"Occupy Wall Street" and the Ethics of Business

Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben, Ph.D.

Dan Brown meets his friend Joe Moore and says, “I heard your factory burned down.” “Sh, sh” More answers, looking around. “Next week!”

Everyone knows that the term, “business ethics” is considered an oxymoron by many, especially when it comes to Wall Street. The cutthroat attitudes of those who scramble every day to make a killing in the stock market is almost legendary, and in a “winner takes all” dog-eat-dog business world, it’s simply the survival of the fittest.

Winston Churchill once said, “All the great things are simple and many can be expressed in a single word: freedom, justice, honor, duty, mercy, hope.”

Of all those lofty ideals, perhaps the single most powerful idea that is sweeping the country and beyond this season, is the word: “Justice.” There is a cry for economic Justice that is echoing from town to town, country to country across the world from the Arab spring of the Middle East, to the downtown streets of New York.

My wife suggested the other day that the economic center of New York is aptly named “Wall Street,” since it seems to have created a wall between the 1% who have and the 99% who don’t. It’s the “haves” and the “have less.” According to those who study the economy, the top 1% of our population controls 40% of our nation’s wealth and is growing richer all the time while the gap between them and the rest of us grows ever greater. A Congressional Budget Office report released just last week showed that over the past 30 years, the incomes of the top 1% of Americans grew by 275 percent, while everyone else experienced growth of just 65%.

What is even more disturbing perhaps, is that clear inequality in who is paying for what in our country, with the burden seemingly falling continually on the backs of those least able to pay. Corporations are supposed to pay 35% corporate income tax. And yet, 280 companies in the Fortune 500 paid half that amount last year, 78 corporations had at least one year where they paid no tax at all, and Citizens for Tax Justice report that 30 major corporations paid no income tax in the last three years while making 160 billion dollars.

That means you and I pay more taxes than General Electric, Boeing, Dupont, Wells Fargo, Verizon, Mattel and Corning. It’s no wonder that you can pick up the paper any day and read about the most powerful story of the year, or turn on the television and watch its drama continue to unfold day after day after day.

It began on September 17th when about 2,000 people rallied in Lower Manhattan and marched up Broadway. Stopping at Zuccotti Park, an estimated 150 stayed the night and began an encampment. Renaming the space “Liberty Square,” they kicked off a protest against bank bailouts, corporate greed, and the unchecked power of Wall Street in Washington. In the first month of the “Occupy Wall Street” protest movement, their message of “We are the 99%” seems to have won the hearts and minds of over half of Americans (according to a recent Time survey) and continues to gain ground globally, spreading to over 100 cities across America, with 1500 protests in 82 countries.

The movement has spread from city to city, from “Occupy Philadelphia, Baltimore, Denver and Chicago,” to “Occupy Sacramento, Oakland and Los Angeles.” “Occupy Wall Street characterizes itself as “a post-political movement representing something far greater than failed party politics. Their web site declares “We are a movement of people empowerment, a collective realization that we ourselves have the power to create change from the bottom-up, because we don't need Wall Street and we don't need politicians.”

Since their humble beginning a few short weeks ago, they’ve helped inspire people around the world to organize democratic assemblies in their own communities to take back public spaces, meet basic needs, make their own demands, and keep alive the dream of building a better world.

“The people-powered force of shared anger at a broken system that profits the top 1% at the expense of the rest of us has shifted our national dialogue,” they write. Indeed, the Occupy Wall Street protest has become a cultural phenomenon, mentioned everywhere from jokes on Saturday Night Live to the solemn dedication of the national memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by President Obama. In many ways the occupiers in city after city have shown our country how to come together and respect differences while working together to build a movement for change.

Judaism, too has always been passionately committed to economic justice from the earliest writings of the Torah. “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof,” said God in Deuteronomy 16:20 – “Justice, justice shall you pursue,” and goes on to list exactly what is meant by the Biblical idea of “justice,” as fundamentally a reflection of how we treat each other in business.

That’s why the famous rabbinic Midrash teaches that the very first question God will ask each of us when we die and stand in judgment for our actions in life, is “Have you been honest in your business dealings with others?”

We are taught in the Holiness of Code of Leviticus 19, “Do not put a stumbling block before the blind,” and the rabbis for thousands of years understood that to mean, “don’t take undue economic advantage of someone who isn’t privy to the same knowledge or information that you have.”

This is exactly what the Occupy Wall Street folks have been railing against when it comes to the devastating mortgage crisis brought on by conglomerate banks who gave out loans they knew in advance many people would most likely never be able to repay. The result is the largest number of foreclosures in our history – with more and more of our most vulnerable American citizens finding themselves out on the street and homeless every day. Simply put it’s a matter of greed, and the eroding power of greed that infects our social fabric poisoning the very core of American values.

The Torah anticipated the “Occupy Wall Street” cry for social and economic justice by thousands of years. Taking advantage of another’s ignorance or economic blindness is plain and simple a sin in Jewish law and ethics.

This very week in the Torah potion that we will read tomorrow morning in synagogues throughout the world, we are introduced to Abraham and Sarah and the beginning of Jewish history. Abraham is challenged by God, and through Abraham all of us for all time are challenged as well, to act in such a way as to “be a blessing” to all the families of the earth.

That is both our divine calling and our sacred challenge as well. Being a blessing means recognizing the responsibility we have to each other to take care of those most vulnerable in our society. That’s why Albert Einstein once said, “In matters of truth and justice, there is no difference between large and small problems, for issues concerning the treatment of people are all the same.”

That is why the Torah teaches that all people are created in the image of God, b’tzelem elohim - so by simply being God’s creation each of us has the right to dignity, self worth and inherent spiritual value. Exploiting another by taking economic advantage of them is simply unacceptable in any way at any time for any one because it diminishes the very image of God - Period.

The power of Occupy Wall Street to capture the imagination of thousands throughout the country and the world, grows out of the undeniable reality that there is a dramatic growing economic gap between the very rich 1% of our population and the vast 99% of the rest of us, and it’s getting wider and deeper every day.

The pay scale ratio of most developed nations between the CEO’s of major companies and the average worker is about 27 to 1. In America, it is a whopping 325 to 1. And growing. Greed, and the tremendous sense of entitlement of those at the top, coupled with the undeniable connection between money and politics, wall street and capital hill has left much of our country feeling powerless to effect any fundamental progress in the pressing social and economic challenges of our times.

The deep partisan divisions between Democrats and Republicans in congress has frozen the political process and paralyzed the country. Not to pick on one party over the other, but the undeniable gridlock of congress is perhaps best characterized by the undeniable reality that the number one publicly stated goal of the Republican party for the past two years has not been to improve the economy of America, or to resolve the financial crisis of our government, or to put Americans back to work, but simply to stop President Obama from having a second term as president. So nothing gets done, and all of us continue to lose, and America becomes the political laughing stock of the world.

Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Justice denied anywhere diminishes justice everywhere.” And that is our challenge as a society. Denying a real voice to the 99%, allowing money to dominate the decisions of our political system, is robbing America of it’s social conscious and draining the spirit of our country. Judaism has never been about personal salvation as some religious traditions have taught – we are the original “power to the people” spiritual tradition. A religious civilization that emphasizes belonging over belief, community over the individual and a powerful commitment to the Talmudic principle that each of us is responsible for one another.

That is the ultimate goal of the Occupy Wall Street movement as well – to take back the political process and reinvigorate a healthy, robust egalitarian community where every citizen has a voice, and every individual feels empowered to make a difference, and where need takes precedence over greed.

The Talmud teaches “If one steals even the smallest amount from his neighbor, it is as though he takes his soul from him.” We are living through our own economic American Spring, even though it’s the fall. If we have learned anything from the remarkable revolutions around the world this year, it is the power of every single individual to make a difference by simply being willing to stand up for what you believe in. How often have you seen a problem and heard the lament, “Someone should do something.” If Occupy Wall Street stands for anything, it is the realization that you and I are someone so if anything is to change in our world, it’s up to you and me to step up and take a stand.

Perhaps we should share with those who are gathering in cities and towns throughout our country, clamoring for transformation and change those powerful words first spoken by Theodore Herzl, the inspiring founding father of Zionism and the vision of a Jewish state in the Land of Israel – Im tirzu, ain zo agadah “If you will it, it’s not merely a dream.”