A yeshiva graduate and lifelong resident of Brooklyn’s Orthodox community, Hershey Friedman is a professor of marketing and business, and director of the business programs at Brooklyn College. He has created a course on Jewish business ethics for high school and college, and teaches a course called “Business Practices and the Jewish Tradition.” His most recent paper, “The Financial Meltdown of 2008: The Perspective of Jewish Law,” is available at the JLAW.com Web site.
The Jewish Week asked him about the current scandal involving New Jersey politicians and prominent leaders of the Syrian Jewish community, which features charges of money laundering and trafficking in human organs.
Q: Isn’t money laundering — a form of cheating, if not outright theft — against Jewish law? What is the balance between fealty to Jewish law and to secular law?
Jewish law requires that we obey the laws of the land. This is why someone who is a tax evader has violated both secular law as well as Jewish law. The Babylonian Talmud (Bava Kama 92b) quotes a popular saying, “Into the well from which you have drunk, do not throw any stones.”
Q: Religious institutions in the Syrian community reportedly benefited from the money-laundering scheme. If the money goes to a good cause, do the ends justify the means?
The Talmud compares such corrupt philanthropists to women who prostitute themselves for apples in order to give them to the sick and needy. Charity is supposed to come from money that has been earned in an honest manner.
Q: Did these type of scandals happen in biblical/Talmudic times?
Back in ancient times, there were few scandals of this type. Throughout history, Jews often had to pay higher taxes than gentiles. This may help explain why some Jews, especially those from countries that treated them badly (e.g., Soviet Union) still do not trust governments.
Q: You’re Orthodox. How do you explain these alleged ethical lapses, a series of questionable practices over the years, by people who are supposed to answer to a higher authority?
I feel that the yeshiva system is partially to blame. There is an obsession in the yeshiva world with the legalistic aspects of the Talmud, without focusing on the practical law. More than 100 of the 613 precepts in the Torah deal with economics and business, yet so little time in yeshiva is spent on this area.
According to the Talmud, the first question a person is asked in the next world after death is: Were you honest in your business dealings?
Q: You live in an Orthodox neighborhood. What are your neighbors’ reactions to pictures of men in black hats being led away in handcuffs?
Many of my coreligionists are embarrassed — there has been a great deal of soul searching among many Jews, and they are crying out for changes.
Some, on the other hand, are using the anti-Semite excuse: the anti-Semites are trying to make trouble for the Jews. This reminds me of Uncle Leo in “Seinfeld” who blamed the anti-Semites for everything, including being served cold soup in a restaurant.