Business ethics are too precious to sideline

The collapse of the Jewish Association for Business Ethics has left a vacuum


Can banks restore their battered reputation and be beacons of virtue?

Can banks restore their battered reputation and be beacons of virtue?

The incoming Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, seems cut from a different cloth from his predecessor. Whereas Dr Rowan Williams is a poetry-writing scholar with better Hebrew than most of us, the Bishop of Durham’s pre-clerical career as an oil executive has marked him as a man of more worldly experience.

His business background stood him in good stead as a member of the commission on banking reform and will give him added authority when speaking on economic affairs. His qualifications could not be more timely. For in the wake of the crash of 2007/8 and various banking scandals, the conduct of some of the most powerful commercial institutions has come under renewed scrutiny amid a growing sense that money-making has drifted too far apart from morality.

There is a widespread belief that parts of the financial world need to reset their moral compass — particularly as the repercussions of their actions travel so far and wide. “The amount of collateral damage we can do in the 21st century suggests we need help from wherever we can get it,” Alpesh Patel, the Hindu author of such books as Online Trading, said at “faith and finance” panel discussion last Thursday, which was co-hosted by at PricewaterhouseCoopers, the Faiths Forum for London and the Council of Christians and Jews. “One good place where we can get it,” he added, “is faith.”

But it is ironic that the one Jewish organisation that might have been best equipped to grapple with such issues bit the dust a year ago, itself a casualty of the recession. The Jewish Association for Business Ethics was founded early in the Chief Rabbinate of Lord Sacks. Jabe embodied the message that has run consistently through the Chief Rabbi’s writings: that the teachings of Judaism could contribute to the good of society as a whole. It operated outside as well as inside the Jewish community, not only running courses in the workplace but also pioneering a curriculum for schools.

In a 1998 lecture, Chief Rabbi said that “the hugely popular” Jabe was “one of the institutions I am proudest of having had a share in creating… In extending its work to schools, it has shown sixthformers that business can and should be an ethical enterprise, and that an ancient tradition has compelling things to say in today’s marketplace.”

So why did Jabe collapse? It operated on a relatively modest budget of £300,000 a year. But as the financial downturn squeezed charities, and welfare organisations in particular faced ever greater calls on their services, an organisation devoted to business ethics would have come well down the list of needy causes. But there was another reason behind Jabe’s failure.

Although it attracted backing from across the Jewish community, as an organisation under the Chief Rabbi’s patronage, the only rabbis allowed to speak on its platforms were Orthodox. Eventually, some of the leading donors had enough of the exclusion of non-Orthodox rabbis and left, narrowing Jabe’s support base.

Some of Jabe’s former trustees then hatched plans for a new cross-communal ethics organisation, with a wider brief which included business as well. Called ResponseAbility, it flickered briefly, but when its inaugural director left for another communal post last year, it vanished from the scene.

Like money, ethics does not grow on trees. Good practice needs to be cultivated and striven for. Within rabbinic literature there is a storehouse of wisdom, which could be usefully incorporated into courses for companies and business schools.

The biblical commandment against putting “a stumbling-block in front of the blind” was extended by the rabbis into a broader prohibition against preying on ignorance or vulnerability. It could apply to selling mortgages to people who have no hope of repaying them, lured by introductory low-interest sweeteners. Or to persuading small businesses to take complex loan packages without explaining the attendant risks.

The concept of geneivat da’at, “theft of knowledge”, means withholding what people need to know to make an informed decision. At last week’s seminar, the philanthropist Lord Fink criticised the sale of financial products which “did not do what they said on the tin”.

A former supporter of Jabe recently told me that he was looking at whether it were possible to resurrect it. It is questionable, however, whether a stand-alone organisation is the best route. If there is a room for a fresh Jewish business ethics initiative, then it may be better to include it as part of a multi-faith platform, such as the Faiths Forum for London.

And if there is a need to stimulate thinking on business and other areas of ethics, then there is one organisation ideally placed to do it: Limmud. A Limmud Institute of Ethics could be a natural progression of its educational work.

Limmud is the cross-communal agency par excellence, able to draw support from across the religious spectrum; it brings together rabbis and Jewish educators with people with expertise in other fields; over the years it has helped to foster new lines of ethical inquiry, such as environmentalism; and it has built up an extensive teaching network, not only here but internationally.

A Limmud Institute of Ethics should be relatively inexpensive to set up. It would be able to tap into Limmud’s educational wealth and redistribute it for the benefit of wider audiences.

Last updated: 11:27am, January 18 2013