Religion & Business: A Jewish Perspective

Rabbi Daniel Lapin is president of Toward Tradition and host of the Toward Tradition Radio Show and his television show currently airing in the Portland/Vancouver market. He was the founding rabbi of Pacific Jewish Center, a legendary Orthodox synagogue in Los Angeles. In 1991, Rabbi Lapin formed Toward Tradition as a national movement of Jews and Christians working to restore America’s respect for the dignity and morality of business. Before immigrating to the United States in 1973, Rabbi Lapin had studied theology, physics, economics and mathematics in Johannesburg, London and Jerusalem.

Rabbi Lapin speaks regularly for corporations, trade groups, and at universities, synagogues and churches around the country. He is the author of Thou Shall Prosper; The 10 Commandments for Making Money, published in 2002 by John Wiley and Sons, as well as two earlier books. His articles have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, National Review, Commentary, The Jewish Press, The American Enterprise, The Washington Times, Crisis, and other publications.

Albert Erisman: I’m wondering if religion and spirituality have more to do with business than most people think.

Rabbi Daniel Lapin: I agree, passionately, that religion and spirituality have a great deal to do with business. Business success is contingent on retention of that spiritual and religious dimension. The reason I say that is, first of all, observation of reality. Are we going to dismiss as a coincidence the fact that America is at the same time the most Christian of all modern industrialized countries, and also the greatest engine of prosperity that the world has ever seen? If so, are we also willing to apply the term ‘coincidence’ to the fact that capital markets have risen indigenously only in Christian societies? It seems a bit much to attribute to coincidence the startling parallelism between particularly Biblical civilization—Judaism and Christianity—and success in business.

Another reason that spirituality should never be divorced from business is based on our understanding of what money is. In Jewish tradition money is not a physical or material commodity, it’s a spiritual commodity, a reflection of trust and commitment. It is more than disks of metal or strips of colored paper in your wallet. I’ve devoted a lifetime of research to clarifying that money is a spiritual commodity and how wealth is created in a spiritual process. Essentially it’s interaction between two human beings; two independently operating computers will never create wealth. It is the provision of materialistic goods and services, obviously, but what is created is a spiritual, intangible commodity, which is why it can be wiped out as easily as it can be created. And invariably when it’s wiped out, what we attribute the wiping-out to is a loss of another spiritual commodity, called “confidence” or “faith.”

Some would argue, though, that because we’re a pluralistic culture, we cannot impose these religious values on others.

We’re accustomed to the idea that we live in a pluralistic society where there is no imposition of religious doctrine or religious observance, but I don’t believe that we have any compunction about imposing certain values and behaviors on the marketplace. Many companies have codes of conduct now. In other words, we’d never suggest telling anyone how or what to believe, however we do rule on how we ought to behave. Today the common belief is that these codes of values and behavior can be constructed so most people can comfortably sign on to them. For instance, definitions of ‘honesty’ vary dramatically between different religious cultures. Most American corporations, when they speak of honesty are actually using a western biblical understanding of honesty. So I think people have to be a little less sensitive, simply because businesses operate on the successful transmission of a culture.

What does Judaism offer the business world?

First let me offer the disclaimer that there’s a great deal of confusion today as to what constitutes the Jewish view. Judaism is a free-enterprise religion with virtually no centralized control or authority, which is at one and the same time the source of its vitality as well as the source of a great deal of confusion. As far back as the 19th century, through the 20th and into the 21st, large proportions of the Jewish population in the United States of America and elsewhere have embraced socialism. These people for the most part have rejected the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. I need to clarify that because what I am going to say will be directly from 3,000 years of Jewish culture—things that are embedded in ancient Jewish wisdom and enshrined in the traditions and writings of the faith. That will very often goad, for instance, many Jewish academics at universities around the country, who truly are committed to the faith of socialism rather than the faith of Judaism. Many people who identify ethnically or even religiously as Jews may well be uncomfortable with what I say, but this material is rooted in something that I’ve devoted literally a lifetime to studying and understanding and teaching.

It’s very significant that in the opening of what is viewed as the constitution of Judaism, namely the five books of Moses, God uses the phrase, “and it was good.” The word “good” is used eight times at the beginning of Creation; the eighth instance regarding gold. That might have something to do with why gold became the ultimate symbol of wealth.

The next thing of significance is that private property was established with Abraham, the founder of Judaism. Abraham purchased a burial place for his late wife, in spite of the fact that the owner was willing to give it as a gift. I’m sure you’ve seen in Desoto’s writings how the expansion of wealth would be possible in much of the underdeveloped world if property ownership were turned into a reality. The fact is, for over much of the planet’s land surface, ownership of land is not wide spread. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that ownership of land is a feature in those societies and cultures where wealth and prosperity have been generated.

In Jewish tradition, money is not a physical or material commodity, it’s a spiritual commodity…

Finally, the entire idea of what a transaction is, how wealth is created and what it involves, is essentially seen in Judaism as God’s way of formalizing and rewarding people for behaving towards strangers the way they intuitively behave toward their own family. Being solicitous of our family’s needs and concerns is something we might do intuitively, but what makes us do so for other people is something called profit. That is seen as a remarkably positive thing; in Judaism it’s a given that the only way to do well is to do good. Furthermore, that the profit motive doesn’t detract from the essential nobility of participating in the group economic enterprise, thereby providing, in some way, for the needs of others.

Does Judaism offer moral constraints for capitalism?

That’s exactly why I term it “ethical capitalism.” In other words, capitalism on its own simply is not an entire system of moral coordinates. It is merely a way of allocating resources. I would argue that one of the reasons that socialism has won the war of ideas on America’s university campuses is precisely because people recognize that naked capitalism lacks a moral heart. Whereas socialism is not just an economic system, it is a moral system. It’s a different system of morality that operates within an entirely different set of Cartesian coordinates that I don’t subscribe to, but it does have integrity within that set of coordinates. So there’s something satisfying about socialism, in terms of the spiritual yearnings of the human soul, that is not found in capitalism on its own. That’s why I always speak of ethical capitalism. I’m not interested in defending capitalism—it’s not a moral system. But I do defend ethical capitalism.

That having been said, in Judaism, we don’t automatically see the application of morality and ethics as a cost center, we see it as a profit center. In other words, it would tend to eliminate short-term profit taking at the expense of long-term creativity and durability. But the notion that morality automatically has to exercise constraint is only half the picture. There are as many instances where the application of ethics and morality will spur creativity and outreach as much as it will rein it in and confine it. So it probably is one of the very special contributions of Judaism. And this has a lot to do with the vitality of Jewish business through the ages.

Could you give an example of the way you see this spurring creativity?

Any faith that posits poverty as a virtue or wealth as an indication of moral reprehensibility, places adherents of that faith at a tremendous disadvantage. It’s difficult for any of us to excel at something that deep down, we consider morally reprehensible. The more committed we are to some form of a moral code, the more powerful that inhibition will tend to be. The notion that in acquiring wealth you are displeasing your Creator would tend to inhibit you.

The idea of creative destruction is very much a Jewish idea, that the seeking of newness in technology is balanced by the seeking of oldness in moral tradition. Essentially, Judaism says, “give us new things but old ideas. Let’s anchor the wild ride towards newness and creativity with the bedrock of unchanging tradition and ideas.” That balance contributes mightily to Jewish business vitality. Ludditism would run at odds to the Jewish tradition. Here Jewish morality and ethics say, “Move forward, seek a better, more economical way of doing something so more people can benefit from it.”

How is that religious expression worked out in business?

I think it’s important for a company to indeed say there are certain religious values that are private and they’re none of our business. However, we must welcome the entire person to our business. A person’s worth is not just $11.00 worth of common chemicals. Instead, we recognize that each person is driven by a profound soul. Beyond a basic stage of achieving the necessities of life, people cannot be motivated only by money.

If you really think you’re nothing but a collective of common chemicals, we probably have work for you, but it’s not going to be work of the superbly creative variety. Because that kind of work stems from the infinity of a human soul and from the spiritual yearnings with which everybody is created. We want a work environment in which your whole being can find fulfillment, because we will all be the beneficiary of the expression of that totality of human being.