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With All Your Possessions: JEWISH ETHICS AND ECONOMIC LIFE by Meir Tamari (The Free Press: $22.50; 331 pp.)

February 22, 1987|Ben Zion Bergman | Bergman is Celia and David Familian Professor of Rabbinic Literature at the University of Judaism and a member of the adjunct faculty of Loyola Law School.

The fact that in some dictionaries, the word Jew can still be found as synonymous with unethical business dealings is both a canard on a people with a rich ethical tradition, as well as a travesty upon the English language.

Any vestiges of such sentiment will certainly be dispelled by a reading of Meir Tamari's comprehensive review of Jewish business ethics as reflected in the classical texts of the Jewish tradition. A professor of economics at Bar Ilan University in Israel, Tamari has written this volume as an expansion of courses in which he presents, to use his own words, "The (Jewish) value system and its practical application to economics." As such, therefore, after an introduction and overview of Jewish law (since the Jewish legal texts are his major source material), the book deals with specific economic issues, such as competition, prices, challenge of wealth, money and banking, wages and labor, taxation, etc.

Tamari's contribution is to have presented the ethical values of the Jewish tradition not only as value-concepts, abstract principles, and pious maxims but as functioning norms in the marketplace. An example of the overwhelming ethical concern of the tradition is reflected in the rabbinic elaboration of the biblical law concerning just weights and measures. The law mandated periodic cleaning of the scales and measures not for hygienic reasons but to insure that a false weight or measure not be the inadvertent result of accumulated dirt, as infinitesimal as that might be. Tamari points out, quoting Maimonides, that the Jewish community even established a forerunner of a Bureau of Weights and Measures, with inspectors to police adherence to these laws and administer penalties upon their breach.

The average reader will undoubtedly be struck by the wide range of concerns exhibited in the tradition. Even the many Jews who think of Jewish law as being concerned primarily with ritual matters will find revealing the fact that Jewish law dealt with issues such as unfair competition, price fixing, unconscionability of contracts and sales, and like matters to which modern legal systems have only recently applied themselves. These are all subsumed under an elaborate concept called ona'ah which Tamari defines as "just price." Unfortunately, this definition is misleadingly narrow. While ona'ah involves just price, it goes beyond that and includes all matters in which one takes unfair advantage of another whether by misrepresentation, social status, position, or the other's ignorance.

These are only a few of the many striking examples that Tamari marshals and that he discusses in a penetrating and incisive analysis, joining the academic qualifications of the economist with superior Judaic erudition.

One can find only minor faults with this work. One, while not serious, is yet not trivial. In his introduction, the author seeks to dissociate the economic issues from the legal issues with which his source material is concerned, saying that some things that may be legally determinant "may have no significance as moral and ethnical factors." The ethos of a people is reflected both in the substance and administration of its laws. Stated otherwise, law is ethics concretized in behavioral norms.

A more serious source of criticism is possibly attributable to the author's zeal for his subject. There are a number of instances where the economic and ethical significance of certain laws is overstated. For example, in his chapter on the challenge of wealth, the author correctly indicates Judaism's view of the legitimacy of economic activity and the right of a person to enjoy worldly goods. However, he tries to show that Judaism also sought to limit the accumulation of wealth. Among the examples is the fact that Jewish law mandates abstention from economic activity at certain times, such as the Sabbath and festivals when no labor or business is permitted. Furthermore, he says, since Judaism requires one to set aside regular times for study of Torah, the time available for economic activity is thereby further restricted.

While all of this is true, it is stretching the point to attribute this to ethical economic motives. These are motivated by strictly "religious" and ritual concerns, and any restriction of economic activity is a coincidental by-product. Even at that, the demands that these religious obligations make upon one's time do not interfere with passive capital growth.

These criticisms, however, should not be seen as vitiating or mitigating the tremendous value of this book and the significant contribution its author has made in elucidating the unique and sophisticated ethical tradition of the Jewish people.

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