Torah Values for Life and Business

            April/May 2012    
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Essential Core Values for Individuals and Organizations, as Derived from the Torah

By Hershey H. Friedman, Ph.D. © 2011

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Core Value 3: Concern for Human Dignity

Hertz (1959: p. 265) declares: “The belief in the unity of the human race is the natural corollary of the unity of God, since One God must be the God of the whole of humanity…Through Hebrew monotheism alone was it possible to teach the Brotherhood of Man.” Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, one of the great rabbinical leaders of the twentieth century, makes the point that human dignity and social justice “are implicit in the biblical concept that man was created in God’s image” (Besdin, 1979: 190).

This is the book of the generations of Adam. On the day that God created man, He made him in the likeness of God. (Genesis 5:1)

Have we not all one father? Has not one God created us? Why do we deal treacherously every man against his brother…? (Malachi 2:10)

You shall love your fellow as yourself. (Leviticus 19:18)

Once the Torah establishes the value of all human beings, it can demand that we treat the Hebrew servant with dignity as well as the pauper and debtor as the following verses suggest:

If your brother becomes poor beside you and sell himself to you, you shall not make him serve as a slave (Leviticus 25:39).

You shall not rule over him [the servant] through rigorous labor – you shall fear your God. (Leviticus 25: 43)

When you hold against your fellow a debt of any amount, you shall not enter his house to take his security. You shall stand outside; and the man to whom you lend shall bring the security to you outside. (Deuteronomy 24: 10-11)

The dignity of a servant, the lowliest of employees, had to be upheld. The Torah (Leviticus 25: 43) states: “You shall not rule over him through rigorous labor.” His family has to be provided for (Leviticus 25:41), and his master is not permitted to make him perform debasing tasks (Leviticus 25:39). The Midrash (Sifra, Leviticus 86; Midrash Hagadol, Leviticus 25: 39) provides examples of demeaning work that is prohibited. One may not order a servant to perform unnecessary labor simply to assert one’s authority. In addition, work given to a slave must have defined limit. Thus, one is not permitted to order his servant to hoe underneath a grapevine for an indefinite time period, say, until the master returns. Also, the servant should not be told to remove his master’s shoes or carry his master’s clothing to the bathhouse or perform any such demeaning work. Degrading work, labor without a purpose, or a job that seems endless because it has no definite time limit has the effect of demoralizing a human being and is therefore prohibited for servants and certainly for employees. As noted above, masters were required to give their servants a severance gift known as hanakah (see Deuteronomy 15: 13-14). The purpose of this gift was to provide the freed servant with the materials that he or she would need to start a new life as a free person.

The verse (Leviticus 25:10) states: And you shall consecrate the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all of its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you; and you shall return every man to his property, and you shall return every man to his family.” The Jubilee laws ensured that property would return to its original owners. This prevents the accumulation of land permanently in the hands of a few wealthy people. This would help poor people who were landless get back their dignity (and land). The same can be said of the release of debts given to debtors at the end of every seventh year (Deuteronomy 15: 1-2).

Amsel (1994) quotes the Midrash (Genesis Rabbah 24:7) that maintains when you insult another person you have insulted his Creator, because man was created in the image of God. This may be why the Talmud (Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 43b) made the statement: “It is better to throw oneself into a fiery furnace than to publicly shame another person.” This is derived by the Talmud from the fact that Tamar was ready to die a horrible death rather than publicly shaming, Judah, her father-in-law, as the father of her baby (see Genesis 38). In addition, the rabbis of the Talmud based a law against taunting the stranger with words ( ona’at devarim ) on a verse in the Torah (Leviticus 19:33-34): “When a stranger dwells among you in your land, you are not to mistreat him.” It is not enough to give him all the rights of the native-born (Leviticus 19:34). The stranger must be treated with dignity and one is not permitted to cause him pain by taunting him, e.g., by reminding him of his past deeds (Babylonian Talmud, Baba Metzia 58b).

Another way to diminish the dignity of another person is via slander and gossip. The Talmud (Jerusalem Talmud, Peah 1:1) avers: “There are four sins for which a person is punished in this world and the principal remains for the world to come. They are: idolatry, sexual immorality (incest and adultery), murder, and loshon horah (gossip and slander); loshon horah is equivalent to them all” (Jerusalem Talmud, Peah 1). It is obvious that loshon horah , as bad as it is, cannot be considered worse than the others. The above-mentioned three are capital offenses; this is not the case with loshon horah . It is “equivalent” since it can have many negative outcomes. The Talmud is warning us that slandering another human being should not be treated lightly and can have many adverse effects. Indeed, even in our generation we see how gossip and slander can lead to bloodshed.

The Talmud asserts: “The value of human dignity is so great that it supersedes a negative commandment of the Torah” (Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 19b-20a). The Talmud concludes that human dignity overrides rabbinic law and precepts of the Torah where the person is not actively engaged in a violation but is refraining from performing a mandated commandment. The Jerusalem Talmud has a somewhat different version of the above: “The dignity of the public [the term used is kvod harrabim which means the dignity of the many] is so great that it supersedes a negative commandment of the Torah temporarily” (Jerusalem Talmud, Berachot 3:1).

The Talmud discusses numerous cases where human dignity trumps Biblical law. For example, the Torah (Deuteronomy 22:1) requires that an individual return a found object to the rightful owner: “You shall not see the ox of your brother or his sheep wandering and hide yourself from them.” The Talmud (Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 19b), however, makes the observation that there are exceptions to this law, for instance, when an elderly person finds it beneath his dignity to deal with the lost object (it has very little value and he would not bother with it even if it were his own); he is permitted to ignore it. This is clearly a case where human dignity overrides a Torah law. Friedman (2008) provides an extensive discussion of human dignity and Jewish law and cites Talmudic, post-Talmudic, and modern cases where Jewish law uses the importance of human dignity as a reason for setting aside various laws.

In order to preserve the dignity of the poor, the Talmudic sages (Babylonian Talmud, Moed Katan 27a-27b) instituted the following changes in the funeral ceremony:

Our Rabbis taught: Formerly, they would bring food to the house of mourners in following manner: to the rich, in baskets of gold and silver and to the poor in wicker baskets made of peeled willows. And the poor people were ashamed. The sages, therefore, instituted that all should be provided with food in wicker baskets made of peeled willows out of deference to the poor.

Our Rabbis taught: Formerly, they would provide drinks to the house of mourners in the following manner: to the rich, in white glass [which was very expensive] and to the poor in colored glass. And the poor people were ashamed. The sages therefore instituted that all should be provided with drinks in colored glass out of deference to the poor.

Formerly, they would uncover the face of the rich [corpse] and cover the face of the poor because their face became blackened by famine. And the poor people were ashamed. The sages therefore instituted that all faces should be covered out of deference to the poor.

Formerly, they would carry out the rich [corpse] in a state bed and the poor on a common bier. And the poor people were ashamed. The sages therefore instituted that all should be carried out on a common bier out of deference to the poor…

Formerly, the expense of carrying out the dead was harder on the family than the death itself; the family therefore abandoned the corpse and fled. Until Rabban Gamliel [President of the Sanhedrin] disregarded his own dignity, and had his body carried out in flaxen shrouds. Afterwards, all the people followed his lead and had themselves carried out in flaxen shrouds. Rabbi Papa stated: And nowadays, all follow the practice of being carried out even in a canvas shroud that costs but a zuz.

Incidentally, Judaism still frowns on elaborate funerals and insists on a plain, pine box as a coffin. The above passage from the Talmud shows how concerned the sages were with the dignity of the impecunious. Friedman (2003) makes the point that Torah law is concerned about any behaviors that will shame those of limited means. This was the rationale for many sumptuary laws (laws designed to restrict excessive extravagance on personal expenditures) that were passed by Jewish communities throughout history.

One way of providing ordinary people with dignity is via education. Hillel the Elder was born in Babylonia and started out as a woodchopper and was appointed as a Nasi (President of the Sanhedrin) on about 31 B.C.E. Hillel and his descendants served as heads of the Sanhedrin for the next fifteen generations. Hillel was responsible for spreading Jewish values throughout the Western world. One of the major contributions of Hillel, was opposing the view that one should only teach those who were wise, humble, of a good family, and wealthy. This belief that education was only for the elite was quite prevalent until recent times. Hillel believed that everyone should be taught Torah which meant that everyone needed an education and had to be literate (Babylonian Talmud, Avot D'Rabbi Noson 2: 9).
Apparently, Hillel’s views were accepted and about 2,000 years ago, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Gamla, the High Priest in ancient Israel, established a system of universal education. Teachers were appointed in every district and town, and children started school at the age of six or seven (Babylonian Talmud, Baba Bathra 21a).

Undoubtedly, the concept of human dignity is crucial to everyone. The General Assembly of the United Nations adopted “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights” on December 10, 1948. Article 1 of the Declaration states: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” Ren é Samuel Cassin, one of the major architects of this declaration, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1968, acknowledged that the idea of human dignity and rights came from the Scriptures (see his essay “From the Ten Commandments to the Rights of Man” available at: Human dignity is inextricably linked with human rights and belief in the brotherhood of all humankind.

For continuation, go to Page Five

The author is a Professor of Business and Marketing at Department of Finance and Business Management, School of Business at the Brooklyn College of the City University of New York


from the April 2012 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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