Ethics@Work: Judged by our decisions

Someday, somewhere, we will be called upon to explain and justify our actions.

The approaching Rosh Hashana holiday is the "day of judgment." The Talmud tells us that on this day God judges all human beings individually, and the liturgy of the day graphically describes the Heavenly Tribunal sternly prescribing the fate of each of us, one by one, for the coming year. But there is something strange about this judgment. Fairness in the earthly courtroom process demands the highest respect for procedure and transparency. The defendant must know what he is charged with, what pleas are available to him, what the sentencing guidelines are, and so on. Yet on Rosh Hashana we are never certain of the precise accounting. Our tradition emphasizes that we can never know the precise reward for a good deed or the precise punishment due for a sin, and indeed teaches us that "a doubtful sin requires even more repentance than a certain one." Evidently the Jewish idea of judgment, of accountability, is not connected to some rational calculus of expediency, of weighing the precise gains and losses from any potential course of action. The most important thing of all is the consciousness of accountability. Someday, somewhere, we will be called upon to explain and justify our actions. Once we are imbued with this consciousness, our tradition demands that the individual make his own moral choices. The metaphor of judgment is not meant to enforce a specific standard of behavior; rather, it is meant to guarantee that every person takes his ethical obligations seriously. Our tradition is not afraid of disagreement, but it is uncompromisingly opposed to indifference. There is an interesting parallel to accounting in business. Many great debates rage in the accounting profession today: rules-based vs. principles-based, historical vs. market measures of value, accounting for non-tangibles, etc. But most agree that even a highly imperfect system is preferable to an overly flexible and manipulable pro forma approach. What is important is not so much the precise way in which each transaction is recorded; it is the consciousness that whatever approach you choose, someday you will have to defend your decision and any mischief will eventually catch up to you. The parallel is not lost on our tradition, and indeed the Zohar exhorts us to be accountants, mari dehushbana, and make a periodic accounting of our assets, our payables, and our receivables. Each of us has to make the spiritual accounting ourselves, but with the vital awareness that someday this accounting will be subject to audit. Above all, we must always remember that our decisions really matter. The writer is research director at the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem (, an independent institute located in the Jerusalem College of Technology. He is also a rabbi.