Q. How can businesses create new models for a just society? Shouldn’t we strive to transform our workplaces from competitive cost-cutters to caring cooperatives?
A. There is a very influential movement that wants to create a more just society from the ground up, by remodeling basic institutions. Many people believe that replacing families and firms with communes and cooperatives will lead to a more equitable and compassionate society.
Jewish tradition certainly affirms that the world needs repair, and that each individual needs to concern himself with advancing the world towards the ultimate perfection of the final redemption, when the righteous redeemer will “judge the poor with righteousness, and reprove with equity for the meek of the earth” (from Isaiah 11:4). However, we have to examine if we agree with today’s social critics on the ideal way to effect this transformation.
Jewish tradition certainly cannot condone remaking the family. Our religious tradition has never wavered from the belief that the foundation of human society is the individual family, with children who acknowledge and honor their parents.
But Judaism presents no fundamental obstacles to remodeling economic institutions. For example, if a group of people want to pool their resources and efforts to create a cooperative, a kibbutz, or the like, there is nothing wrong with that. By the same token, Jewish tradition doesn’t condemn equitable government intervention in economic life.
However, we shouldn’t fall into the trap of viewing this kind of social revolution as the main way of repairing society. It is true that the passion for justice inspired by the Jewish prophets is the driving force behind many revolutionary social movements, but if we read the words of the prophets themselves we see that they were advocating a different kind of bottom-up revolution: a world where each individual takes responsibility to act in a righteous and ethical manner.
Let’s examine the words of the prophet Zecharia: “These are the things which you shall do: speak truth each man to his fellow; judge with truth, justice and peace in your gates. Don’t plot against your fellow in your heart, and don’t love false oaths, for all these I hate, says God.” (Zecharia 8:16-17.) The prophet is not demanding that we create new and revolutionary social institutions; rather, each individual must strive to act in a true, just and peaceful way.
It’s true that some places of business have cultures that encourage and reward ethical behavior, while others have cultures — or subcultures — that make meeting the prophetic standard impossible. So if an aspiring manager decides to experiment with a new business structure because he or she thinks the innovation will empower the individual employee to act honestly, that is praiseworthy.
But if the motivation for tinkering is the belief that it is impossible to act honestly in an ordinary business firm, then the initiative is likely to be counterproductive. The misguided, sanctimonious belief that ordinary business is inherently unethical is one of the main obstacles to motivating business people to conduct themselves in an upright fashion.
The Jewish tradition doesn’t deny the importance of great and dramatic acts, but the main focus has always been the silent revolution of individual righteousness. After the prophet Elijah’s spectacular showdown with the pagan prophets on Mount Carmel, God had to remind him that most of all, His word is in “a still, small voice” (I Kings 19:12).
The Biblical prophets were not social revolutionaries in the modern sense. They didn’t seek to overthrow kings or dispossess the wealthy. Their aim was far more revolutionary: to motivate each of us to fulfill our own, individual, ethical and charitable obligations. Their vision, which has lost none of its inspirational power over the millennia, remains the main foundation of business ethics.