Three seemingly disparate questions: If you are engaged in business, is bluffing, lying, cheating, and offering bribes in secret wrong, or simply the tools of a skilled deal maker? How do sacrifices brought to the Mishkan (Tabernacle) and later to the Temple, relate to what people do in secret? If you cannot constrain yourself from doing what is wrong, does it dishonor God more or less to do it in secret? The answers to all three questions come together in consideration of this week’s parashah, Vayikra.
We open the Torah this week to the Book of Leviticus—a priestly pocket manual on the myriad details of the sacrificial cult. It’s not to everyone’s liking; for some, it will feel like a slow slog for the next two months. The exciting, challenging, and inspiring narratives of Genesis and Exodus are behind us. Israel has escaped Egypt, received Torah, constructed the Mishkan, and is settling in to a routine of life in the wilderness: learn God’s ways, offer sacrifices, move forward, and mark time until the nation can enter the Land of Israel. While Leviticus offers us only two narrative stories, taken together with insightful commentaries, it feeds our souls and enriches our lives with a wealth of wisdom concerning human nature.
Parshat Vayikra lays out the major categories of sacrifices, the circumstances under which offerings are to be brought, the content of the offerings, the rituals for offering them, and the disposition of the sacrifices once made. We read about the olah (burnt offering), the minchah (meal offering), the shelamim (sacrifice of well-being), chatat (sin offering), and asham (guilt offering). We learn the distinction between violations committed intentionally and unintentionally. We even learn that a person who cannot afford to bring the prescribed offering may substitute a less costly sacrifice.
Many of the sacrifices catalogued in Vayikra are to atone for sin. Torah stipulates mechanisms for dealing with wrongs committed by one person against another, including the consequences and fines, but ultimately sacrifices are required because wronging another person is de facto sinning against God.
While Torah deals with the rules and standards of behavior that are deemed violations of the covenant, as well as the ritual mechanisms for obtaining forgiveness, Talmud delves deeper into the nature of sin and the human psyche. In tractate Chagigah, we find a mishnah that enumerates four subjects one should not speculate about (at least, not in public) because of the danger of inadvertently enticing others into apostasy. The mishnah concludes with this comment:
…ONE WHO GIVES NO THOUGHT TO THE HONOR OF THEIR CREATOR, IT WERE BETTER HAD THEY NOT COME INTO THE WORLD. (M Chagigah 2:1 / 11b)
Perhaps you’re wondering how the Mishnah justifies making such a drastic and dramatic claim? Gemara explains on BT Chagigah 16a.
What does this mean? R. Abba said: It refers to one who looks at a rainbow. R. Yosef said: “It refers to one who commits a sin in secret.” “One who looks at a rainbow,” as it is written: Like the appearance of a rainbow that shines in the cloud on a day of rain, such was the appearance of the surrounding radiance. That was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of Adonai (Ezekiel 1:28). R. Yosef said, “This refers to one who commits a sin in secret,” which accords with what R. Yitzhak said, for R. Yitzhak said, “Whoever commits a sin in secret, it is as though he pushed away the feet of the Shekhinah, for it is said, כֹּה אָמַר יְהוָה, הַשָּׁמַיִם כִּסְאִי, וְהָאָרֶץ הֲדֹם רַגְלָי Thus said Adonai: The heaven is My throne and the earth is My footstool (Isaiah 66:1).” But is this so? But R. Illa the Elder said, “If a person sees that the [evil] inclination is overpowering him, he should go to a place where no one recognizes him, don black clothing and wrap himself in black, and do what his heart desires, but he should not desecrate God’s Name publicly!” There is no difficulty (i.e., contradiction). This [R. Yosef’s opinion] concerns one who is able to overcome their inclination; this [R. Yitzhak’s opinion] concerns one who is not able to overcome their inclination.
R. Abba offers an example of behavior that fails to honor God: looking at a rainbow. No doubt you’re wondering how on earth gazing at a rainbow can be construed as failure to honor God, especially since there is a berakhah to say when one sees a rainbow. However, as beautiful and aesthetically uncomplicated as a rainbow is for most of us, it is theologically complicated for the Rabbis. The first rainbow appeared after the Flood that destroyed virtually all of humanity and the animal kingdom, save the remnant preserved in the ark. It is a sign of God’s promise never again to flood the earth, but at the same time a sign of God’s disapproval of humanity’s behavior. But there is more, as R. Abba’s use of the verse from Ezekiel makes clear. Describing God’s glory, Ezekiel likens it to the radiance of the rainbow. It would seem that R. Abba is concerned lest people gaze upon a rainbow and think they are seeing God.
The bulk of the passage, however, focuses on R. Yosef’s example: a person who sins in secret. The one who sins in secret does so out of the sight of other people, believing either that God does not exist or does not matter. The Gemara supports R. Yosef’s contention by citing R. Yitzhak’s more graphic teaching that sinning in secret not only sidelines God, but actively disrespects God (“pushing away the feet of the Shekhinah”). His proof text, Isaiah 66:1, uses the term rag’lai (“my feet”), to say that one who sins in secret is, effectively, pushing God’s authority, meaning, and presence, out of this world.
No sooner have R. Yosef and R. Yitzhak made what appear to be solid and thoughtful arguments then Gemara challenges them: Really? Are you so sure that sinning in secret is the epitome of dishonoring God? Perhaps it is the opposite!
R. Illa the Elder presents the novel and controversial idea: Sinning in secret, he holds, can be preferable to sinning in public. He asserts that someone who is overwhelmed by the compulsion to sin should disguises himself and go off to a place where he is unknown to do what he must. At least he will not be recognized by people who know him, conveying open and public disrespect for God’s laws.
The question of whether or not one should engage in improper behavior in secret took an interesting philosophical twist when, in 1968, Albert Z. Carr published an article in the Harvard Business Review entitled, “Is Business Bluffing Ethical?” Few articles have generated as much discussion and controversy, which is ongoing now nearly fifty years later. Carr argued that the world of business is special realm in which the tactics for success permit a different standard of behavior. As business ethics specialists Robert E McNulty and W. Michael Hoffman noted:
Albert Carr, claimed quite brazenly that businesses were perfectly justified in lying, cheating, and bribing, all in the name of achieving business objectives. According to Carr, the ethics of ordinary life were inapplicable to business because the latter was governed by its own “gaming” morality that required the businessman to leave at home the Golden Rule and his commitment to principles such as honesty and fairness. To make his point, Carr quotes a Midwestern executive who had “given a good deal of thought to the question.” According to this person, “If the law as written gives a man a wide-open chance to make a killing, he’d be a fool not to take advantage of it. If he doesn’t someone else will. There is no obligation on him to stop and consider who is going to get hurt. If the law says he can do it, that’s all the justification he needs. There’s nothing unethical about that. It’s just plain business sense.”
In the same article, Carr goes on to assert the legitimacy of lying on one’s résumé, engaging in industrial espionage, and deceptively adulterating the contents of consumer goods in order to increase profits.
For Carr, one has no obligation to go beyond the letter of the law—and certainly no obligation to adhere to standards of decency in the context of business. Carr’s argument led many to believe “business ethics” was a oxymoron. Whether his views reflected the state of business practices or inspired them, business ethics became a field of study in the mid-70s. Today, most corporations have promulgated a code of ethics and established an officer responsible to oversee compliance.
Carr’s style of business is roundly condemned as immoral by Jewish ethical standards, which are spelled out in the Torah and elaborated upon at length in the Talmud and later law codes. In fact, there is a rabbinic tradition that when one dies and stands before God for judgment, the first question God will ask is, “Did you conduct your business with integrity?” (BT Shabbat 31a) Often, in discussions of Jewish business ethics, the principle of livnei iveir lo titein michshol / “do not place a stumbling block before the blind” is invoked; it speaks directly to Carr’s tactics.
I’m sure it has occurred to many familiar with Albert Carr’s controversial claims and the discussion surrounding them that the President Trump and his close advisors appear to be a card-carrying subscribers to Carr’s philosophy. He has imported into the White House the sense that his brand of business dealings, which entails distortions, disinformation, and outright lies, is simply employing the tools of the trade, that in the “game” of politics one is required to win at any cost.
We would do well to recall R. Yosef and R. Yitzhak’s discussion. “Pushing away the feet of the Shekhinah,” shoving morality to the curb and engaging in secretive dishonesty, is socially caustic and spiritually corrosive whenever and wherever it occurs.
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman