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Jewish Journal

For business ethics, turn to Jewish thought

by Rabbi Arthur Gross-Schaefer

March 12, 2014 | 3:13 pm

Rabbi Arthur Gross-Schaefer

Rabbi Arthur Gross-Schaefer

For more than 30 years, I’ve taught professional ethics to attorneys and CPAs around the country and business ethics to students at Loyola Marymount University. In the beginning, I began lessons by quickly reviewing famous philosophers — Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill, Adam Smith and others — followed by an analysis of well-known business cases. (Compare Ford Motor Co.’s handling of the safety issues surrounding its Pinto model, in which officials knew the car might catch fire if hit from behind, with how Johnson & Johnson went beyond its legal duty to pull Tylenol from shelves nationwide following a cyanide scare in the 1980s.) 

But while I was using this well-developed method, I knew some basic concepts were missing. I wanted students to think and then question basic assumptions. As a result, I began to introduce several concepts from Jewish tradition. For example, to counter the market theory of seemingly unlimited profits, our tradition long ago advocated a profit limit for consumer goods. The Mishnah, codified in 200 C.E., capped profit at one-sixth (16.67 percent) when dealing with most consumer goods. And the well-worn idea that consumers had little protection in most societies until recently was turned on its head as I shared that this same Mishnah limited marketing techniques. It questions giving gifts to children as a way of enticing their parents to enter a store and forbids placing attractive products at a store entrance, only to have inferior quality items for sale inside. Spraying one’s store with wonderful scents to motivate purchases was not considered a fair business practice either. 

In effect, our ancient tradition seemed to reject the old caveat emptor, buyer beware, in order to instill a new concept, seller be fair. This principle was codified in our tradition long before consumer law was an accepted legal concept.

But something was still missing. When teaching cases and general philosophies, the individuals making the decision and their personal values were ignored. I now advocate that effective business and professional ethics start with the individual’s personal values. Accordingly, I don’t start by analyzing business cases or professional situations; rather I ask, “What are your core values?” Most answer with a list that includes honesty, integrity, fairness, responsibility, loyalty, following the law and accountability. I then add principles extracted from the Jewish tradition: chesed (compassion), brit (promise keeping), tzedakah (justice and charity), tikkun olam (repairing the world). 

These additional Jewish values remind the individual decision maker that the spirit of the law and not just the letter of the law needs to be considered. That keeping one’s word, even if not written in a contract or legally enforceable, reflects one’s trustworthiness. That taking care of others or those on the margins of society is not merely a nice thing to do on occasion, but also is part of our daily obligation. The same goes for caring about the welfare of others and not just for oneself. 

I can’t tell you how often students and professionals get angry, as these concepts challenge their belief that their highest motivation can be taking care of themselves or their families. Or that greed and taking advantage of a particular situation, often to their sole advantage, reflects good business practices. The truth is that while these may be motivators, they cannot be understood as ethical values that have a moral justification. After these brief outbursts, and a little gentle pushing, everyone comes up with their personal list of core values.

That pushing also includes having my students write their own eulogy. I want them to write a statement not of what they would like it to say, but a true accounting of where they are now and especially how they feel they are meeting their personal list of core values as well as the values of chesed, brit, tzedakah and tikkun olam. As they do this, I can hear a pin drop. Sometimes, in the quiet, I can almost hear a tear drop, too, as the writer contemplates death as well as life.  

They are now open for the next assignment: to write a personal mission statement.

I display what is considered to be the mission statement of the 12th-century Rambam (aka Maimonides). He was the ultimate overachiever — leading rabbi and legal scholar to much of the Jewish world, author of “The Mishneh Torah” and “The Guide for the Perplexed,” doctor to the royal family of Egypt. I use his statement to illustrate how personal mission statements both animate one’s actions and reflect honest challenges to one’s achievement of ambitions. The Rambam was honest and openly exposed his difficulty in listening to the wisdom of others who he felt were inferior to his own level of learning, as well as his preference for working with wealthy clients. The point is that if the Rambam, this amazingly accomplished individual, could reveal his challenges, so should each of us aspire to this level of honesty. 

Finally, I should mention that healthy personal relationships are also a key element of business and professional ethics. Our model of teshuvah (repentance), as discussed by the Rambam and Pinchas Peli (20th century), provides one of the best models for conflict resolution. This model often is distilled to four basic components: sincere and unconditional apology; active listening, to understand the extent of the harm as felt by the other; asking what type of reasonable restitution the other needs; and then changing as a person due to this process, so that given the same circumstances you would now act differently.

While there are additional aspects of our varied and exciting tradition that I incorporate when teaching professional and business ethics, the above are enough to show that our heritage has much to offer. More than that, I truly believe that my students, whether in the classroom or the boardroom — and whether Jewish or not — have all been given important tools for better navigating complex issues by being exposed to the wisdom of our Jewish ancestors.


Rabbi Arthur Gross-Schaefer is a lawyer, CPA and professor in the College of Business Administration at Loyola Marymount University. He serves as rabbi at Community Shul of Montecito and Santa Barbara.

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