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The Jewish Ethicist  - Respect and Suspect

The Jewish Ethicist - Respect and Suspect

Drawing the line between prudence and paranoia.

by

Q. I understand business should be based on a relationship of trust. But I hear so many stories of people being cheated. Where do we draw the line between prudence and paranoia?

A. Certainly the Torah educates us to create a society of honesty and mutual trust. We are on the one hand commanded to act with integrity towards others: "Distance yourself from any falsehood" (Exodus 23:7); "You shall have righteous scales, righteous weights, and righteous measures" (Leviticus 19:36), and so on. But we also have various commands meant to reinforce trust towards others: "Judge your fellow righteously" (Leviticus 19:15), which our Sages interpreted to mean, give others the benefit of the doubt. (1) ; "Don't act vengefully and don't bear a grudge" (Leviticus 19:18) and others.

Our Sages went so far as to say, "Anyone who casts suspicion on the upright is stricken." This is learned from the story of Moses, who was commanded by God to free the people of Israel from slavery. Moses was concerned that the people would not listen to him, and protested, "They won't believe me". God replied, "Put your hand into your garment." The hand then came out stricken, which in Biblical times was considered a punishment for slander. (Exodus 4:1, 6-7.) Although this miraculous "punishment" lasted only a few moments, Moses was reminded that he should have faith in others. (2)

However, this does not mean we should naively rely on others to keep their commitments. On the contrary, the rabbis of the Talmud insisted that we should never rely on someone's honesty alone when we have the ability to properly document and enforce a transaction: "Anyone who has money and lends them without witnesses, transgresses 'Don't place an obstacle before the blind'. Reish Lakish said, he brings a curse upon himself." The "obstacle before the blind" is that the borrower will be tempted to deny the loan, thus engaging in a transgression. The Talmud then goes on to tell that the great sage Ravina refused to lend money for a mitzvah to his friend, the equally eminent sage Rav Ashi, without having witnesses and drawing up a proper contract. (3)

A common Hebrew expression is "Respect them and suspect them". We should always act in a respectful way towards others, but that doesn't obligate us to trust them with our property. The source of this is in a story of the Talmudic sage Rabbi Yehoshua. A complete stranger asked to stay the night. Rabbi Yehoshua obliged him by giving him a room in the attic, but also exercised prudence by removing the ladder so that the guest wouldn't be able to sneak out. The guest turned out in fact to be a thief; he wrapped all the valuables in the top floor in a cloak and tried to sneak out, but fell in the dark because of the missing ladder, and was caught red-handed.

One of the most common reasons people end up in litigation in rabbinical court is that they make "friendly" informal agreements, leading to endless misunderstandings.

Our sages summarized: "Other people should always be like thieves in your eyes, yet respect them as if they were Rabban Gamliel" (an especially honored and dignified Torah leader). Of course that doesn't mean we should treat every guest this way, and the passage explains that a person who has a good reputation should be trusted more. But it shows how we can simultaneously respect and suspect someone, by helping them to the best of our ability but taking reasonable safeguards against harm. (4)

A few years ago, the eminent scholar and Rabbinical court judge Rabbi Zalman Nechemia Goldberg gave an interview in which he stated that one of the most common reasons people end up in litigation in rabbinical court is that they make "friendly" informal agreements, leading to endless misunderstandings. This shows the wisdom of the Talmud's admonition that the failure to record transactions leads ultimately to mischief.

Of course there is always a gray area of ill-defined obligations, but trust is augmented when as little as possible is open to interpretation and misunderstanding. This is the secret of an ancient and seemingly bizarre Jewish custom. At any Jewish wedding, a guest is honored with reading the ketuba, or marriage contract, which clearly defines the legal obligation of the husband to the wife, including a divorce settlement. A marriage is the ultimate relationship based on trust; why should be launching it with a dry enumeration of legal obligations? The answer is that trust thrives when there is a clear and mutual understanding of obligations. Once this foundation is achieved, the sides can be flexible and understanding, but there is a need for an underlying bedrock of agreed-upon commitments.

SOURCES: (1) Babylonian Talmud Shevuout 30a (2) Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 97a (3) Babylonian Talmud Bava Metzia 75b (4) Tractate Kallah Rabati 9:1

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

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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: July 28, 2007


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Visitor Comments: 5

(5) Anny Matar, August 9, 2007 2:46 AM

WISE CLEVER AND SO TRUE

TRUST ANYONE AS FAR AS YOUR EYE CAN SEE, EVEN YOUR BEST FRIEND CAN CHEAT YOU WHEN IT COMES TO MONEY.
"MONEY IS TH ROOT OF ALL EVIL" HAS ALWAYS BEEN TRUE. IT ENCHANTS AND ENTICES CAPITALIST SOCIETY WHOSE CREDO IS "THE MORE THE BETTER" TO FORGET ETHICS AND TO GRAB WHAT ISN'T RIGHTFULLY HIS, DAMAGE THE ONE WHO TRUSTED YOU WITHOUT SHAME OR REGRET.
ANNY MATAR
ISRAEL

(4) Anonymous, August 2, 2007 12:54 PM

WORK IS WORK; PERSONAL IS PERSONAL

THROUGH TRIAL & ERROR IT IS MY EXPERIENCE NEVER TO ASSUME THAT YOUR CO-WORKERS ARE YOUR FRIENDS. AT WORK, I ALWAYS TRY TO BALANCE WHAT IS BUSINESS & WHAT IS PERSONAL, NEVER MIXING THESE. DON'T EVER THINK THAT YOU COULD LET YOUR GUARD DOWN, OR PERMIT YOURSELF TO BE CASUAL IN A BUSINESS ENVIRONMENT. WHEN I ARRIVE AT WORK, I AM THERE TO WORK, END OF DISCUSSION.

(3) Rox , July 31, 2007 12:53 PM

Informal contracts

Informal, friendly contracts are a waste of time for me. Out of the many people I have trusted, *and* had absolutely NO reason to *distrust*, only one has been honest enough to return my property or money without being "reminded" many times.

In a way, it makes me want to NEVER loan out my property or money again.

I don't mind a tiny amount of money here and there, because you never know who will really need it so they can put food on their table...but there are way too many dishonest, self-absorbed people out there to be lackadasical with property or money! I've learned the hard way.

(2) Eliyahu, July 31, 2007 11:06 AM

Trust makes life easier

I ran a retail bicycle store for 13 years. During that time, I never asked for ID when accepting checks, didn't ask for collateral when customers took a bike out for a test ride, and occasionally let them make payments after taking a product home. Over the course of the 13 years, I had a total of two bad checks, one of which was made good, and had only one bike stolen during a test ride. My employees suggested that I should change our policies after each of those events, but I decided that I wasn't going to let a couple dishonest customers force me to change how I would run my store or deal with my customers. It was a lot easier on me to assume that my customers were honest and to treat them as such. Part of the secret of success there was also to pay attention to customers as soon as they came into the store, greeting them and being careful not to ignore anyone.

Now that I work in a law office, things are a bit different, in that the bar association strongly recommends written agreements regarding fees and debts, but attorney-client relationships aren't really the same as those in a retail business. In the latter, people are generally there to improve some aspect of their lives, while legal clients are more likely to be trying to stave off disaster or to recover from one. Hence, the relationship involves a degree of duress, and a client may later have regrets about agreeing to pay what is actually a fair fee, especially if he doesn't get the results he'd hoped for. In such a situation, written agreements protect the interests of both parties -- the attorney is protected from being disciplined for failing to enter a written agreement and from being sued over the fee, and the client is protected from having to go through collections or also being sued for failure to pay a debt, as well as the adverse effects on his credit rating. A written agreement also includes payment terms as well as the fee, so no one has to rely on memory to know when it's due or how much is still due. As I get older, my memory isn't improving, and I'd hate to get in a quarrel because neither I nor someone else could remember what we'd agreed on. It's not just about trust. It makes life simpler for everyone concerned when you have it in writing.

(1) Iris Fine, July 31, 2007 9:34 AM

Living this way would drive me crazy

I have never conducted my business with any distrust or suspect of my clients. In the 25 years I have been in private practice I have trusted my clients to pay on time. No formal contracts, just verbal agreements. Only two have not paid on time or at all. They had fallen on very hard times and would have to make the decision to pay me or not feed their children. I never pressed the issue. Without discussing it, I forgave their debt to me, let it ride for about a year and then severed the relationship. They kept their dignity and I had the good feeling knowing that I helped them in a time of need. I may not have been paid monetarily, but I felt rewarded anyway.

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