Seeing the carnage wrought by the Madoff scandal is very painful. For the Jewish community the pain is sharpened by the fact that he was associated with a number of Jewish schools, businesses and charities. This should lead us to renew the question: What place does honesty in money matters play in the Jewish tradition? Let’s begin with a comparison: Which is more important, keeping kosher or running an honest business?
There is a long standing Jewish tradition that one should not weigh mitzvot (commandments). Since they have their origin in God it is vain for us to determine which is more important. Still, the temptation to do so is irresistible. How can we not understand that murder is more severe than, say, neglecting to pray? So how does the well known practice of eating in a prescribed manner, keeping kosher, measure up to being honest in financial dealing?
Yet it might surprise many Jews to know that, as the Israeli banker and scholar Meir Tamari points out, the Torah has 24 regulations about keeping kosher and over 100 about economic justice. What you put in your mouth says less about your faithfulness than what you take out of your pocket – even more, someone else’s pocket.
How important is it to be honest in business? When an individual comes before God, the Talmud teaches, he or she will be asked a series of questions. The very first question is: “Were you honest in your business dealings? (Shabbat 31a)” One’s daily dealings will be the very first behavioral question scrutinized before the heavenly court.
Faith is not confined to the home or the synagogue. The Jewish mission is to bring a sense of sanctity into all areas of life. When the Psalmist writes (Ps. 116:9) “I’ll walk before God in the land of the living” the Rabbis add: “‘The living’ — this refers to the marketplace (Yoma 71a).” In buying and selling, in browsing and bargaining — where we really live — is where our true character is often revealed.
The Madoff scandal, and too many like it, may be a crime, but it is certainly a sin. There are many terms for sin in the Jewish tradition. The most common, het, is an archery term which denotes missing the mark. But for deliberate, calculating and devastating actions, such as stealing millions (perhaps billions?) from charities and individuals, other terms are more appropriate – pesha, avon – terms that are closer to the meaning of deliberate, cruel transgression.
Those who trusted Madoff demonstrated the truer disposition of faith: belief in the righteousness and probity of others. It is worth remembering that around Madoff were the vast majority who acted honestly and credibly.
The Rabbis of the Talmud declare: “If one is honest in business, and earns the esteem of others, it is as if one has fulfilled the whole Torah (Mechilta, Vayassa).” Religion may begin at home, but it should never end there. If it does not move us to decency and goodness, it matters not at all what pieties we profess.
David Wolpe is a Senior Rabbi at the Sinai Temple of Los Angeles, California. He has previously taught at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York, the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, and Hunter College in New York, and currently teaches at UCLA.