Jewish Law and Socially Responsible Corporate Conduct

By Resnicoff, Steven H. | Fordham Journal of Corporate & Financial Law, May 1, 2006 | Go to article overview

Jewish Law and Socially Responsible Corporate Conduct


Resnicoff, Steven H., Fordham Journal of Corporate & Financial Law


INTRODUCTION

The concept of "social responsibility" is quite broad, and, in the case of a corporation, could include such diverse issues as its relationship with: (1) its customers; (2) its employees (past and present); (3) its shareholders; (4) its competitors; and/or (5) the community or communities which it affects. Jewish law pervasively impacts corporate conduct, but does so without positing any distinct doctrinal rules pertaining to corporations. Instead, the foci of Jewish law are the individual, on the one hand, and the community as a whole, on the other. By restricting the conduct of individuals - such as those who serve as a corporation's employees, managers, directors and shareholders - Jewish law controls corporate conduct from within. By authorizing and requiring communally imposed regulation, Jewish law controls corporate conduct from without.

A thorough exploration of the many Jewish law precepts that apply to commerce would require far more than the relatively few pages allotted for this paper. Our more modest intentions, therefore, are to survey some of the principal ways in which the rules Jewish law imposes on individuals and communities affect business ethics, generally, and then to examine whether the corporate context presents any unique questions.

PART I: RULES REGARDING INDIVIDUALS AND COMMUNITIES

Even if a corporation is a separate legal entity, a question which is subject to considerable dispute as a matter of Jewish law, it must perforce act through individual human agents. Jewish law imposes important constraints on what such individuals may and must do. For convenience, we will separate Jewish law's rules regarding an individual's moral duties into three sets: (1) those that relate to the moral character of one's own independent conduct; (2) those that pertain to one's relationship to the wrongful conduct of others; and (3) those that affirmatively require one to help others.

Before mentioning specific Jewish law rules, it is critical to note just a few foundational propositions.1 First, one axiom of Jewish law is that the Almighty communicated with Moses at Mount Sinai and transmitted commandments and data, some of which were to be written into the Pentateuch and some of which, comprising the Oral Tradition, were to be transmitted orally from generation to generation.2 The Oral Tradition included not only definitive interpretations of certain Pentateuchal verses but also principles through which other verses were to be construed.3 The Talmudic interpretation of the Pentateuch, and not the Pentateuch's literal language, is deemed the authoritative biblical law, as supplemented by the Oral Tradition. In addition to biblical law, Jewish law also comprises: (1) rabbinic enactments; (2) communal legislation; (3) to a certain extent, the secular law of the host country in which Jews find themselves (''Dina de-Malkhuta Dina"); and (4) commercially established customs ("Minhag ha-Soharim").4 The detailed application of the last two processes is subject to debate and, except where otherwise indicated, this article does not take them into account. Second, even when Jewish law imposes an obligation, there is typically a limit as to the cost - in terms of money or physical risk - that a person must expend in order to comply.5 Consideration of these parameters is also beyond our present scope.

Rules regarding an individual's own independent conduct

The Torah requires a person to emulate the Creator,6 to be holy because the Almighty is holy,7 and to do "the right and the good."8 In addition to the obvious proscriptions against cheating,9 stealing,10 or lying,11 Jewish law contains a comprehensive set of sophisticated and nuanced prescriptions as to morally acceptable behavior. Consider, for example, commercial marketing practices. Jewish law not only specifically proscribes misleading methods of displaying or advertising goods, but actually requires the disclosure of known defects. …

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