Business wants to take over every aspect of life, Professor Moses Pava said.
Pava, the dean of Yeshiva University’s business school, spoke last month at a conference in Teaneck called “From Bailouts to ‘Occupy’: The Ethics of Economics,” sponsored by the Union for Traditional Judaism. He shared the podium with spokesman from the Occupy Wall Street movement and UTJ s president, Rabbi David Novack. A representative from FreedomWorks, a conservative group that backed the Tea Party movement, had been scheduled but did not appear.
Pava said that Judaism resists the desire of business to be the only measure, teaching instead the idea of “Shabbat consciousness,” which he called “an ethical achievement of the highest order as well as a religious achievement.”
Shabbat consciousness, he said, is “a great acceptance for God’s world as it is. A way of living patiently and in sync with the changing rhythm of nature.” It is a harnessing of what Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik called the “dynamic tension between the capacity to exercise control over nature and the duty to act toward nature with a sense of fiduciary responsibility.”
Judaism, Pava said, alternates business – “sowing the fields for six years” – with a non-business existence: “allowing them to lie fallow, with the rich and poor eating together.” Judaism’s Shabbat consciousness “is at odds with profit-centered mentality that everything can be transformed into financial terms,” he said, calling that way of thinking “a contemporary form of idolatry.” Instead, Shabbat teaches that a person’s actions – even one as simple as picking a flower – must make way for accepting the world as it already is, untouched by human effort. But “The Shabbat idea of acceptance should not be mistaken for acceptance of the status quo. Neither social arrangements nor human arrangements are fixed and unchanging. Both are malleable and improvable.”
The prophet Isaiah offers a view “diametrically opposed to contemporary conservatives.” They are inspired instead by the 18th century writer Edmund Burke, who believed, in Pava’s words, “in the sanctified quality of the status quo as a matter of principal. For Isaiah, who could imagine a time when the wolves and lambs will live together, the very notion of the natural order of things is very dubious and – more importantly – it’s ethically suspect.
“The echo of Isaiah’s hopes still reverberate around the world and constitute and essential aspect of humanity’s heritage.” Unfortunately, though, Isaiah’s message “has been tamed and neutered. It has become part of the liturgy. On Yom Kippur, “We go through the mechanical motion of reading Isaiah exactly the people of his generation went through the mechanical motion of fasting, oblivious to the purpose of the ritual.”
Pava recalled reading the Yom Kippur haftarah from Isaiah as a teenager, with its call “to unlock the fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of the yoke” and “to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home.” He said, “I was really astonished by the universal message and unequivocal call for social responsibility. Until then I had thought this message was simply a watered down version of Judaism, maybe for the religious Jews, certainly not for the traditional Jews, that somehow this notion of tikkun olam wasn’t really an authentic Jewish idea.
“The next time we reread this haftorah, let us respond to Isaiah with the same passion with which he once cried, full throat and without restraint. At its best, chesed is about bringing the outsiders in.”
Pava cited a midrash that compared Job to Abraham, where Job pleads to God: “Did I not feed the hungry?” But God replies that he did not measure up to Abraham, because while Job would sit in his house and wait for passersby, Abraham would go out and bring them into his house.
“It is precisely this idea of bringing the wayfarer into the house” that is most useful “to the contemporary debate about wealth and income inequality.
“Ethics is ultimately about seeing our own humanity in the other and seeing others’ humanity in ourselves. The huge and increasing gaps between the haves and have nots is not compatible with a world where true chesed is even possible.
“To bring the wayfarer into the house does not mean only providing for basic subsistence; it means providing a decent education, safe streets, hope for the future, equal opportunities for every citizen. It requires us to open our eyes and see the economic conditions where a large fraction of our population is seemingly trapped.
“Statistically, it has been demonstrated that increases in income and wealth inequality leads to greater unemployment, less spending on education, more babies born with low birth weights, higher rates of incarceration, and higher rates of homicide.
“Chesed is active caring in the context of community. It may well be true that all of us are in the end merely strangers and settlers in Hashem’s eyes, but in Jewish thought, it is the premier human job to lessen and soften this felt strangeness,” Pava said.