Apr 8, 2009 — While heated debates continued over the proposed bailout plan, Moses Pava, the Alvin Einbender Professor of Business Ethics at Sy Syms School of Business, said at a recent lecture that a change in consciousness at how our culture approaches wealth is more necessary than a change in policy.
The Center for Ethics at Yeshiva University sponsored the event at the Beren Campus on March 25, which drew a crowd eager for its topic: “The Great Financial Meltdown of 2008-2009: Jewish Ethics and Business Ethics.”
But instead of discussing politics or economics, Pava called for a cultural change, especially among high school and college-age students, by educating them in good ethics. He believes we need to broaden our understanding of business to integrate social and environmental effects.
“Rather than looking backwards and trying to place blame, I want to see Jewish ethics as a way of looking forward to a possible future,” Pava said. “Perhaps this crisis offers us an opportunity to reexamine some basic assumptions about our society and our culture. Rather than focusing on getting the bailout plan exactly right, I would question the entire assumption of individual economic self-interest.”
Examining entrepreneurship through a Jewish lens, Pava discussed social responsibility, which is apparent in Biblical institutions such as the Jubilee and Sabbatical Year and the commandment “to love the stranger.”
“I suggest that we challenge those who separate business affairs from the rest of life,” Pava stressed, “and that we resurrect and reinvigorate the Biblical vision of combining earning a livelihood and acting in a just and caring way.”
Pava, author of “Business Ethics: A Jewish Perspective” and the forthcoming “Jewish Ethics as Dialogue,” believes corporations should provide triple bottom-line statements that measure social and environmental, in addition to economic, performance.
He cited Timberland Company, maker of outdoor products with revenues of half a billion dollars a year, as an exemplary business. Its CEO, Jeff Swartz, has attributed his company’s commitment to social responsibility to his interest in Jewish values.
Pava drew insight from both ancient and modern sources. Rabbi Irwin Kula’s book “Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life” provided him with spiritual guidance, while the Second Temple sage Yochanan ben Zakai “offered building blocks for a complete theory of entrepeneurship: creativity, playfulness, power, efficiency and independence joined integrally with continuity, seriousness, sacrifice, fairness and interdependence.”
As another prime case, Pava mentioned Aaron Feuerstein, an Orthodox Jew (and YU graduate) whose Polartec fleece company, Malden Mills, was destroyed in a fire in 1995.
Feuerstein shocked the country by continuing to pay his 3,000 unemployed workers’ salaries while he rebuilt his factory. The decision cost him $25 million before he was eventually forced to file for bankruptcy. He later explained his decision by quoting lessons learned from the Talmud.
Pava concluded that Feuerstein’s kindness to his employees offers “a glimpse of what life might look like if we somehow learn together what it means to love the stranger.”