Kosher Money?

Judaism obligates us to call out our fellow’s unethical behavior and encourage them to change it.

When Judgment Day comes, according to the Talmud, the first question a person will be asked is not “Did you pray,” nor “Did you keep kosher,” but “Did you transact your business dealings ethically?” (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbat 31a).  In fact, there are more than 100 mitzvot (commandments) in the Torah related to Jewish business ethics, far more than, say, on kosher eating obligations. The founder of the Mussar movement, Rabbi Israel Salanter, wrote that one should be just as meticulous in checking to see if one’s money is earned in a kosher fashion as one is to make sure that one’s food is kosher. (Chofetz Chaim, Sfat Tamim, chapter 5).

But how, in a modern, diffuse economy, do we ensure that our money is kosher? There are many opportunities to apply these Jewish values if we are small business owners who deal with employee-employer issues on a routine basis.  But what about the rest of us?

It turns out that there is a growing field called socially responsible investing that provides just such an opportunity.  Socially responsible investing, also known as impact investing, is a mission-driven process of aligning one’s values with one’s investment strategy. It aims to generate specific beneficial social or environmental effects in addition to making money.  The “impact investing” or “responsible investing” movement has become mainstream in recent years, driven in part by demand from millennial investors.  A recent report found that there is roughly $23 trillion in “sustainable” or “responsible” assets under management (26% of all private assets under management). Values are applied by shareholders engaging corporations over their social and environmental policies and practices, first through dialogue and then, if dialogue fails to produce necessary results, through shareholder resolutions.

It turns out that this is precisely the model of effective change advocated by Jewish tradition. Judaism obligates us to call out our fellow’s unethical behavior and encourage them to change it.  In the middle of a series of laws in Leviticus, the Torah states, “Do not hate your fellow in your heart; you shall surely rebuke your neighbor, and incur no sin because of them.” (Leviticus 19:17) When discussing the mitzvah of rebuke, commentators note that one should begin with private, soft words, in order to not embarrass if at all possible. If this isn’t effective, one turns to the public denouncement of the ethical violation, until the improper behavior stops – or until the one being scolded is practically fed up enough to literally strike out at the scolder (Sefer Hachinuch 339).

Despite this rich tradition, the Jewish community, as a community, has been largely silent in the socially responsible investing space.  From a faith perspective, the field is influenced by Christian denominations who utilize their pension funds as vehicles to assert their values through their investments. That is starting to change.  An organization called JLens, which I recently joined, aims to be a bridge between the Jewish community and the impact/responsible investing movement by providing educational resources, guidance for Jewish institutions on investing through a Jewish lens, and a fund that invests in public companies on behalf of Jewish institutions and conducts advocacy as investors for communal concerns. JLens puts a “Jewish lens” on investing by focusing on environmental, social, and pro-Israel issues that are consistent with Jewish values in order to meet financial goals while generating a positive societal impact.

Jewish wisdom has a great deal to say about contemporary social and environmental issues.  Socially responsible investing provides a platform to actualize these values by impacting corporate behavior on issues such as product safety, human trafficking, worker conditions, public health, climate change, food waste and more. We finally have a vehicle for kosher investing—now it is up to us to use it!

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