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The Jewish Ethicist: The Corporation and God

The Jewish Ethicist: The Corporation and God

Where does God fit into your corporation's mission statement?

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Q. Lately many business corporations have tried to define their mission in relation to God's will. Does Judaism support this trend?

A. There does seem to be an awakening of interest in the proper role of God in our business dealings. A book entitled God is my CEO has become a national bestseller, while major corporations have introduced mention of the Creator in their corporate communications. For example, the mission statement of food producer Tyson foods states that "We strive to honor God," while ServiceMaster states that its objective is to "Honor God in all we do."

Of course Judaism believes that consciousness of the Divine must permeate all of our everyday activities. This is precisely the significance of the many commandments the Torah specifies. Most commandments do not tell us to engage in other-worldly activities. Instead, they provide limits on how we engage in mundane affairs like eating (laws of kosher food and making blessings), family life (laws of family purity), and of course business. This in turn elevates and sanctifies all aspects of human experience.

This is of course the main purpose of my column: to explain to readers how God's Torah can guide us in our workplace and marketplace dealings and make them conform to His will.

Beyond the simple assertion that business can, even must, be an arena for carrying out God's will and plan, it is worth examining exactly how we should describe His role. The CEO paradigm suggests an active, interventionist role for religious consciousness, one in which God's will is communicated at the level of specific policies and directions for the firm. A contrasting but widely publicized paradigm is that of "stewardship". A steward is left in charge of property which is not his; he is charged with using his judgment to preserve and exploit them for the benefit of a largely absent owner.

While we can find echoes of these approaches in Jewish sources as well, I think that the best characterization of the Jewish view is the "partner paradigm". When it comes to everyday activities requiring human judgment and initiative, God is not so much above us as (like a CEO) as beside us; he is not absent (like the master of the steward) but present.

The idea of God as a partner is found in many places in our tradition. The Talmud tells us "There are three partners in the creation of a person: God, and his father, and his mother." (1). Another expression of this idea is the Talmudic statement that the ultimate way to introduce holiness into our lives is to emulate God, to learn from His example. The Torah tells us to "go after God". (Deuteronomy 13:5.) The Talmud asks, can a person really "follow" the divine presence? Rather, we should follow His ways, and engage in acts of kindness. (2)

But in practice, the most outstanding example of viewing the God as a partner is in fact in the sphere of business. The rabbis took the idea of God as a business partner beyond an instructive metaphor and viewed it as a practical and legal paradigm. The custom of giving a tenth of one's income to charity was formalized in a responsum of the 16th century authority Yair Bachrach as an actual business partnership. The responsum concludes that the calculation of "income" for purposes of this tithe is according to the usual rules of figuring business expenses. (3)

This approach echoes an earlier responsum of Rabbi Yosef Karo, the author of the authoritative Code of Jewish Law. The Talmud learns from a Scriptural verse that a person is allowed to give charity with the expectation of an earthly reward. The Torah says, "Surely tithe"; the rabbis infer that tithing surely leads to wealth. (4) The proof is in the verse from the prophet Malachi (3:10): "Bring Me all the tithe to the treasury, and there will be provision in My house; test Me with this, says the Lord of hosts, if I don't open for you the channels of the heavens, and I will pour out endless blessing."

Rabbi Karo writes that this is true only if he makes a precise accounting of ten percent of his net income which is given to charity. (5). This makes sense if we view this accounting as a way of making God an explicit partner in the business; then He is sure to contribute the unique "capital" of divine blessing and so a person has a legitimate expectation of making a profit.

Our business dealings need to be conducted with a consciousness of God's concern. Since we are not prophets, we can't rely on Him for everyday guidance in the mundane aspects of running a business, as if He were a senior manager. The idea of a salaried "steward" is also not quite accurate; God permits and encourages us to take an active ownership interest in our worldly activities, and to enjoy their fruits in appropriate moderation. Rather, His delegation of everyday responsibility, His constant presence, and His insistence on the ground rules of Torah make the relationship most like that of a silent partner who provides the essential wherewithal to make a business successful and then leaves the active day to day management to the active partner, subject to the basic conditions of partnership.

More than our CEO or our master, God is our partner in running effective and ethical business enterprises.

SOURCES: (1) Kiddushin 30b (2) Sota 14 (3) Responsa Chavot Yair 224 (4) Taanit 9a. The actual inference is from the repetition of the Hebrew words 'aser t'aser; the inference is tithe ('aser) in order to become wealthy (titasher, where the s and the sh are written with the same Hebrew letter.) (5) Responsum Avkat Rochel 3.

Send your queries about ethics in the workplace to jewishethicist@aish.com

To sponsor a column of the Jewish Ethicist, please click here.

The Jewish Ethicist presents some general principles of Jewish law. For specific questions and direct application, please consult a qualified Rabbi.

The Jewish Ethicist is a joint project of Aish.com and the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem. To find out more about business ethics and Jewish values for the workplace, visit the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem at www.besr.org.

Published: June 10, 2006


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