Home Perspectives Opinions Can you be religious but dishonest in business?

Can you be religious but dishonest in business?

a href=https://www.flickr.com/photos/laurw/>Laura Nicola FLICKR

At a recent mass, the Pope implied that it’s better to be an atheist than a bad Christian. Like many Christian teachings, this has its roots in Jewish tradition.

“It is a scandal to say one thing and do another. That is a double life… There are those who say, ‘I am very Catholic, I always go to mass, I belong to this and that association’… some of these people should also say ‘My life is not Christian, I don’t pay my employees proper salaries, I exploit people, I do dirty business, I launder money, [I lead] a double life.’ And so many Christians are like this and these people scandalize others… How many times have we all heard people say, ‘If that person is a Catholic, it is better to be an atheist.’”


All one needs to do is replace the words “Catholic” with “Jew”, and “mass” with “synagogue” and this would make a great Yom Kippur sermon. While I doubt the Pope was aware of it, our sages expressed similar sentiments long ago. “‘They left Me, but My Torah they observed.’ God said, ‘Rather they should leave Me but keep My Torah, for through dealing with My Torah, the light of Torah will bring them back to good.’”

Judaism has always emphasized the emptiness of ritual devoid of ethical behaviour. In truth, Judaism does not really have rituals as such, since every “ritual” is meant to teach an ethical message. Fasting on Yom Kippur is meant to sensitize us to the needs of the poor. We eat matzah on Pesach to inspire us to fight for freedom for all. We observe Shabbat to remind us that those who work for us are also entitled to time off.


Our prophets were not afraid to say that God “hates” it if we observe the holidays but oppress the widow; that fasting on Yom Kippur is meaningless if we do not hear the cries of the poor; or that one cannot come close to God if he cheats his fellow man.

In fact, the Talmud suggests that one “whose business practices are not conducted faithfully and does not speak pleasantly with all peoples” should not observe the mitzvot between man and God, lest he create a desecration of God’s name.

I often teach my students (many of whom like to claim they’re not “religious”) that the definition of a religious Jew is one who conducts his business faithfully. Why else would our sages say this is the subject of the first question we will be asked when we meet our Creator? One who cheats and thereby tries to outsmart God – effectively telling Him he knows better how to acquire money – is at the very least well on his way to being an atheist, regardless of his protestations to the contrary and his meticulous observance of mitzvot between man and God.

‘I often teach my students that the definition of a religious Jew is one who conducts his business faithfully’

This seems rather obvious, but unfortunately, it’s not. Hardly a week goes by where we don’t see pictures of one of our brethren being led away in handcuffs or read about some scandal involving an identifiable Jew. In the past few months, two of my university classmates were arrested for financial wrongdoing. Even if they’re found innocent in court, reading the allegations against them does little to enhance the name of God or religion.

The cover story of the December edition of CPA Magazine focused on the “underground economy.” No less than four articles covering some 18 pages were devoted to exploring the myriad aspects of this illegal, yet massive, part of the Canadian economy, estimated to be worth $40 billion a year. Whenever one pays cash to avoid paying tax, one is not only breaking the law of the land, but the laws of the Torah as well. Kosher money is much more important than kosher food, and kosher food is very important. 

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