Good Governance

Moses exemplifies a lesson in business ethics.

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Accountability, then, restricts malfeasance, an ancient insight that has lost none of its relevance. The pervasive distrust of corporate America is surely a consequence of the reckless abandonment of honest accountability by all too many business titans in the nineties. Driven by the pressure of quarterly earnings and the temptation of staggering wealth, chief executives of public companies reached for unprecedented levels of compensation, rushed into conflicts of interest and wreaked havoc with accounting procedures. Rarely have so few done such harm to the reputation of their peers or the savings of the small investor.

Judaism is nothing if not a set of insistent reminders that we humans are accountable for our actions. Free will is not a gift to be abused. The Talmud posits that the first question to be put to us in the world-to-come will bear on our most basic need--to earn a living: "Did you conduct your business affairs in a trustworthy manner?" (BT Shabbat 31a).

Each year during the Days of Awe we confront ourselves in anagonizing appraisal. Denial of our failings is difficult for everything in the ledger is recorded in our own hand. The sins for which we seek forgiveness are those we have committed against our neighbors near and far. If granted a reprieve, we avow to do better in the year ahead. Indeed, every day of the year we rededicate ourselves in our morning prayers to fear God wherever we might be so that our speech be always marked by integrity and truthfulness. Faith works to counter our greed.

The ethos of Scripture aims for the same balance. Power needs to be checked. Hence the kings of ancient Israel were never absolute monarchs. The Torah forbade them to amass wives, horses or wealth. Not only were they required to copy for themselves God's teaching, but the text was to be their constant companion for daily study (Deuteronomy 17:14-20).

Curbing Royal Power

The institution of the prophet existed to curb royal power. When David had Uriah the Hittite killed so that he might cover up his adulterous relationship with Bathsheba, it was the prophet Nathan who dared to rebuke him to his face (II Samuel 11-12). Likewise, the prophet Elijah confronted Ahab, the mighty king of northern Israel, after he had confiscated the vineyard of Naboth, murdered by Jezebel in a kangaroo court. "Would you murder and also take possession?" (I Kings 21:19), words that would reverberate through the ages as a warning to tyrants of all stripes.

The corporate excesses of the 1990s also fly in the face of the ideal envisioned by Ben Zoma, a second-century rabbinic sage who died young. His portrait turns on paradox. The answer to each question is counterintuitive.

Who are the wise? Those who learn from everyone.
Who are the strong? Those who conquer their own impulses.
Who are rich? Those who find contentment in their lot.
Who are esteemed? Those who esteem others.
(Pirkei Avot 4:1).

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Rabbi Ismar Schorsch

Rabbi Ismar Schorsch served as chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary.