Sermon: From Diesel Cars to Bloated Calves – the Means to Cheat

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 19 October 2015

Pretty much every year for the past fifteen or so I go to Limmud, the enormous Jewish learning event at the end of December.  Limmud brings together over 2000 Jews to hear and participate in hundreds of learning opportunities for a week, for the past ten years or so at the University of Warwick and this year moving to the NEC in Birmingham.  I always teach a few sessions there and have the opportunity to share my study enthusiasms with Jews from all over the UK and Europe.

You never know how many people are going to turn up to your talk, though the organisers have an uncanny knack of giving you the right sized room.  It could by 3, it could be 300, or anything in between at your talk.  No-one has to prebook – the Limmud principle is that you just turn up to what interests you at the time.

Looking back over the past years my most popular three sessions, the ones which filled up a room with three figure audiences, were a bit left field.  At number three a session called “A Positive Response to Intermarriage” looking at how Jewish communities can welcome mixed faith couples into their midst and help them to establish a thriving Jewish home.  At number two “How to get yourself excommunicated”, a historical session on the history of Cherem, the formal exclusion of people from a particular Jewish community for heinous crimes such as joining West London Synagogue in the 1840’s.  My number one most popular session though, clearly touched a nerve as hundreds streamed into a lecture theatre to hear me teach about “Terrible Tricks of the Trade”, a session on how people used to cheat each other in business – all reported in the Mishnah and Talmud from the second to fifth centuries.    We learned about feeding your cow bran broth to puff her up and make her look larger when you sell her.  We considered the ethics of soaking meat in water to increase its bulk.  We wondered what was going on in the ban on measuring a field with the same piece of string in winter as summer – according to Rashi in the tenth century this was to avoid giving advantage to a seller as the string expanded and contracted over the seasons.  From a society where there remained a trade in persons we were horrified to hear the ban on dying a slave’s hair to make them appear younger when they were about to be sold on (All Bava Metzia 60-61 and Shulchan Aruch CM 228:9).

From the questions and discussion that came after the session it was clear that this large audience was mostly made up of Jewish business advisors or one sort or another – lawyers, accountants, management consultants, trainers.  What I couldn’t quite work out is whether they were there to know what heinous practices to clamp down on or to pick up tips.

Something that is very noticeable in these texts is that their provisions apply to trade with everyone.  It is made very clear that there cannot be one standard in trading with your own people and another for those who are not yours.  Whether your customer is Jewish or non-Jewish even in the segmented society of fourth century Babylonia you just have to be honest even if it is to your own disadvantage.

Once the flood is over, towards the end of our Torah portion and Noah and his family are settled on dry land, the story ends with God’s promise that He will never destroy the world again.  The symbol of the rainbow – of the transition back from rain to sunshine – is invoked to assure us of this for all generations.

What God is not able to promise is that humanity will never destroy the world.  That of course is down to us.    In the passage where the rainbow covenant is agreed there are hints at the responsibility of the whole of humanity – including (Genesis 9:5-6) a basic ban on cruelty to animals and a requirement for a system of human justice.  These hints were then built into a system of seven laws which we can expect all humanity to observe if we have any chance of a livable world – now known as the Noachide Laws.

The Noachide laws were first set out in the second century Tosefta like so:  “The children of Noah were commanded with seven commandments: [to establish] a legal system, and [to prohibit] cursing God,  to prohibit idolatry, abusive sexual behaviour, bloodshed, robbery, and eating flesh from a living animal (Sanhedrin 56a; cf. Tosefta Avodah Zarah 8:4 and Genesis Rabbah 34:8).”

The prohibition on robbery takes us back to the terrible tricks of the trade – and is not something that we should only expect of people who share our religious values but of everyone.  Judaism not only forbids us to cheat each other but also tells us that we should not own the means to do so.  In the holiness code later in Torah in Leviticus 19 we are not only told not to cheat people with false weights and measures – we are further told not to even own them – using the names of units of weight and measure of the day, the hin, the ephah.  In the Talmud (BM 61a) this is extended to preparing your weights so that you can cheat – there is a specific ban on steeping your weights in salted water in order to increase their weight.  Don’t enable yourself to cheat.

That is what I found so shocking about the preparation of Volkswagen cars to cheat emissions tests reported in the news over the past weeks.  Universally condemned and recognized now as immoral by the company itself, you wonder what on earth could enable what must have been tens or hundreds of employees of a company to soldier on to prepare cars which were programmed to cheat and throughout their life to throw out more noxious gasses polluting the environment than their owners had bought into.    Underneath it is an arrogance that the rest of the world does not matter if I am all right.

The basis of Jewish business ethics and also to the covenant of Noah and the Noachide laws which result from it, is that the world cannot be worth living in if we live on the basis that as long as I am OK that’s all that matters.   We have to take steps in the ways that we rub along with each other, in business, as we co-exist with the natural environment and as we relate to each other as moral human beings, to ensure that we do not create the conditions which enable us to hurt each other.

The end of the Noah story is a deep personal responsibility which exists for each of us today.   Cheats from illegal downloading to in car software programmed to lie, from careless pollution to turning away from another’s misery bring the world down towards future destruction. They may seem little but put together over millions of people they add up to disaster.  God will not destroy the world but we can.   And the other way round too….God cannot make the world better except by inspiring us to do the best we can to do so.