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    Kosher business relationships – Ask the Rabbi

    Q. All too often I see stories in the media about religious Jews who cheat others in business. Isn’t this a contradiction in terms?

    money hand grab cashA. Not only is it a contradiction, but it was specifically targeted by Rabbi Yisra’el Salanter (1810-1883) who founded the Mussar (“Ethical Correction”) movement in eastern Europe.

    The word mussar comes from the Bible (Prov. 1:2 etc.), and before Salanter’s time there were great ethical works such as Chovot HaL’vavot and M’sillat Yesharim, which were both analysed and revered throughout Jewry. What Salanter did was to remove the subject from mere academic study.

    He urged people to repeat over and over the key principles of ethical behaviour so that they were internalised and became second nature. He said that just as a Jew could train himself to avoid all t’refah, so he could train himself to be instinctively ethical. He would have agreed with one of my teachers, who said, “It’s important to go through the Torah, but equally important for the Torah to go through you!”

    Salanter thought the Chassidim and Mit’nag’dim were not introspective enough. The Chassidim were too attached to their Rebbes; the Mit’nag’dim were too intellectually proud. He saw how the secularists tried to be ethical without theology, but he thought they were not spiritual enough and that their ethics would evaporate.

    Isidore Epstein used to say that ethical secularists were like a train which continued to glide along until the effect of the power wore out. Secularists, Epstein said, benefit from the foundations laid by the religious believers, but after a generation or two the ethics would be at risk of dying out.

    One of the problems we have with the religious revival of recent decades is that some people are lopsided in their religion, worrying about whether their food is glatt kosher without attaching the same importance to the kashrut of their relationships.

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