Author Archives: Rabbi Asher Meir

Rabbi Asher Meir

About Rabbi Asher Meir

Asher Meir received his Ph.D. in economics from MIT, and received his rabbinic ordination from the Israeli Chief Rabbinate after 12 years of study at Israeli Rabbinic Institutions.

Internet Privacy in Judaism

Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Ethicist: Everyday Ethics for Business and Life (Ktav Publishing), a compilation of the author’s weekly syndicated ethics columns.

Collecting and selling information about customers’ characteristics and buying habits has become a sensitive and widespread ethical question. Many vendors claim that customers don’t mind if they store and use such information, since ultimately the customer benefits from the marketing this information enables.

Even if this is true, Jewish tradi­tion can sensitize us to two additional issues. First, perhaps customers would mind if they were adequately informed about the uses and value of the information they provide. Second, perhaps customers should mind. The very fact that people do not care what others know about them is itself an ethical problem, a symptom of the excessive openness of our society.

Informed Consent

QUESTION: Our firm collects private information about our customers. For instance, we have the measurements and style preferences of garment purchases. Can we sell this information to other vendors?

jewish internetANSWER: Giving personal information to other vendors does have some advantages for the customer. Such information enables the seller to concentrate his ad budget on consumers who are likely to be interested in his message, so the consumer is presented with more advertisements for products and services that interest him and–theoretically–fewer messages that he finds annoying and irrelevant.

At the same time, the collection of personal information raises immense privacy dilemmas. Most people would shudder at the very though that neighbors, creditors, competitors, or even distant busybodies might have easy access to all of their buying and browsing habits.

The topic of disclosing private information has two aspects: consent and modesty. Consent means that information should be disclosed only with the full agreement of the subject; modesty dictates that some information should not be made public at all.

Jews and Taxes

Finding creative–and sometimes criminal–ways to avoid taxes can sometimes seems like the norm in our society. The following article examines the extent to which Jewish law demands honesty in paying income and sales tax. Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Ethicist: Everyday Ethics for Business and Life (Ktav Publishing), a compilation of the author’s weekly syndicated ethics columns.

One of the more onerous obligations we face as citizens is the require­ment to pay taxes. By the time we are done with federal taxes, state taxes, property taxes, sales taxes, Social Security, user and license fees, and so on, a pretty substantial chunk of our income finds its way to the government. It is hardly surprising that citizens are always looking for ways to minimize their tax burden.

taxes and judaismAt the same time, today’s citizen is, to an unprecedented extent, the beneficiary of government expenditures. In most advanced countries we take for granted an extensive system of roads and highways, an efficient legal system, well-planned neighborhoods with sidewalks and green spaces, national defense which gives most people lifetime security, an impressive level of public school education, and generous retirement benefits.

Enjoyment of these benefits implies an ethical obligation to be fair dealers in the tax arena. We are entitled to minimize our tax burden, but we must not engage in or abet tax evasion.

An instructive passage in the Talmud teaches us about the important relationship between the general obligation to obey legitimate laws and the special legitimacy of taxes that are used for our benefit. “Samuel stated, ‘The law of the land is the law.’ Rava said, ‘Observe that this must be true. For [the government] fells trees and builds bridges, and we cross them.'” The passage suggests that if it were illegitimate for the govern­ment to appropriate private property through taxes (felling trees), it would be equally illegitimate for us to make use of the stolen property by crossing the bridges.

Jews and the Stock Market

QUESTION: Gambling involves many ethical problems. Isn’t playing the stock market just another form of the same vice?

ANSWER: Most economists would probably insist that there is no connection between the dissipative activity of gambling and the vital constructive role of stock markets in the allocation of society’s productive capital. These markets provide a needed way for individuals to invest their sav­ings in productive assets.

However, this view is not quite unanimous. In 1935, the great English economist John Maynard Keynes looked at Wall Street and wrote that the capital development of the United States had become “the by-product of the activities of a casino,” and added, “It is usually agreed that casinos should, in the public interest, be inaccessible and expensive. And perhaps the same is true of stock exchanges.”

Despite the indignant protests of some orthodox economists, it is pretty unlikely that the experience of the intervening 70 years would have done much to persuade Keynes to change his mind. Plenty of stock market investors pay scant attention to capital development and continue just taking a ride on the stock-market roller-coaster.

stock market ethics

However, before we draw any ethical conclusions from Keynes’s observation, we should recall that the main objective of the Torah is not the efficiency of capital markets but individual spiritual development. From this point of view, there is still a vast difference between the two kinds of speculation.

The Talmud points out two ethical problems with gambling. The Mishnah states that a habitual gambler is disqualified from giving testimony. The Talmud then asks, What is it that a gambler has done wrong? The passage proceeds as follows: “Rami bar Hama said, ‘Because it is a conditional commitment, and a conditional commitment is not binding.’ Rav Sheshet said, This is not considered a conditional com­mitment. Rather, he is not occupied with settling the world.”

According to Rami bar Hama, the problem with gambling is that the winner often takes unfair advantage of the loser, who is not always fully aware of the adverse odds he faces. The professional gambler is generally a hustler who preys on the ignorance and weakness of the amateur.