Misleading Advice in Judaism

Non-disclosure, conflict of interest, easy credit all violate the biblical injunction not to

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Banks, credit institutions, and large retailers maintain a sophisticated and intensive advertising campaign to encourage people to buy goods or services on credit, while concurrently consumer credit is made relatively easy to obtain. People unable to withstand the temptation of instantly gratifying their wishes, use such credit without any knowledge of their future resources or even the feasibility of repayment. Social welfare studies have shown that such ill-considered use of consumer credit in all its forms can be a major cause of poverty despite a relatively high income. Perhaps it is stretching the concept of lifnei ivver beyond its halakhic framework, but it would seem to the author that the implications of such advertising for those blind to the consequences of debt necessitate further halakhic examination.

This examination is, however, complicated by the problem of interest. One way in which consumers may be protected against the ill effects of credit is by making mandatory full disclosure of the real cost of delayed payment. This enables the consumer to evaluate more correctly the burden he is assuming. However, credit sales for a known interest rate are usually not allowed in Jewish law because they may constitute avak ribit [literally, "the dust of usury"] -- interest through commercial transactions, [which] is rabbinically forbidden (in contrast to interest charged on a straight loan, which is forbidden in the Torah).

An insurance broker recently described to the author how he had handled the problem of lifnei ivver in regard to advice given to his clients. Since his commission varied among the different policies and different corporations, he became concerned that perhaps the policies he was offering were more a reflection of his own potential earnings than the needs or benefits of the specific client. By programming all the data regarding the client and his family, he was able to let the computer choose the best policy and conditions, so saving himself from [violating the injunction of] lifnei ivver.

It is important to stress that irrespective of whether lifnei ivver is understood as giving misleading advice or as helping someone do acts harmful to himself or forbidden by Halakhah [the subject of the parallel article, "Assisting the Perpetrator of an Evil Deed"], a common element of secrecy exists. The Bible closes the verse in Leviticus 19:14 forbidding placing a stumbling block in the path of the blind by adding, "and you shall fear the Lord." Wherever this phrase appears in the Bible, it is understood by the Rabbis to refer to actions hidden from the human eye and operating in the recesses of the human heart. Since white-collar crime, economic oppression, and misplaced trust operate primarily in secret, this affirmation of the fear of God is Judaism's major defense against them.

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Dr. Meir Tamari

Dr. Meir Tamari, former chief economist in the office of the Governor of the Bank of Israel, is director of the Center for Business Ethics at the Jerusalem College of Technology. His books include Al Chet: Sins in the Marketplace (Jason Aronson) and Jewish Values in Our Open Society: A Weekly Torah Commentary (Jason Aronson).