The basic Jewish economic ethics argument can be summarized by the following approximation: What is apparently “evil” can be an instrument of “good” and what is apparently “good” can be an instrument for “evil.” This is demonstrated both in the area generally referred to as “Business Ethics” and also in “Philanthropy.” We begin with a Midrashic text which investigates the biblical formulation in [this verse] (G-d’s words after the creation of Man/Woman): [This verse]. The phrase “very good” is unique in the Creation narrative since after the other creations the text just states: “it (was) good” (ki tov). In the early rabbinic Midrash on Genesis called, Genesis Rabbah 9.5, the rabbis, using the interpretive message of word-play, interpreted the Hebrew word m’od (“very”) by a similar sounding Hebrew word mot (“death”) and stated: “In the teaching of Rabbi Meir they found written: ‘… and, behold, it was very good.’ and behold, death is good.” This type of rabbinic interpretation of unique phraseology and word-play is common in rabbinic texts and reveals an underlying method for ethical investigation of good and evil. The unusual formulation after the creation of the human being is that it was “very good” [this verse] and was seen by the rabbis as an area to express ideas which they held were basic to their concepts of good and evil. This argument approaches a “meta-ethical” argument [Such as those raised by Socrates in the Crito and the Euthyphro, for example] because the rabbis saw the Divine “very good” stamp of approval upon human creation as marking something beyond the “good” which was associated with all other creations. Also, the concept of “very good” distinguished the existence of something which was distinct from “good.” This distinction led the rabbis to speculate as to what was just “good” and what it was which characterized “very good.” In the continuing Midrash interpretation of [this verse] in Genesis Rabbah 9:7 it states the following: “(Rabbi) Nachman in the name of Rabbi Samuel (stated that [if it were written] ‘behold, it was very good’ [it would only mean] the good inclination.” ‘And, behold, it was very good’ is the evil inclination. And is it possible that the evil inclination ‘is very good?’ Yes, for if it were not for the evil inclination, a man would not build a house, and he would not marry and he would not have children, nor would he engage in business. Thus Solomon said [in Ecclesiastes 4:41]: ‘Again, I considered all labor and all excelling in work, that it is a man’s rivalry with his neighbor.’” The “and” here is used by the rabbis to indicate an additional part of man which was “very good” (tov m’od). Again, the rabbis are playing on the word m’od. This time they apparently assigned the meaning “power” as in the rabbinic translation of mo’d in Deuteronomy 6.5. Mishnah Berachot 9:5; Sifrei on Deuteronomy 32:5 Making the rabbinic translation of [this verse] and: “… And a behold, it [had] a power (m’od) (for) good.” Meaning that the created human being contained a power which could be used for good, but which was essentially an evil characteristic. It is not engaging in business which is evil according to this view, but rather a specific characteristic of business which can be inherently detrimental and human relations, in general, and in business in particular. Specifically, the text provides an insight into this evil characteristic evident in some types of business relationships. This relationship is characterized by competitive rivalry (described in the Ecclesiastes proof text) which, while promoting excellence, creates friction and contention among neighbors. Will Herberg, commenting on this Midrash, states the following: “No matter where we look or how far back we go, we find man engaged in great enterprises and we find him motivated by the passionate urge to self-aggrandizement that we have learned to deal with as the ‘evil impulse’ (yetzer ha-ra). So impelled, he creates technology, brings forth institutions, establishes civilizations and engages in all that is characteristic of social life.” W. Herberg, Judaism and Modern Man (New York: Atheneum, 1970) pp. 212-213. According to Herberg, the characteristic of self-aggrandizement is the evil power which can be used for creative or destructive purposes within society. Self-aggrandizement or in other words, total egoism, was seen by Herberg as the root of the problem of evil in the world in general, but also the necessary motivator for good. This attitude places the individual at the absolute center of his/her existence and converts the world and others in society into objects which serve and revolve around them. Natural resources, children and neighbors are only objects which serve the needs of this individual. It is no wonder that the rabbis saw the control of the individual’s yetzer ha-ra as the solution to the problem of economic and social justice. It is clear from other rabbinic texts that a “work ethic” was stressed by the rabbis and even could be vehicle for holiness. Abot D’Rabbi Nathan, 9:1 (22b). It is also clear that the engaging in business, and work, in general, were seen by the rabbis as neither inherently good nor evil, but vehicles for doing good or evil with methods which could be either good or evil. BT Berachot 17a, Shabbat 31a.
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