Conscious capitalism, Jewish tradition

Hebrew equivalent to one of the hottest new business ideas was coined long ago.

By DAVID E. Y. SARNA
April 3, 2010 23:31
4 minute read.
Disgraced financier Bernard Madoff.

Disgraced financier Bernard Madoff.. (photo credit: AP)

Conscious capitalism holds that an organization (government, nonprofit or business) has an obligation to act not only in its own best interests, but also in the interests of all its stakeholders (customers, employees, suppliers, investors and society).

The concept was well-described by Patricia Aburdene in Megatrends 2010: The Rise of Conscious Capitalism, a book that takes its name from John Naisbitt’s Megatrends: Ten New Directions Transforming Our Lives about the birth of the information economy. Conscious capitalism is catching on.

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Writing in Business Week recently about the Catalyzing Conscious Capitalism conference, G. Michael Maddock and Raphael Louis Vitón, argue that “[m]aybe if members of the social responsibility movement were to spend less time hectoring companies about climate change, worker exploitation and the like, and more time pointing out the greater profits these businesses could produce by implementing socially responsible ideas, they would be more effective.”

CONSCIOUS CAPITALISM is one of the hottest new ideas in business. However, its Hebrew equivalent, tikkun olam (perfecting the world), was coined long ago. Dr. Eugene Korn noted that then governor Mario Cuomo used the term in speaking to the New York State Legislature. Tikkun olam, says Korn, “means taking responsibility for the material, moral and spiritual welfare     of society-at-large.”

The concept (and obligation) of tikkun olam has evolved over the millennia. As used in the Mishna, the phrase is legalistic and referred to a practice that while not biblically mandated, was decreed by the rabbis as being necessary  to make the world a better place.

In the Aleinu prayer, l’takken olam b’malhut Shaddai means “to perfect the world under God’s sovereignty.”

As the neurologist Dr. Julian Ungar noted, it’s a universal thought. Former US president George W. Bush’s second inaugural address in 2005 (drafted by Michael Gerson), quoted from another part of this same prayer. Bush said the “great objective of ending tyranny is the concentrated work of generations, with the “ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.” Whether he knew it or not, he was quoting from the form of this prayer that is recited on the High Holy Days (“ta’avir memshelet zadon min ha’aretz”).

Noteworthy is that giving tzedaka, which is derived from the Hebrew tzedek, is not optional good works in Jewish law, but is mandatory.

Indeed, even one who is himself supported by the community is obligated to give tzedaka. At a minimum, the prescribed rate is 10 percent of after-tax income; 20% is considered “praiseworthy.”

In the Zohar , the foundational work of Kabbala, tikkun olam takes center-stage. Lurianic Kabbala, identified with my wife’s illustrious lineal ancestor, Rabbi Isaac (Yitzhak) ben Shlomo Ashkenazi Luria, teaches that God did not finish creating the world by the time He rested for the Sabbath. He left the world partly unfinished. He left disease and poverty, drought, starvation and injustice. Perfecting God’s universe is man’s task.

Lurianic Kabbala inspired Bee Season, a highly praised first novel by Myla Goldberg, later made into a movie of the same name. Goldberg says, “For modern-day Jews who aren’t so into the traditional and deistic elements of religion, tikkun olam provides a philosophy of volunteerism. This is the idea that the world is flawed, and the only way it’s going to get better is if each individual does something to try to make it a better place.”

This secular use of tikkun olam has been embraced by Madonna, who has studied Kabbala but says she retains her belief in Jesus, as well as by Britney Spears, Demi Moore, Gwyneth Paltrow (the daughter of a Jewish father and Quaker mother) and others.

When Shai Agassi, originally from Israel, named his low-emission electric car infrastructure company Better Place, he was undoubtedly informed by tikkun olam, making the world a better place.

ESSENTIAL TO tikkun olam is that it’s mandatory. “We must dedicate at least part of our time, energy and resources to improving the lot of others,” writes Rabbi Elliot Dorff in The Way Into Tikkun Olam. This imperative is not in conflict with the thought that prosperity is good, as emphasized by Rabbi Daniel Lapin in Thou Shall Prosper: Ten Commandments for Making Money. He notes, that making money honestly is not morally reprehensible. Indeed, it is a divine gift, and therefore carries with it a responsibility – an obligation – to help others less fortunate through giving tzedaka. Tzedaka, in Jewish law, is graded according to a definite hierarchy.

Maimonides in the Laws of Gifts [that Belong to] the Poor, codifies eight levels of tzedaka, ranging from the lowest level (one who gives unwillingly) to the highest: “Give him a present or loan, or make a partnership with him, or find him a job in order to strengthen his hand until he no longer needs [help from other] people... strengthen him until he is no longer in need or at the mercy of the community.”


Making a loan, entering into a partnership or finding someone a job are right up there with outright giving as the highest level of tzedaka. As noted in The Wall Street Journal, in its review of Philantrocapitalism, Maimonides got it right.

We see that the mandate for conscious capitalism itself, and such mechanisms for practicing it as microloans, job creation, job training and venture lending have all been presaged, widely practiced and codified in Jewish law for nearly two millennia.

(Thanks to my brother, Prof. Jonathan D. Sarna, and to my longtime friend, Prof. Lawrence Schiffman, for their assistance.)

The writer is a technologist and former investment banker. His new book History of Greed will be published by Wiley in August. He blogs at greedwatcher.com.


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