Loving God and Doing Business

The Torah admonishes us to "love God" with our material possessions -- that is, not to keep our religious values and economic lives in separate compartments

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Excerpted with permission from the Winter 2002 edition of Reform Judaism, published by the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.

Principles and Practices Should Be Inseparable

Erecting a wall between principles and practices is a serious breach of Jewish ethics. In matters of business, the Torah’s message is clear and direct: “You shall not falsify measures of length, weight, or capacity…. You shall faithfully observe all My laws and My rules: I am the Lord” (Leviticus 19:35). In Reform synagogues, this verse is part of the Torah portion read on the afternoon of Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, when we are held to account for our actions. And, according to tradition, when we are brought before the heavenly court for final judgment, the first question we are asked is “Did you conduct your business affairs honestly?” (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a).

Love of God and ethical behavior are inseparable in Judaism. The first line of the Ve’ahavta prayer [a section of the twice-daily Keri’at Shema] -- “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might” -- can be interpreted as an admonition not to compartmentalize. According to Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut, author of The Torah: A Modern Commentary, the reference to “your heart” refers to one’s intellect; “your soul” refers to one’s life; and “your might” refers to one’s physical strength -- and by tradition to one’ s “material possessions.” Thus, loving God requires harmonizing one’s mind, spirit, and conduct.

In discussing the command to love God with one’s material possessions, Rabbi Yitzhak Breitowitz, a professor at the University of Maryland, points to the analysis of the medieval Torah commentator Rashi, who asks rhetorically: is that admonition necessary if one has already been asked to love the Lord to the point of putting your life on the line? Yes, Rashi says, because “there are people whose property is dearer to them than their bodies….” Rabbi Breitowitz then draws a parallel between Rashi’s observation and the Jack Benny joke about the mugger who says, “Your money or your life,” and Benny  [playing his usual miserly character] replies, “Let me think about it a little bit.” Says Rabbi Breitowitz, “The Torah has to address both types of people--the Jack Bennys of the world as well as those who properly value life over money. God does not require us to renounce material wealth. So how does one serve God with all of his possessions? The short answer is: with the probity and integrity by which we amass those possessions.”

Loving God Requires Thoughtful Action in Everyday Life

Rabbi Leah Cohen of Temple B’nai Chaim in Georgetown, Connecticut, takes “the very arrangement of the three aspects of the Ve’ahavta -- heart, soul, and might” to “indicate an ethical hierarchy of ever-deepening levels of Jewish commitment.” Loving God with “your heart” and “your soul,” she says, is not enough. Loving God with “your might” means almost literally putting your money where your mouth is. “It’s about the behavioral aspect of your being, as opposed to the emotional aspect”--in other words, about not separating the intentions of your heart and soul from the actions of your hands.

The third sentence of the Ve’ahavta prayer, “Impress them [these words] upon your children,” also reminds us that holiness and ethical action are inseparable. The twentieth-century commentator Pinchas Peli explains: “Your children will be taught by the fact that you yourself practice your religion. Action and thought must go together in the life of the truly religious person.” In other words, to love God is a call to action--action defined by setting an example for others, especially one’s own children, of how people who love God conduct themselves.

Knowledge of Ethics Must Supplement Good Intentions

Can one be ignorant of these teachings and still be a devout Jew? The answer can be found in Pirkei Avot [Ethics of Our Fathers], Chapter 2, Mishnah 6: “An unlearned person cannot be pious.” In the introduction to his translation of Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, Rabbi Eliyahu Touger comments that “although an individual may possess the highest motives, unless he knows the law, it is possible that he might take unfair advantage of a colleague. For this reason, it is important to study the Torah’s edicts of business law, and integrate them within our personalities….The contents…serve as guidelines which every one can--and should--apply in his daily life….[These] active, spiritual principles…point toward the refinement of ourselves and our society.”

How we conduct ourselves in business is not only a test of our love for God and our moral character; it is “the acid test of whether religion is simply relegated to an isolated sphere of human activity,” says Rabbi Breitowitz. “It is business ethics, one could posit, above all, that shows God coexists in the world, rather than God and godliness being separate and apart.”

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Grant Perry

Grant Perry, a media consultant, lawyer, and journalist, lives in Connecticut.