Like most members of the Jewish community who read the news or saw the photos on Friday regarding the New Jersey corruption sweep, I was ashamed and embarrassed to see Orthodox rabbis taken away in handcuffs. Just a few weeks earlier, we were similarly horrified by images of the public disgrace of another member of our community — Bernard Madoff — who was sentenced to 150 years for the most heinous financial crime in history.
The combined force of these two high-profile scandals gives infamy a Jewish face, supporting anti-Semitic stereotypes, providing fodder for those who believe that Jewish law somehow enables dishonesty.
Greed is indeed an ugly and powerful force, however Jewish law and wisdom does everything to preach against it. “If one is honest in business and earns the esteem of others,” the rabbis of the Talmud advised, “it is as if one has fulfilled the whole Torah.” Adhering to Jewish values in business leads only to doing the right thing: serving the community, treating employees and customers with fairness and respect, dealing honestly and openly and helping those in need.
In business, as in life itself, temptation abounds, often coloring the judgment of well-meaning people. Being steeped in Torah knowledge does not insure honest behavior, as has been tragically demonstrated. Though the inextricability of ethics and religious practice might seem obvious to some, the sad reality is that many people who lead lives with rigorous attention to ritual observance nevertheless violate the ethical underpinnings of our tradition.
Therefore, it is necessary to approach the challenge of living ethically in a proactive manner. Let us no longer assume that people are born with an internal ethical barometer. Let us acknowledge that Torah teachings alone cannot prevent dishonesty. Instead, let us merge our moral tradition with a strict daily regimen as a prescriptive to getting lost in the sea of immorality. Such a practice is akin to putting on ritual garments in the morning or a disciplined athlete’s exercise program.
For instance, every time a decision comes up that may in any remote way impinge on immorality, the individuals must immediately “observe” themselves as if being judged in a court of law. Before an action is undertaken, it is necessary to ask — is this the right thing to do? Could there be ramifications unseen at this time that may result in the action being misinterpreted by others, and as a result transforming the action into an undesired and unwanted consequence?
If people undertook a brief yet disciplined time-out to reflect upon and analyze even the slightest questionable act, I am convinced that much immorality could be avoided.
At the end of the day, Judaism is all about being accountable for our actions. We are not judged by how much we study or how much we know. We are not judged by how much faith we have or even how much charity we give. We are judged by the large and small interactions we have with other human beings and whether we made the right choices.
In business as in life, decisions made in split seconds create consequences that last a lifetime. The Jewish community needs to redouble its vigilance in the ethical arena and make sure that our eternally valid ethical teachings line up with our worldly behavior. Otherwise the morality we have been teaching the world for 3000 years is for naught and the anti-Semites of the world have a valid case against us.