Ethics Plan Would Raise Sanctity of Business


An observant Jew was once brought before the judge on counts of tax fraud. Seeing the kippah-wearing Jew before him, the judge innocently asked, “Mr. Schwartz, you are clearly a God-fearing man. How do you explain your immoral behavior?”

Not missing a beat, Mr. Schwartz pointed his finger in the air and defiantly declared, “Your honor, religion is one thing, but business is business!”

Alas, we’ve witnessed several “Mr. Schwartzes” over the last few years, and each new headline evinces new winces of pain from our community. Rabbis have been beside themselves; for years, we’ve preached about the need to carry one’s Torah observance into the business place. Shockingly (as if), not all our parishioners were listening.

What’s more, an environment in certain industries seems to have developed where illegal business activity has not only been condoned but even considered the norm. The Jewish work ethic — what up until recently was the proud hallmark of pristine honesty and integrity — became tarnished.

L.A.’s Jewish community is the second largest in the country. We have much reason to be proud; we have established every imaginable organization or endeavor to dole out kindness and charity to those less privileged. Jews comprise a huge demographic of the righteous of our city.

At the same time, it’s been observed that life is like trying to make a bed using a fitted sheet that’s just a bit too small for the mattress. You pull one end of the sheet over one mattress corner, and the other end of the sheet pops off the opposite corner.

We all tend to focus on what we consider the important things in our lives at the expense of others. For some Jews, a focus on social action comes at the cost of Jewish literacy and ritual. For other Jews, a focus on ritual and Torah study comes at the cost of translating all that knowledge into action in the workplace.

Yet, the Talmud (T.B. Shabbat 31a) emphatically states that the first question a person will be asked when he or she ascends to heaven will not be, “Did you eat kosher food?” but rather, “Were you faithful in business?”

A group of rabbis and lay leaders, seeing this wound on an otherwise exemplary community continue to fester, felt that it was no longer enough to talk the talk. In order to really bolster awareness and education within the community, we needed to do something demonstrative that would raise awareness not only when in shul but also while shopping and doing business.

The Peulat Sachir: Ethical Labor Initiative is nothing new. Several years ago, a group of Modern Orthodox Jews in Israel founded an organization called, Bema’aglei Tzedek (On Paths of Justice), with the mission of addressing the moral and socioeconomic challenges facing Israeli society (you can learn more at their Web site, http://www.mtzedek.org.il/). One of their main projects is Tav Chevrati, which recognizes those businesses in Israel that provide minimum wage and other basic benefits to their employees. After launching an impressive marketing campaign, the Tav now boasts over 350 businesses that have the Tav seal hanging in their windows.

Using the Tav Chevrati model — with small modifications for the American business arena — our group realized that were we to attempt to redress all business ills we would be biting off more than anyone would be willing to chew. Under the direction of a team of attorneys, we instead chose to focus on the one area of business that has the most significant human impact, the area of labor law.

Peulat Sachir offers a covenant agreement to any business owner who complies with the six basic areas of labor law as required by the state of California: (1) minimum wage, (2) payment of overtime wages, (3) provision of meal and rest breaks, (4) leave policy, (5) workers’ compensation insurance and (6) discrimination/harassment policies.

Additionally, Peulat Sachir will host regular seminars on ethical business practices, which will be open to the general public.

Of course, one could argue: What’s the point of an attestation that someone is just obeying the law? In today’s world of Bernard Madoff rip-offs, kosher production scandals, subprime mortgage meltdowns and corporate greed, plenty. The simple public affirmation that I as a business owner comply with dina d’malchuta (the law of the land) is an important step toward the reformation of an unhealthy business culture.

One might also argue: Why focus so narrowly on this one area of business ethics? What about tax law? Immigration law? Clearly, there are many legal areas within the complex world of business that could and should be addressed.

For one thing, we’ve got to start somewhere. But it’s more than that; we believe that raising awareness about one area of ethics will positively spill over to others.

The employer who respects the law by meticulously paying overtime is more likely to report accurately on his tax return; someone who proudly procures workers’ compensation insurance for his minimum-wage employees is more likely to care about the needs of other underprivileged members of society.

The Peulat Sachir mission statement is thus twofold: To engender a new culture for Jewish businesses — one of commitment to the highest ethical and moral standards in all aspects of business — and to raise awareness of what we in the religious community expect from our vendors and, ultimately, from ourselves.

Those who appreciate what Peulat Sachir is trying to do will want to preferentially patronize those establishments that have signed a covenant. Those who don’t, won’t.

Peulat Sachir in no way penalizes or blacklists businesses that can’t or won’t sign on to the concept. Ultimately, it’s up to the public to decide the success of the Peulat Sachir initiative.

Who knows? Maybe Peulat Sachir will become a model for other communities. And just maybe, by elevating the sanctity of our businesses, we and our assets will all be blessed in the process.

If you are a local business owner and would like to receive more information, contact Peulat Sachir at info@peulatsachir.net.

Rabbi N. Daniel Korobkin is rosh kehilla of Yavneh Hebrew Academy, director of community and synagogue services for the Orthodox Union West Coast Region and a community mohel.

L.A. Orthodox rabbis want business ethics to be kosher, too


Seeking to accentuate Jewish traditions that place a premium on ethical integrity, Los Angeles Orthodox rabbis are encouraging local businesses to sign up for a new seal of certification that ensures employers are treating workers fairly and humanely.

The move comes in response to allegations over the past year that the nation’s largest kosher slaughterhouse, Agriprocessors in Postville, Iowa, routinely violated the rights of its employees, many of them undocumented workers and many of them underage.

“We have always considered ourselves to be a light onto the nations — we’re the ones who are supposed to be a paradigm and example and role model for the rest of the world of what it means to be an ethical, moral, Godly person,” said Rabbi Daniel Korobkin, leader of Kehillat Yavneh in Hancock Park. “If the world or if the media is looking askance, for whatever reason, at the Orthodox community, then it behooves us to address the issues.”

Korobkin rallied his colleagues, Rabbi Elazar Muskin of Young Israel of Century City and Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of B’nai David-Judea Congregation, to address the national crisis in kosher confidence by turning an eye toward businesses that serve the Jewish community on a local level.

They will offer, at no cost, a rabbinic seal of approval to any business or institution that volunteers to undergo scrutiny to verify that employees are being treated according to local, state and federal labor laws. The certificate will not be tied to kashrut in any way.

“We felt we had to do a kiddush Hashem [sanctification of God’s name], and the kiddush Hashem was to be really concerned about the employees and how they are being treated,” Muskin said. “It has nothing to do with kashrut — this goes way beyond kosher eateries and butcher shops and bakeries. We want to know our schools and shuls and businesses are treating employees correctly.”

The three rabbis, and Rabbi Steven Weil of Beth Jacob, introduced the concept to their congregants in sermons during the High Holy Days. They have volunteered their own synagogues to be analyzed first and then within the next few months, hope to expand to other shuls, schools and businesses, starting mainly with the Pico-Robertson corridor and reaching out as the project grows.

A similar initiative in Israel, Bema’aglei Tzedek, was founded in 2004.

Last year, the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism created Hekhsher Tzedek, a certification for kosher food processors that encompasses fair treatment of workers, corporate integrity and environmental responsibility.

The Los Angeles group is calling itself Peulat Sachir: Ethical Labor Initiative, based on language from the verse in Leviticus 19 that prohibits an employer from withholding wages overnight from a worker.

“Whereas we are appropriately extraordinarily careful about the laws of kashrut, clearly we have an attitude that is less rigorous and perhaps even somewhat lackadaisical when it comes to this whole other vitally important area of Jewish law,” Kanefsky said. “A religious community has to be very concerned about kashrut, about education, about mikvah [ritual bath], and it has to be very concerned that the people we interact with on a regular basis are being treated in way that is halachically proper.”

Peulat Sachir will involve itself in six areas: minimum wage, overtime, rest and meal breaks, workers compensation, leave policies and anti-discrimination protections. A lay board of labor lawyers, businesspeople and others with expertise in the field will analyze business practices by looking at paperwork and talking with employees.

The board will not deal with the complex area of immigration status. Labor laws apply equally to documented and undocumented workers, explained Craig Ackermann, a labor lawyer and lay leader on the project.

Businesses will not have to pay for certificates, but the rabbis acknowledge that businesses may have to spend more to qualify for the certificate, if, for instance, they have to start paying for overtime, giving paid leave or making sure workers get appropriate breaks.

Whether businesses which are not now in compliance will risk having to pass those costs on to customers is an open question.

“As people committed to halacha (Jewish law), we pay what has to be paid so we can fulfill the halacha — we do it for kashrut, we do it to teach our children Torah. Should we not do it for the halacha of following the law of the land or of how we treat our employees?” Kanefsky asked.

The halachic concept of “dina demalchuta dina,” the law of the land is the halacha, makes legal adherence and Jewish law one and the same, he pointed out.

Ackermann guesses that the first businesses to respond positively will be those that are already in compliance with labor laws.

The rabbis are hoping that once consumers begin to ask for the certificate or more heavily patronize businesses that are certified, business owners will see the benefits, both moral and monetary, to being able to display a Peulat Sachir certificate in the window.

“We’re hoping this is something store owners won’t be able to dismiss easily,” Kanefsky said. “And frankly, the idealist in me believes that store owners will want to be a part of this mitzvah of raising awareness about this in our community.”

Over the next few weeks, the rabbis will continue to constitute the lay board and will reach out to businesses and different segments of the community. They are contacting leaders of the Iranian community, because a large percentage of the businesses on Pico Boulevard are Iranian owned. They are also reaching out to the right wing of the Orthodox community, which on a national level has been wary of similar projects.

That debate came into focus last month, when the right-wing Agudath Israel of America reacted tepidly to an announcement from the centrist Orthodox Rabbincal Council of America (RCA) that it is creating a guide to labor ethics to be distributed not only to kosher producers but to all businesses.

The RCA, which serves as the halachic adviser for the Orthodox Union (OU) kashrut certification agency, said it will write into kosher supervision contracts the need for companies to comply with all local and federal laws regarding labor and environmental issues. While the OU has long had a rule on the books that its certified companies must be in compliance with the law, this gives more teeth to the provision and raises awareness among kosher purveyors.

The RCA’s new guidelines will also delineate talmudic and biblical business ethics beyond American law, which it hopes businesses will voluntarily adopt.

Korobkin expects that the ethics initiative in Los Angeles will spread to other communities.

“I am hopeful that this will raise a greater level of awareness within various elements of the Orthodox community that this is an issue that needs to be addressed,” Korobkin said. “I think many times we in the Orthodox community want to know how to react to crisis, and sometimes the way we react is by having a tehillim [psalm reciting] rally, or we speak about the need to daven [pray] harder, or to do teshuvah [repentance]. We feel this is form of teshuvah, as well — this is a form of raising awareness in certain areas where there is room for improvement. We can act as a shining example to society at large and to other communities.”

For more information on the Ethical Labor Initiative, call (310) 276-9269.

Foul Mouths


This is my fourth presidential scandal. Watergate was my first, and it had the counterintuitive effect of making me less — rather than more — cynical about government. The dirty tricksters were found guilty and almost all of them imprisoned, and the president, who disguised if not micromanaged their crimes, resigned. It was a bad time for America, but a good time for those who believe in the idea of America.

But this idealism took a couple of gut punches with the Iran-Contra Affair, during which members of the Reagan administration sold arms to the Iranian mullahs in secret — how could they ever pose a threat to us? — to finance Nicaraguan rebels, in express violation of U.S. law. Of the 14 charged with crimes, 11 were convicted, and one was imprisoned.

President George H.W. Bush stepped in to pardon six of the men convicted. Two others, including Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, received pardons before trial. Two of those convicted, Oliver North and John Poindexter, had their convictions overturned on appeal, for legal technicalities.

Iran-Contra could make one believe that in Washington, D.C., it’s not what you did, it’s who you know. There was even an element of self-dealing on the part of the first President Bush, who set free insiders who would, as a result, never be tempted to disclose anything damaging about Bush’s own record as vice president under Reagan.

The third presidential scandal was the lying-about-sex matter that led to President Bill Clinton’s impeachment. To put it mildly, that episode did nothing to reduce any accrued cynicism.

Now comes the indictment of Irving “Scooter” Lewis Libby, which arises out of his role in outing covert CIA agent Valerie Plame.

In the end, Libby is not actually charged with revealing Plame’s identity, but with perjuring himself — lying — during grand jury testimony about the case.

He has protested his innocence and predicted he will be exonerated. Given the evolution of these scandals, he is at least likely to escape time behind bars for his alleged role in this traitorous episode.

But not going to jail or even not being judged guilty is not the same as being innocent. If there is, as commentator David Brooks cheered, “no cancer on this presidency,” there is certainly a gruesome moral and ethical open sore. And if it’s not within our power to make those in power actually pay for their trespasses, we needn’t be fooled either about exactly what sin the perpetrators allegedly committed:

They lied about really important things.

In the realm of ethics, Jewish law parses lying with great precision. In his upcoming book, “A Code of Jewish Ethics – Volume 1: You Shall Be Holy” (Harmony 2006), Rabbi Joseph Telushkin notes that while the Torah prohibits stealing, cheating, adultery or taking advantage of the less fortunate, falsehood is the only sin the Torah deems necessary to admonish people to avoid actively.

“Stay far away from falsehood,” reads Exodus 23:7.

If one of God’s attributes is truth — you could argue a primary purpose of religion is to set people on the path toward discovering what is true — then swearing false oaths or bearing false witness “indicates a lack of God’s presence.”

Certainly you are forbidden to lie in God’s name, that is, telling others what you think God told you. You are also warned against telling half-truths, against speaking with imprecision, against exaggerating. You are admonished to avoid lying by readily admitting what you don’t know, by being willing to change your mind, by avoiding false statement even to help another or to help a cause. In this spirit, the Talmud reminds us to carry out our obligation to truth and our vows even when they disadvantage us. We are to do what we say we’ll do, to avoid false excuses or lies of convenience (even to our children and our parents — what do these rabbis expect of us!), and to stay far from deceptive behaviors in our business and civic practices.

But what makes the discussion of lying in these matters so fascinating and challenging are the exceptions. Shouldn’t you be able to avoid unnecessary hurt or to lift someone’s hopes or avoid humiliating the poor? Doesn’t every good business negotiation contain the assumed lie that a final price may not in fact be final? And what of lies, even those told under oath, that enable one to avoid punishment by an unjust or evil regime?

Telushkin quotes educator Dr. David Nyberg’s Golden Rule on the issue of beneficial lies: “Be untruthful to others as you would have others be untruthful to you.” A religion doesn’t last 4,000 years by being blind to the grays.

But even so, there are what Telushkin calls “three particularly destructive lies”: lies that promote evil, or that make it impossible to distinguish good from evil; lies told in a courtroom setting under oath; and lies that destroy another’s good name.

It is into this less-than-gray territory that Libby apparently wandered.

To lie under oath is to profane God’s name and to thwart justice itself, the underpinning of a moral society. It is one thing to commit a wrong in the first place, quite another to undermine the justice system itself.

“You shall not take the Name of the Lord, your God, in vain, for the Lord will not absolve anyone who takes His Name in vain” (Exodus 20:7). The Third Commandment offers precious little wiggle room.

To lie to destroy the good name of another person is particularly grievous, a sin in Hebrew called moztzi shem ra. “The great wrong of such a lie is that the damage inflicted might well be irrevocable,” writes Telushkin, noting that this is one of the few offenses for which the victim is not obligated to forgive the offender. Whichever White House officials outed Plame destroyed her professional identity, and in so doing tried to destroy the credibility of her husband, as well.

Finally, there is the lie that promotes evil, or that makes it impossible to distinguish good from evil. Telushkin cites the example of The New York Times reporter in the 1930s who acted as an apologist for Josef Stalin during his murderous purges.

But what of a man who in advancing a political agenda that would entail the loss of life and human suffering — however justified it might be — deliberately paints honest criticism as traitorous falsehood, thereby punishing people of good intention with professional retribution? And what of the same man if he then lies to cover up such misdeeds?

We live in dangerous times, and a political culture that sanctions dishonesty — especially if one can get away with it — heightens the danger to us all. Not the least risk is that such official misbehavior merely promotes deeper cynicism among us all. This politics of doublespeak, what George Orwell called, “the vast system of mental cheating,” only makes us less apt to believe our leaders when real danger is imminent.

“Such is the punishment of the liar,” the Talmud says, “that even when he speaks the truth, no one listens to him.”

 

Ethics and Ironies


At least Ann Landers admitted when she was wrong.

And while she may have used a pseudonym, Esther Pauline "Eppie" Lederer claimed only to offer one woman’s point of view — no more, no less.

Times, alas, have changed, and along with them, The New York Times, whose Sunday Magazine’s readers are offered the judgments of "The Ethicist." The bearer of that grandiose title also has a name — Randy Cohen — but his designation is clearly meant to imply gravitas.

Cohen is generally sensible and very often quite funny. On Oct. 27, though, he goofed badly. And, what is worse, he seems unwilling to own up to his error, not an encouraging sign for any honorable man, much less still The Ethicist.

The question in question came from a woman who had closed a deal with an Orthodox Jewish real estate agent. She became offended, though, when the otherwise "courteous and competent" man declined to shake her hand, explaining that touching a woman other than his wife violated his religious code of conduct. The offendee wanted to tear up the contract they had signed, and sought the columnist’s advice.

"Sexism is sexism," Cohen responded, "even when motivated by religious convictions." And, invoking Brown vs. Board of Education to argue that "separate is by its very nature unequal," he advised his supplicant to rip away.

Had he bothered to inquire, The Ethicist would have discovered that the Jewish religious prohibition at issue in no way "render[s] a class of people untouchable," to use his words; it rather disapproves of a behavior. And it does so in a decidedly egalitarian manner. Both men and women are equally bound by Jewish law to refrain from affectionate physical contact with members of the other gender to whom they are not married. Many Orthodox authorities consider even a handshake to be included in the prohibition.

With that stricture, halacha expresses not sexism, but rather respect for both men and women — respect, that is, for the power of sexuality that Judaism reminds us is an integral part of the human condition.

That power, according to Jewish thought, when properly used is a deeply holy thing. Allowed free reign, though, it is an equally destructive one.

In our sex-saturated — and in fact, as a result, sexist — society, men and women eschewing handshakes to avoid any semblance of misplaced sexuality might seem a bit much to many. But that says something only about our base and cynical times, not about deeper, timeless truths. And a good case could in fact be made that the morally confused times in which we live require us to exercise more caution than ever in the realm of physical contact between the sexes. A cursory familiarity with current events should suffice to reveal how easily "casual" interactions can devolve into less innocent, even abusive, ones.

Cohen, of course, may not see things that way. But even he, one imagines, would admit that imposing unwanted physical contact is wrong. And so, as one reader of Cohen’s column wryly noted: "’Touch me or you’re fired’" would seem "a perfect example of sexual harassment" — hardly ethical by any measure.

While hope springs eternal, The Ethicist, at least so far, refuses to budge. Responding to some who contacted him, he pronounced: "That the origins of [the halachic prohibition] seem benign make it no less sexist and no less contrary to the values of an egalitarian society." Creating "separate spheres for women and men," he insists, remains "a manifestation of sexism."

Asked if his gender-blindness extended to endorsement of unisex restrooms and dressing rooms, he admitted that "there are a few cases where gender distinctions might be justified."

In other words, according to The Ethicist, it all depends on what he happens to feel is ethical.

Cohen makes no claim to speak for Judaism — he was raised Reform but takes a "resolutely secular approach to ethics," as he explained in an interview — and indeed does not. But an ethical ideal to which he clearly subscribes is tolerance. And that should include tolerance of others who choose to subscribe to Torah, not Cohen.

Just imagine The Ethicist’s ideal society. Men and women who, out of religious principle, eschew physical contact with members of the opposite sex would effectively be barred from pursuing their livelihoods. But society would be purged of sexism, real or imagined, and all would be well with the world — at least in Cohen’s eyes.

And so we are left with the irony of an intolerant Ethicist. And one, in fact, who embraces decidedly unethical behavior.

For in his quest for some illusory absolute egalitarianism, Cohen did, after all, counsel a questioner to tear up a contract she and her business partner had just signed.


Rabbi Avi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America .