Sunday, March 28, 2010

Conscious Capitalism, Tikkun Olam and the Jewish Tradition

Conscious capitalism describes the premise that an organization (government, nonprofit, or business) has an obligation to act not only in its own best interests but also in the interests of all its stakeholders (customers, employees, suppliers, investors, and society).

The concept was well-described in Patricia Aburdene’s book, Megatrends 2010: The Rise of Conscious Capitalism (published in 2007) that has been termed a “must read” by Patrick T. Parenty, Senior Vice President L’Oreal USA. Christiane Northrup, M.D., author of Mother-Daughter Wisdom gushes that “Megatrends 2010 provides incontrovertible proof that doing good and giving back pays off for everyone.” “This book,” she says, “is thrilling."

Megatrends 2010 takes its name from John Naisbitt’s Megatrends: Ten New Directions Transforming Our Lives (1982), a book about the birth of the Information Economy. Ms. Aburdene says she was a “collaborator” on the earlier work. Her new one, she tells us, describes the social, economic, and spiritual trends transforming free enterprise into a new, more holistic version of itself.

Three years after the book’s publication, the term conscious capitalism is catching on.
Writing in Business Week recently about the Catalyzing Conscious Capitalism conference in Austin, Tx, in October 2009,  G. Michael Maddock and Raphael Louis Vitón, argue that “[m]aybe if members of the social responsibility movement were to spend less time hectoring companies about climate change, worker exploitation, and the like, and more time pointing out the greater profits these businesses could produce by implementing socially responsible ideas, they would be more effective.” Another major conference, Conceptualizing Conscious Capitalism - Issues, Insights and Implementation will be held May 24 and 25, 2010 at Bentley University, hosted by the University and the Conscious Capitalism Institute.

Conscious Capitalism is one of the hottest new ideas in business.

But is it really new?

Maybe the term is still new in English. On the other hand, “Tikkun Olam” (perfecting the world) the Jewish term for conscious capitalism, was coined long ago. It too has begun to enter the English language. My friend Dr. Eugene Korn pointed out that Governor Mario Cuomo used the term a number of years ago when speaking before the New York State Legislature.” Tikkun Olam, Dr. Korn rightly notes, “means taking responsibility for the material, moral and spiritual welfare of society-at-large.”

Conscious capitalism is a good idea, and hopefully, amid the detritus of the financial melt-down it is an idea whose time has come.

But it’s not a new idea.

The concept (and obligation) of Tikkun Olam has evolved over the millennia. As used in the Mishnah, redacted in the year 200 by Rabbi Judah haNasi (the Prince), the phrase is used legalistically. For example in the Talmud (Gittin 5:2),  we read that “indemnification…  and payment of maintenance [by a man’s heirs] to his widow and daughters  is not enforced from liened (encumbered) property, mip'nei tikkun ha-olam "for the sake of tikkun of the world" or “for the good order of the world.” In modern legalese, we might say that the secured party (the mortgage holder) has perfected his lien, and it would be unjust if to disturb it for the benefit of unsecured creditors.
The term Tikkun Olam originally referred to a practice that while not Biblically mandated, was decreed by the Rabbis as being necessary in the public interest, or in their idiom, to make the world a better place.

A further usage developed a bit later on. In an ancient prayer, Oleinu,  still recited today, the phrase used is l'takken olam b'malkhut Shaddai, "to perfect the world under God's sovereignty." The theocentricity of the thought expressed in the prayer is, in fact, a key element of the Jewish point of view. But as the Neurologist, Dr. Julian Ungar noted, it’s still a universal thought. Former US President George W Bush’s second inaugural address in 2005, (drafted for him by Michael Gerson), quoted from another part of this same prayer. The President contended in his address that the "great objective of ending tyranny is the concentrated work of generations, with the "ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world." Whether he knew it or not, the President was quoting from the form of this ancient Jewish liturgical prayer that is recited on the High Holy Days ("ta'avir memshelet zadon min ha'aretz").

In the Biblical book of Lamentations traditionally ascribed to the prophet Jeremiah, we read (1:3) that "Judah was exiled through poverty (oni),”referring to the forced Jewish exile to Babylonia after the destruction of the temple in 586 BCE. Rabbi Akiva explains in the Talmud (Pesachim 36a) that this means that exile came about because the people of Judea didn't fulfill the commandment of "Lechem `Oni,"giving bread to the poor (Deut.6:3) They did not give tzedaka (charity)  to those in need preferring to enrich themselves instead. In contrast, on Passover, Jews point to the matzah (unleavened bread) and declare in Aramaic, the lingua franca of the time, "This is bread for the poor (Ha Lachma `Anya)... Everyone who is hungry can come and eat" This proclamation fulfills the duty of giving tzedaka, a Hebrew word usually translated as charity, but which is derived from the Hebrew tzedek, which means justice or righteousness, an important difference.
For our discussion on conscious capitalism it is noteworthy that giving tzedaka  is not optional good works in Jewish law; it is mandated. Indeed, even one who is himself supported by the community is obligated to give tzedaka. Thus, conscious capitalism (tikkun olam) is required by Jewish law. At a minimum, the prescribed rate is 10% of after-tax income; 20% is considered “praise-worthy.” Sometimes (particularly among the Orthodox), the Hebrew term hesed (loving-kindness) is used to describe outreach to the less fortunate that is subsumed as part of tikkun olam.

The concept of tikkun olam continued to evolve during the first millennium of the common era, and in the Zohar ("Book of Splendor"), the foundational work  of Kabbalah (received wisdom) as Jewish mystical thought, is best known, tikkun olam takes center-stage. The Zohar  first appeared in the 13th century, and was published by Moses de Leon, who ascribed it to Shimon ben Yochai, the famous second century Rabbi.  It begins with God's creation of the universe. Lurianic Kabbalah, identified with its most famous expounder, my wife’s illustrious lineal ancestor, Rabbi Isaac (Yitzhak) ben Shlomo Ashkenazi Luria (1534 – 1572), particularly emphasizes this belief in our power to perfect the Divine creation. In Lurianic Kabbalah, God needed to contract, in order to create a space, in which to create the world. God then pours sparks of light into clay containers. But the containers are imperfect and shatter. The shards of broken pottery fall to earth, along with the newly liberated sparks of divine light. Creation gives way to calamity, as the world’s building blocks lie shattered and broken across the landscape. The role of human beings, Rabbi Luria concluded, was to do tikkun Olam, to fix the broken world by picking up the broken shards of pottery and liberating the divine sparks of light underneath. The Kabbalah teaches that God did not finish creating the world by the time He rested for the Sabbath. Rather, He left a corner of the world unfinished. He left disease and poverty, drought, starvation and injustice. The cosmos is unfinished, and perfecting God's universe is our task.

Rabbi Dr. Joseph B. Soloveitchik affirms this insight, saying, “The peak of religious ethical perfection to which Judaism aspires is man as creator. When God created the world, He provided an opportunity for the object of His creation—man—to participate in creation. The Creator, as it were, “impaired reality in order that mortal man repair its flaws and perfect it.”(Halakhic Man p. 101).

In the 1950s, the phrase tikkun olam was used by Shlomo Bardin, the founder of the Brandeis Camp Institute (BCI) to emphasize the universality of the obligation to improve the world through acts of humanity. It sparked a whole new movement.

Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun magazine, head of Beyt Tikkun synagogue in San Francisco, and leader of the Tikkun Community, an organization that claims 50,000 members nationally, has built his career around his passion for this form of tikkun olam. "The world can be fundamentally transformed and healed," Rabbi Lerner said. "Our whole religion is based on that insight ... that there will be a time when human beings are no longer facing the radical inequality and unnecessary suffering generated by war and poverty and political oppression."

This secular version of tikkun olam has been embraced by Madonna, who has studied Kabbalah but says she retains her belief in Jesus, as well as by Britney Spears, Demi Moore, and Gwyneth Paltrow (who is the daughter of an Jewish father and a Quaker mother, as noted in The Half-Jewish Book: A Celebration, by Daniel Klein and Freke Vuijst) and others. Reportedly, Madonna has enlisted Rabbi Phillip Berg of New York's Kabbalah Centre, a former insurance agent formerly known as Feivel Gruberger to "tweak her tikkun." (Rick A. Ross, founder of The Ross Institute views Berg’s Kabbalah Center as a cult.)

Lurianic Kabbalah also inspired Bee Season, a highly praised first novel by Myla Goldberg, later made into a movie of the same name. Ms. Goldberg says, “For modern-day Jews who aren't so into the traditional and deistic elements of religion, tikkun olam provides a philosophy of volunteerism. This is the idea that the world is flawed, and the only way it's going to get better is if each individual does something to try to make it a better place. That's always had a lot of resonance for me.” Recently, Danijel Majcen, a Coatian, released a musical video called Tikkun Olam ( advocating perfecting the world and it was nominated for a Grammy.

Shai Agassi, originally from Israel, when he named his low-emission electric car infrastructure company Better Place, was undoubtedly as much informed  by tikkun olam, making the world a better place, as he was by the ideas advocated in Van Jones’ “Green Collar Economy” a book that highlighted the opportunities inherent in the “investment” wave of environmentalism and was a guiding light to him in planning his company. Mr. Agassi says his vision was inspired by a profound question posed at the World Economic Forum in 2005, “How do you make the world a better place by 2020?” He’s garnered so much interest that TIME Magazine named him to the 2009 TIME 100, the world’s 100 most influential people, and one of Time’s “Heroes of the Environment 2008.”

The essence of Tikkun Olam is that it’s mandatory. "We must dedicate at least part of our time, energy, resources to improving the lot of others," writes Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff, in his book, The Way Into Tikkun Olam (Jewish Lights Publishing, 2007)

This imperative is not in conflict with the thought that prosperity is good, as emphasized by Rabbi Daniel Lapin in Thou Shall Prosper: Ten Commandments for Making Money. As Rabbi Lapin notes, making money honestly is not a morally reprehensible activity. Indeed, it is viewed as a Divine gift, and therefore carries with it a responsibility – an obligation - to help others less fortunate through giving.

Perfecting the world through selfless acts is a far cry, however, from living an ascetic life style. Judaism has always stressed the importance of a balance between spiritual and temporal needs. While Judaism certainly has had its ascetics, and some believed that asceticism was a route to redemption, asceticism was never a main-stream Jewish goal. In fact, the Nazir, or Nazerite, who took upon himself vows of abstention (in accordance with Numbers 6:1-21) had to bring a sin offering upon conclusion of his period of abstinence).

As Rabbi Louis Jacobs noted, in the Jerusalem Talmud it is said (Kiddushin 4:12 ) that a person will be obliged to give an account before God for every legitimate pleasure he has denied himself. 

Furthermore. we read in the Babylonian Talmud (Berakhot 57b) that “three things give a foretaste of the world to come: Sabbath, sunlight, and Tashmish (intercourse). Tashmish of what? Shall I say in the bed?  [But] this weakens. It must be then stimulation of the orifices. Three things restore a man's good spirits: [beautiful] sounds, sights, and smells. Three things increase a man's self-esteem:  a beautiful dwelling, a beautiful wife, and beautiful clothes.”

No sign of asceticism in this quotation.

Giving tzedaka, however, certainly is a mainstream Jewish imperative. And in Jewish law, it is graded according to a definite  hierarchy. As codified by Maimonides in his monumental Mishneh Torah, in the Laws of Gifts [that Belong to] the Poor (my emphasis), there are eight levels of charity. The levels of tzedaka range from the lowest level (one who gives unwillingly) to the highest, “giving him a present or loan, or making a partnership with him, or finding him a job in order to strengthen his hand until he no longer needs [help from other] people. For it is said, "You shall strengthen the stranger and the dweller in your midst and live with him" (Leviticus 25:35). That is to say, strengthen him until he is no longer in need or at the mercy of the community.” Importantly, making a loan, entering into a partnership or finding someone a job are right up there with outright giving as the highest level of tzedaka. As noted in the Wall Street Journal, in its review of Philantrocapitalism, Maimonides got it right.

Lo and behold. Not only do we see the mandate for conscious capitalism itself, but all of the recent "inventions" and “innovations” relating to the mechanisms for practicing conscious capitalism, (including microloans, job creation, job training, venture lending, and so on) have all been presaged, widely practiced and codified in Jewish law for nearly two millennia.

While Jews comprise perhaps 2.2% of the US population, and the world Jewish population of about 13.2 million is much less than a fraction of 1% of the world’s population of 6.7 billion, we can only hope that Tikkun Olam, in its secular form of conscious capitalism becomes in time a universal desideratum irrespective of religion or belief system.

(Thanks to my brother, Professor Jonathan D. Sarna and to my long-time friend, Professor Lawrence Schiffman for their assistance)

(A version of this article was published as an OpEd in the Jerusalem Post

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