JEW" WHO WENT TO JAIL
How is it that some Jews who are actively involved in the synagogue and charitable causes can so easily disregard Jewish teachings in their business dealings? The reason: they have divorced their religious values from their lives-- a serious breach of Jewish ethics.
Whenever my grandmother heard about some crook getting caught for what she used to call "shenanigans," the same question always followed--"Is he Jewish?" If the answer was yes, the same automatic comment followed, accompanied by a solemn shaking of the head: "Not good for the Jews." I used to make a little fun of Grandma for what I regarded as her single-mindedness. But as the names have come bubbling forth out of the latest stream of corporate fraud scandals, I've found myself asking the same question. I hear the name Andrew Fastow, the deposed chief financial officer of Enron. Is that a Jewish name? Hmmm...could be. It turns out, it is.
But unlike my grandmother, I'm not so worried about bad P.R. for the Jews. Perhaps that's because my generation feels more secure in America. I am more troubled by another question: how can Jews who are actively involved in the synagogue and charitable causes--Jews who appear to be guided by the ethics of Judaism--so completely disregard that wisdom in their business dealings?
Fastow is no "twice-a-year Jew." An active member of a Conservative synagogue in Houston, he raised large sums of money for the city's Holocaust Museum and established a family charitable foundation which has supported two synagogues as well as local organizations like the Boys and Girls Club and the Contemporary Art Museum. People who know him through his involvement in the Jewish community call him "a mensch." So how does a mensch become a major figure in a white-collar crime scandal?
Consider the true story of Robert Y.* He never flew as high as Andrew Fastow, but fell hard just the same. At age forty-two, Robert was a successful lawyer, a father of five, and a respected member of a suburban congregation. He also chaired the Lawyers Division of the area's United Jewish Federation and served as a leader of an organization of Jewish lawyers and judges. "I lived very nicely," he says, "and my children got everything they needed--orthodontia, all kinds of lessons, the whole bit." But all this wasn't enough. In 1976, a real estate investor and client came to Robert with an enticing proposal. He took Robert to a building he owned and said, "If I die tomorrow, my family will have that." Robert thought to himself, "I make a good living, but I haven't acquired anything substantial." He worried about the future financial security of his children. So when the investor proposed that they go into business together, he accepted.
Robert thought he knew his partner well. "We became friends. He wasn't Jewish, but we attended seders, bar and bat mitzvahs together. I invited him into my home for Shabbes dinner." But when their business faced a criminal investigation a few years later, the partner called Robert's wife and threatened, "I know where you work. I know where your kids go to school. And if Robert goes to the 'G' [government], your kids won't have a father and you won't have a husband."
The business plan had seemed perfect at first. They would invest in distressed properties--shopping centers, buildings, condos--and turn them around for a profit. They called the partnership the Robert Y. Development Company, using Robert's "good name"; his partner had had "problems" in previous businesses. Robert knew his friend had gone bankrupt in the past, but that didn't trouble him. "It happens," Robert said.
In 1979, the company acquired ninety-six foreclosed condominiums for 1.1 million dollars and soon started selling them. Sales were brisk at first, but interest rates suddenly surged in that high inflation period, and the real estate market tanked. The partnership was stuck with forty-nine condos. Meanwhile, other debts were straining the company's resources. Interest on one loan, a million dollars on a shopping center, rose to 25 percent.
Faced with financial ruin, Robert's partner and the company's accountants devised a fraudulent scheme, which Robert helped carry out. To cover the costs of the unsold condos, the company obtained forty-nine individual loans totaling 1.8 million dollars from two banks. They misled the banks by inflating appraisals of the condos and faking other information on the loan applications. Robert and his partner were able to lock in a reasonably low interest rate, and the company managed to meet its payments to the banks for the next thirty-eight months.
Robert continued to practice law and remained an active member of his synagogue. He regarded himself a "committed Jew and an ethical guy who did a lot of nice, charitable things." But, he admits, his commitment to his faith "did not make a difference" when he agreed to deceive the banks. Robert had divorced his Jewish principles from his business practices--he had "compartmentalized."
Jewish Business Ethics
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 all 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 V'ahavta prayer--"Thou 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 this 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 famous Jack Benny joke about the mugger who says, "Your money or your life," and Benny 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 take oaths of poverty. 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."
Rabbi Leah Cohen of Temple B'nai Chaim in Georgetown, Connecticut takes "the very arrangement of the three aspects of the V'ahavta--heart, soul, 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 V'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 children, of how people who love God conduct themselves.
Can one be ignorant of these teachings and still be a devout Jew? The answer can be found in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of Our Sages, Chapter 2: Mishna 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 of God and our moral character; it is "the acid test of whether religion is truly relevant or 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."
Robert chose to compartmentalize, falling into a trap from which he could not escape. His work as a lawyer suffered and his health deteriorated to the point that he eventually needed two quintuple heart-bypass operations. And then came the most devastating blow: in 1986, he and his partner were indicted on charges of bank and mail fraud. Under investigation and facing indictment, Robert gathered his children at the house and told them that he might go to jail. Letting his children down was excruciating, recalls Robert, "because, growing up, they always took such pride in telling people, 'My Dad is a lawyer and he helps people.'" His twenty-one-year-old son, who "bears a resemblance to me and associated himself with me," took it the hardest. "He didn't believe it," says Robert. "He said, 'That won't happen to you.'"
Robert pled not guilty. "At the time, I knew what I had done was wrong, but in my own mind, I somehow justified it--that it really wasn't wrong because I was going to eventually make it right. I never intended for anyone to lose a dime."
He was sentenced to two years in prison with five years' probation, 500 hours of community service, and restitution payments of $220,000 to the banks. Because of his poor health, Robert served his time at federal prison medical facilities in Rochester, New York and Fort Worth, Texas. He was released after fourteen months, and his probation was cut in half, but he lost his law license. Today, Robert is still trying to win back the respect of the two of his five children who've kept their distance since his conviction. He remains in poor health and is struggling financially. Still, Robert says, he feels "much stronger" and is "a better Jew today than I was then." A big reason for this, he says, is his doing teshuvah (literally "returning"), a process which includes confession, seeking forgiveness, change of behavior, and ultimately a change in character.
In his quest to do teshuvah, Robert volunteers at four charitable organizations that support inner-city youth and unemployed adults, as well as cancer and heart patients. He also devotes considerable time to helping Jewish prison inmates, organizing seders, bringing in ceremonial foods, teaching Judaism, and arranging visits with their families. "I feel that a lot of people rely on me, and now I identify more with being Jewish," Robert says. "I'm conducting myself according to the laws of Talmud, and will do so for the rest of my life."
He now cautions others not to engage in shady business dealings. "It's like that old ad for the Packard car," he says. "The ad said, 'Take it from someone who owns one.' That's me. I took shortcuts. I tell people not to. Absolutely not."
*This name has been
changed to preserve anonymity.
Grant Perry, a media consultant, lawyer, and journalist, is a member of Temple B'nai Chaim in Georgetown, Connecticut.
A GUIDE TO JEWISH
ETHICAL DECISION MAKING
In making decisions in the workplace--decisions that may touch the lives of many individuals--too often we do not take sufficient time to step back and truly gauge whether there is a gap between our conduct and our core values. Too often we allow the gale of pressing problems or political pressure to determine our decisions rather than pursuing a direction charted by our religious principles. As a result, we risk losing sight of our original intent and betraying our convictions. As Jews, we can avert serious errors of judgment and their consequences by listing our core Jewish values. This is an indispensable first step in making business decisions, especially during difficult times, when we are most tempted to cut ethical corners.
The following list of eight core Jewish values, which by no means is exhaustive, can be a useful starting point in this process.
Eight Core Jewish Values
Guide to Ethical Decision Making
You are now ready to take an action that reflects the ethical values of your faith.
Rabbi Arthur Gross-Schaefer, HUC-JIR class of 1984, is professor of Law and Ethics at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, California. This guide was developed for the UAHC.
10 Rules of Business
is forbidden to buy a stolen article from a thief. This is a severe sin,
for it reinforces a transgressor and motivates him to steal in the future.
For if he did not find a person who would purchase a stolen article from
him, he would not steal. With reference to this, [Proverbs 29:24] states:
"A person who shares profits with a thief hates his [own] soul."
is forbidden to deceive people with regard to a business deal or to beguile
them. If a seller knows that the article he is selling has a blemish,
he must notify the purchaser about it. It is even forbidden to beguile
a person with false flattery.
person who borrows an object without the consent of its owner is considered
to be a robber.
leads to coveting and coveting leads to robbery.
a person sees a lost object and his father tells him "Do not return it,"
he should return it instead of obeying his father. For by obeying his
father and fulfilling the positive commandment "Honor your father" [Exodus
20:12], he nullifies the positive commandment "And you shall certainly
return it," and transgresses the negative commandment "You may not ignore
a person agrees to a transaction with a verbal commitment alone, it is
appropriate for him to keep his word even though he did not take any money
at all, did not make a mark [on the article he desired to purchase], nor
leave security....If either the seller or the purchaser retracts, they
are considered to be faithless, and the spirit of the Sages does not derive
satisfaction from them.
is forbidden for a seller or a purchaser to take unfair advantage of a
colleague, as [Leviticus 25:14] states: "When you sell an entity to your
colleague or purchase [an entity] from a colleague, one man should not
take unfair advantage of his brother."
Torah prohibits stealing even the slightest amount. It is forbidden to
steal as a jest, to steal with the intent to return, or to steal with
the intent to pay. All is forbidden, lest one habituate oneself to such
a person sells [an item] to a colleague by measure, by weight or by number,
and errs to the slightest degree, [the colleague] may seek redress at
any time....What is implied? [A person] sold [a colleague] 100 nuts for
a dinar, and then it was discovered [that he gave him] 101 or 99. The
transaction is binding, and [the extra or missing nut] must be returned.
[This applies] even if several years have passed.
a person robs a colleague of even a p'rutah's (a small copper coin
of little value) worth, he is considered as if he took his very soul,
as [Proverbs 1:19] states: "Such are the ways of those who are greedy.
They take away the soul [of the owner]."
Copyright © 2002, Union of American Hebrew Congregations