The economy in crisis: God’s handiwork?

The economy in crisis: God’s handiwork?

Very often, when a tragedy occurs, some religious figure somewhere inevitably declares that it is God’s punishment for some sin or other.

Keeping the FaithWhen Hurricane Katrina virtually destroyed New Orleans and much of the rest of the Gulf Coast, for example, the Rev. Pat Robertson blamed the natural disaster on America’s lust for abortions. To Robertson, the timing was especially significant. Not only was God paying us back for our evil ways, but He was also prodding the U.S. Senate to confirm John G. Roberts Jr. as chief justice of the Supreme Court. Indeed, the nominee, said Robertson on the Sept. 1, 2005, broadcast of the 700 Club, should “be thankful that a tragedy has brought him some good.”

We Jews are not immune to such proclamations, as witness a past Satmar rebbe’s claim that the Shoah was punishment for Zionism or the late Lubavitcher rebbe’s insistence that it was the work of “God the surgeon.”

Some are just as quick to see God’s hand in events of a much smaller scale. Several years ago, for example, a bus tragedy in Israel in which children were injured and killed was blamed by one leading non-chasidic haredi authority on faulty mezuzot in their parents’ homes.

Those among us who hold that “everything comes from God” base this on a literal interpretation of Exodus 21:13. In discussing the fate of a person who unintentionally took another’s life, the text uses the colorful phrase “and God brought it to his hand.” (See the Babylonian Talmud tractate Makkot 10b for an explanation of this.) Since everything comes from God, a tragedy must also come from God and, if so, there must be a reason for it.

Normally, I would reject such arguments as being desecrations of God’s Holy Name. To even suggest that God would take the lives of children because their parents did not place proper scrolls on their doorposts is blasphemy, at least to my mind.

And yet, as we all know, for every rule, there is an exception (including this one, I hope). Last May, one of the Bible-thumping evangelist crowd actually got in his licks before the disaster surfaced. A prescient Pastor John Hagee had this to say about the U.S. economy back when it was merely thought of as “sluggish”: “The liberal mental midgets protesting for abortion-on-demand are too brain-dead to see that they have brought the judgment of God upon America’s economy.”

Being a liberal mental-midget myself (while I do not advocate abortions for no good medical or psychological reason, I do support an unfettered Roe v. Wade), I should take offense at such a remark, but perhaps Hagee has a point in blaming the current economic disaster on God.

No, I do not believe that God is punishing the entire world – the crisis has engulfed everyone, not just America – because America promotes a woman’s right to an abortion. If I did believe that “everything comes from God,” however, I would say that the economic crisis facing us is God’s punishment for the notion that “business is business” and that anything goes in acquiring wealth.

That is not God’s way. If the Torah is the legitimate revealed word of God – and it is, make no mistake about that – then the world has much to answer for in the way it does business.

Beginning with the Torah and advancing into the Oral Law that defines and refines it, Judaism has a stringent code of business ethics. One law, in particular, defines the direction halacha takes regarding how God would have us approach our day-to-day business dealings:

“You shall not have … different weights, a large and a small. You shall not have … different measures, a large and a small. But you shall have a full and honest weight [eh-ven sh’lemah va’tzedek], a full and honest measure shall you have [eifah sh’lemah va’tzedek]…. For all who do such things [who have unequal weights and measures], and all who do unrighteously, are an abomination to the Lord your God.” (See Deuteronomy 25:13-16.)

The use of the word “tsedek” for “honest” is very telling. There are words in Hebrew that more directly make the point. The word tsedek, however, has multiple meanings, including righteousness, justice, truth, purity, and sincerity. Using that word in this context demands that all of its permutations apply to the law.

The prophets took this principle very seriously (see Amos 8:4-10, for example), as did the talmudic sages of blessed memory. Thus, we are told in BT Bava Batra 88b: “The punishment for [false] measures is more rigorous than that for [incestual relationships with] forbidden relatives…. [For the latter,] repentance is possible, but here [in the case of dishonest weights], repentance is not possible.”

There are other rules that begin in the Torah, such as a prohibition against unfair competitive practices (see Deuteronomy 19:14).

A great many business laws are derived from the statement in Leviticus 19:14: “You shall not … put a stumbling block before the blind.” Two principles – “lifnei iver,” or the placing of a stumbling block before the blind, and “g’neivat da’at,” the theft of knowledge – derive from the verse. To them must be added the principle of ona-ah, which prohibits selling something for more than it is really worth (obviously after taking into account the seller’s right to a reasonable profit).

A slough of economic crimes derive from these three principles. There are the obvious ones, such as false advertising, misleading sales pitches, and schemes to artificially inflate prices. Then there are those that are not so obvious, including insider trading rules far more stringent than anything the Securities and Exchange Commission has ever put forth.

Stated bluntly, Jewish business law is built around the premise that to acquire wealth in ways that are unjust, dishonorable, and unethical is to dishonor God.

If indeed “everything comes from God,” then maybe God is punishing the world for the way it does business.

Perhaps, too, He is blaming us specifically, for we are supposed to be His kingdom of priests to the world.

As I said, I do not accept this punishment premise, but I do believe that Torah law – written and oral – is a prescription for a better world. It would do us well to consider that as we seek to find a way out of the current economic crisis.