Economic Justice for Insiders and Outsiders

Biblical laws of business ethics.

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The literary shadow of [Shakespeare's character] Shylock haunted Jews for generations, but has lost much of its power in a modern economy built on consumer credit. The Biblical commandment was intended to apply in situations of poverty, "if your kinsman is in dire straits"(Leviticus 25:35), and not to commercial loans or financing of luxury purchases, and modern sensitivities follow the same trend. There is, and should be, opprobrium applied to lenders who prey on the indigent living from paycheck to paycheck, but mortgages, student and car loans make it possible for many to enjoy a more comfortable lifestyle than would otherwise be possible. They are not poor substitutes for charity, but aids to luxury.

A more difficult example arises from the verse "When you sell property to your neighbor, or buy from the hand of your neighbor, a man shall not wrong (al tonu) his brother" (Leviticus 25:14, my translation), words that prohibit one from charging an unfair price in real estate transactions. The Talmud (Babylonian Talmud Bava Metzia 47b) uses the word "the hand" in the verse to expand its meaning beyond real estate to prohibit price gouging in transactions of movable goods, which pass"from hand to hand." In fact, it goes even further (Bava Metziah58b), taking a parallel verse (Leviticus 25:17) as a reminder that it is forbidden to "cheat with words" even if no money is exchanged, so that one may not ask a merchant the price of something that one does not intend to purchase, or remind a repentant sinner of his previous misdeeds.

At the same time, the same words "brother" and"neighbor" are used to limit the commandment to transactions within the Jewish community. Interpreting those words, the Talmud (Babylonian Talmud Bekhorot13b) assumes that there is no similar penalty for overcharging or otherwise cheating non-Jews. Other texts (like Bava Kama 113a-b) go even further in their reading of this and other passages. They entertain the possibility one is not obligated to return a lost object to a non-Jew, or to pay taxes to the civil authorities. Perhaps it is permitted to steal from gentiles outright?

Sages in many generations and countries, from the Talmudic sages through medieval scholars like Maimonides and the early German pietist Judah Hehasid, and even contemporary writers, have felt the need to address the question with the strongest possible rhetoric. Codified Jewish law prohibits engaging in intentional fraud or theft, irrespective of the victim's religion,as well as evading taxes that are set by a legitimate government.

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Rabbi Joshua Heller

Rabbi Joshua Heller is the rabbi at Congregation B'nai Torah in Atlanta, GA. Previous to that, he served as director of the Distance Learning Program at the Jewish Theological Seminary.