics” and sometimes not. That’s the reason that the second question at the Seat of Judgment is “Did you set a time for Torah study?” We are not born knowing how to live a life of Torah; we have to study with other Jews and struggle with the texts and the tradition.

The news is full of “just business” that might qualify as Torah transgressions: waste and destruction of natural resources, misleading claims, and dangerous workplaces, to name just a few. I am sure that the people responsible for companies that indulge in such practices tell themselves that they are doing it to stay competitive, that such moral qualms are a luxury they can’t afford.

Torah teaches us that everything we do matters. It matters if we deal fairly with others. It matters what we do with the natural world. It matters when a landlord doesn’t maintain their building. It matters when an employee’s children go to bed hungry. It matters when I pay a few dollars less in taxes and a bridge falls down.

It. All. Matters.

Torah is challenging. Torah is expensive (ask anyone who keeps kosher.) Torah is almost always the harder way of doing things. But at the end of a life of Torah, we can look back and see ways in which the world is a bit better for our having lived in it.

And that is what matters, isn’t it?