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

Essential Core Values for Individuals and Organizations, as Derived from the Torah


This paper examines the Torah to derive a small set of essential core values for living. Core values are the guiding principles that can be used by individuals as well as organizations to make correct decisions and provide a reason for being. Both the Torah itself (the Written Law) and the Talmud – the Oral Law that explains and elaborates on the Written Law of the Torah – are used as sources to help discover the core values. This paper finds six core values in the Torah: compassion, peace, human dignity, integrity, justice, and industriousness.

Key words: core values, moral compass, guiding principles, Torah, Hebrew Bible, Hebrew Scriptures, Talmud, compassion, peace, human dignity, integrity, justice, industriousness, Hillel, imitatio dei .

Essential Core Values for Individuals and Organizations as Derived from the Torah

Today, many organizations are thinking about core values. Core values for an organization ―much as they are for an individual ― are guiding principles and provide a fundamental reason for being. These values guide a company internally, as well as externally in dealing with others. Core values enable organizations to make correct decisions and avoid detrimental, harmful ones. Core values are the soul of the organization and everything that a company does should flow from those values. The core values of an organization usually become an essential part of the company’s mission statement.

For individuals, core values may serve as a guide, to provide a reason for being; they may be the essence of our beliefs, as well as a moral compass for how to live one’s life. We should use these core values to help make decisions in good times as well as difficult times.

The religions of approximately two-thirds of humanity, the so-called Abrahamic religions (the three major ones are Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), have their roots in the Torah (the Five Books of Moses). According to tradition, the Torah contains 613 precepts that cover ritual law as well as civil law. The purpose of this paper is to extract from the Torah a small set of essential core values, to see what lessons may be learned from them. One source that will be extensively used is the Talmud since it contains much of the Oral Law and attempts to explain the Written Law, i.e., the Torah.

The core values of the Torah should not be confused with the ikkarim (fundamental principles of a religion) of Judaism. Maimonides and Albo attempted to determine the principles of faith in Judaism. Joseph Albo (c. 1380-1444), a rabbi and philosopher who lived in Spain, wrote a classic book dealing with the fundamental beliefs of Judaism and concluded that there were three ikkarim ; Maimonides (1135-1204), a philosopher, physician, and rabbi, came up with 13 (Commentary on the Mishnah, Sanhedrin Chapter 10). Both Maimonides’ better known “Thirteen Principles of Faith” and Albo’s three principles focus mainly on beliefs rather than actions. For example, belief in the coming of the Messiah is an ikkar according to Maimonides but does not provide people with guidance on how to live their lives in this world, and, thus, it is not a core value. Belief in the existence of God is an ikkar according to both Albo and Maimonides. It is certainly an essential principle of faith and motivates one to act in accordance with the core Torah values. Yet still, there are many examples of individuals who lived depraved lives despite believing in the existence of God.

Many people believe it is difficult to live a virtuous life if one does not believe in God. Belief in a God who cares about humankind and wants us to make the world a better place is thus an overarching principle of faith that underlies the core values of the Torah and gives meaning to life. The Torah itself explicitly connects fearing and loving God with obeying the commandments (Deuteronomy 10:12-13):
And now Israel, what does the Lord your God ask of you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all His ways, to love Him, and to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul; and to observe the commandments of God and His statutes which I am commanding you today for your good.
However, a core value, even when derived from the Torah, does not only belong to the faithful; both believers and nonbelievers can benefit from examining the guiding principles that should be part of one’s moral compass.

The following story from the Talmud might shed light on a core value of the Torah. The Talmud (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbos 31a) relates the following well-known story of Hillel:

It happened that a gentile came before Shammai and said to him: ‘Convert me to Judaism, on the condition that you teach me the entire Torah while I am standing on one foot.’ Shammai pushed him away with the builder's cubit that was in his hand. When the gentile came before Hillel and asked him to teach him the entire Torah while standing on one foot, Hillel replied: ‘What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the entire Torah; the rest is commentary. Go and learn it.’

It appears that the gentile in the above story wanted to know a core value of the Torah. One might have expected Hillel to talk about belief in God or, perhaps, divine punishment. Instead, Hillel cited the negative version of the golden rule, that teaches one how to live one’s life, rather than a principle of faith.

There is a classic argument in the Talmud between Rabbi Akiva and Ben Azzai (Jerusalem Talmud, Nedarim 9:4) as to which is the fundamental principle that summarizes the entire Torah. Rabbi Akiva believed that it was the verse (Leviticus 19:18) “You shall love your fellow as yourself.” Ben Azzai disagreed and felt that it was the verse (Genesis 5:1) “This is the book of the generations of Adam. On the day that God created man, He made him in the likeness of God.” From the principle of loving your fellow human being as yourself, one can deduce “that which is hateful to you, do not do to others.” This is Hillel the Elder’s version of the Golden Rule (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a). It is without question a lofty ideal, but problematic for people who are apathetic about their own dignity. On the other hand, people who accept the view that all of humankind was made in the likeness of God must respect all people, regardless of how they feel about themselves. Ben Azzai’s view regarding the essential core value of the Torah appears to go even farther than the golden rule.

There are those who believe that learning Torah is itself a core value of the Torah, based on the following passage from the Talmud (Babylonian Talmud, Peah 1:1):

These are the things for which a person enjoys the fruits in this world, while the principal remains intact for him in the world to come: honoring one's father and mother, acts of lovingkindness, and bringing peace between people. And the study of Torah is equal to them all (k’neged kulam).

Maimonides in explaining why studying Torah is “equal to them all,” relates this idea to the opinion expressed elsewhere (Babylonian Talmud, Baba Kama 17a) that “Great is the study of Torah since studying brings one to practice the Torah” and is similar to Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel's statement, "Study is not the most important but practice" (Babylonian Talmud, Avot 1:17). The value of studying Torah is that it will encourage one to practice its principles while at the same time ensuring that one knows what to do. Thus, Torah study is the foundation on which all the core Torah values rest. The Talmud also makes it clear that “Whoever says that he only has Torah [i.e., only desires to study Torah but not practice it], does not even have Torah” (Babylonian Talmud, Yevamot 109b). Such a person is also considered “as if he has no God” (Babylonian Talmud, Avodah Zarah 17b); and “he would have been better off having died in his mother’s womb” (Jerusalem Talmud, Berachot 1:2). The Talmud provides several illustrations to support the view that Torah that is not built on a virtuous life of good deeds cannot be permanent (Avot D’Rabbi Noson, 24: 1-4). Such a person is compared to a structure made of large stones built on a foundation of bricks; a little bit of water can wash away the whole structure.

Regarding the statement that studying Torah is equal to all the precepts, one should be aware that the Talmudic sages often use this idea that one precept is equivalent to many other precepts. Some precepts that are compared to the observance of all commandments include circumcision (Babylonian Talmud, Nedarim 32a); observing the Sabbath (Jerusalem Talmud, Berachot 1: 5); wearing zizith (Babylonian Talmud, Nedarim 25a); honesty in business (Mechilta, Exodus 15:26); and charity (Babylonian Talmud, Baba Bathra 9a).

Torah knowledge may not be a core, but absent Torah, it becomes nearly impossible to perform the core values correctly. Indeed, the Talmud includes many warnings about the am ha-aretz chasid and chasid shoteh, individuals who attempt piety despite their ignorance. The Talmud (Avot 2:5) states that an ignorant person ( am ha-aretz ) cannot be a chasid (pious person) and warns people not to live in the vicinity of an am-haretz chasid (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbos 63b). The chasid shoteh (pious fool) is seen by the Talmud (Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 20a) as destroying the world; his piety is a danger to society. The Talmud (Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 21b) provides the following example of the chasid shoteh : he refuses to rescue an unclothed woman who is drowning because he does not want look at her and thereby have impure thoughts. The Jerusalem Talmud (Sotah 3:4) provides different examples: the chasid shoteh sees a child drowning and waits to rescue the child until after he has removed his phylacteries. Jewish law requires that one kill a person who is attempting to rape a betrothed girl ― if that is the only way to save her. The chasid shoteh refuses to save the girl because he does not want to commit murder (Jerusalem Talmud, Sotah 3:4). Consequently, one important reason for identifying the core values of the Torah is in order to prevent people from becoming the pious fool.

The people castigated by Isaiah and other prophets thousands of years ago did not understand the core values of the Torah. They behaved very much like the chasid shoteh of the Talmud. All that mattered was the ritual but not the core value behind it. Isaiah (1: 11-17) made it clear to the people that the sacrifices, the Sabbath, and other rituals are abominations if they are not accompanied by compassion for the needy members of society or if rituals are performed without any communal concern for truth and justice. Isaiah (58: 5-7) made it clear that the ritual of fasting was not sufficient:

Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, a day of man’s afflicting himself? Is it only for bowing one's head like a bulrush and for lying on sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast and an acceptable day to the Lord? Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen? To undo the chains of wickedness and untie the cords of perverseness; to set the oppressed free and break every yoke. Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the moaning poor with shelter; when you see the naked, your shall clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?

The story told in the Talmud (Babylonian Talmud, Yuma 23a) regarding an incident that took place during the period of the Second Temple is a good illustration of what happens when priorities get mixed up. It was considered a mitzvah to clear the ashes ( terumas ha’deshen ) from the altar; the one who was first to come within four cubits of the altar was given the privilege. The priests would run up the ramp – its length was 32 cubits – to be first. Once, two priests were running up the ramp and one saw that the other priest would get to the altar first so he stabbed him in the heart. The father of the stabbed priest found his son in convulsions but not dead and declared: “My son is still in convulsions so the knife has not become tamei (ritually impure).” He wanted the knife to be removed quickly before the victim, his son, died. The Talmud observed, “the ritual purity of the Temple’s vessels was taken more seriously than murder.” Even the young priest’s own father was more concerned with the ritual purity of the knife than with the life of his son. This story may serve as a good lesson of why the Temple was destroyed and also demonstrates what happens when core values of any religion become distorted.

The verse in Joshua (1: 8) makes clear why one should study Torah:

This book of the Torah shall not depart out of your mouth; but you shall meditate therein day and night, in order that you may observe to do according to all that is written therein; for then you shall make your way successful, and then you shall act wisely.

One has to meditate on the Torah day and night since it is supposed to be used as a guide. Only then can a person act wisely and become successful. In other words, the core values of a person (and an organization) should come from the Torah.

How does one go about determining what is a core Torah value? Certainly, if a law or general principle is emphasized, is repeated many times, and may be found in different parts of Scripture, it is very likely a core value. If the Talmudic sages were willing to supersede or override a Torah law in order to protect a general principle, that would also suggest an essential core Torah value. In examining the Torah, the Hebrew Scriptures, and the Talmud, the following six core values appear to be considered essential: compassion, peace, human dignity, integrity, justice, and industriousness.

For continuation, go to Page Two

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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