The Sinai Scholars symposium was held this year at Chabad serving New York University.

Fresh Perspectives on Money and Morality

Terms like “capital” and “value” often crop up in economic parlance. But at this year’s Sinai Scholars symposium in New York City, these words were endowed with new meaning.

During a panel discussion held towards the end of the day, philanthropist George Rohr made the distinction clear: “As Jews, we have a radically different understanding of what matters. The most important thing you can have is not money, but values.” In a similar vein, Jason Klein, founder and CEO of On Grid Ventures, invoked the importance of social capital. “Harnessing your work for a cause is good for business,” he said, “but more importantly, it makes you feel good about everything you do.”

The Sinai Scholars Society is an innovative program enabling students at 67 campuses across North America to probe Jewish texts and discover the enduring relevance of the Torah to contemporary society. According to Rabbi Moshe Gray — the Chabad representative serving Dartmouth University and the moderator of Sunday’s symposium — “the goal is to get young people in touch with their Jewish identity, to think on a deeper level about their Jewishness, to become aware of the depth and breadth of their heritage, and see how it applies in real life.”

As the school year drew to a close, students were encouraged to conduct their own research, competing for the opportunity to present their findings and win awards. The symposium has now become an annual showcase of innovative Jewish engagement combined with academic achievement. “This event,” said Gray, “should really be seen as the culmination of a year-long process of in-depth study involving nearly 2,000 students.”

In past years, students have presented their papers to a board of academic and rabbinic scholars. But at this year’s event — held on Sunday, April 21, at Chabad serving New York University — an exciting new dimension came into play. Students were asked to address issues of “money and morality,” and the panel of scholars was complemented by a panel of business leaders. Theoretical idealism was brought face to face with the practical realities of the corporate environment.

“This year,” Gray explained, “we chose an especially hot-button topic and invited representatives of the business world. The economic crisis facing America today really brings issues of money and morality to the forefront of public discourse, and it is only in a forum like this that students can gain real-world insight into how they should confront the challenges they will soon be facing.”

For most of the day, the floor was held by 12 students who presented their papers with confidence and clarity, provoking insightful debate and wide-ranging discussion. A paper submitted by Sophia Dezen, for example, discussed the Jewish approach to business. Money is often equated with the unholy, but Judaism focuses on engaging with the mundane, elevating it through the application of ethical principles. It is no accident, she stressed, that “according to the Talmud, the first question asked after death refers to ethics in business.”

Rachael Rose followed up with a discussion of Judaism, social justice and the environment. Andrew Aidman focused on the mystical significance of economic growth. Papers presented by Andrea Leggett, Trevor Klee and Ryan Gerber covered the Jewish obligation to give charity, the morality of moneylending and the economics of marriage.

Endowing the mundane with transcendent holiness

Following each presentation, members of the academic panel — including a scholar-in-residence at Chabad of Harvard University (Rabbi Shlomo Yaffe), as well as faculty members from Dartmouth College (Professor Lewis Glinert), Yeshiva University (Professor Lawrence Schiffman), the University of Vermont (Professor Jan Feldman) and Syracuse University (Professor Carl Rosenzweig) — offered comments and critiques, supplying even more impetus for thoughtful debate. But as the day progressed, a consistent theme began to emerge: the Torah provides an ethical approach governing all the transactions of life, endowing even the most mundane aspects with transcendent holiness.

Professor Daniel Hershkowitz, who served until recently as Israel’s Minister of Science and Technology and has now been nominated as the next president of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, opened the afternoon session with a provocative talk titled “When Jealousy Is a Virtue.” Further presentations by students Nora Ellison, Berry Schwartz, Benjamin Miller, Eric Samuels, Stephanie Barana and Max Raskin addressed moral and monetary issues of advertising, community, consumer choice, the free market, charity and, perhaps implausibly, the new virtual currency known as “bitcoin.”

There was a short break for afternoon prayers, led by Rohr, who is saying Kaddish for his late father, Sami Rohr. Following the service, which highlights the acknowledgment of G-d’s role in every aspect of human life, participants reconvened to deliberate on the real-world application of the theoretical principles discussed earlier in the day. Asked to speak about the biggest ethical problems threatening the U.S. economy, Marshall Cooper, a founding partner of Greenhaven Partners, highlighted what he called the double talk that undermines ethical standards in corporate society. “All Wall Street firms say they pride integrity. But living that way and instilling it into your people is the real issue that needs to be addressed.”

Asked about what could be done to change this attitude, Rohr stressed that it is often extremely difficult to educate people about business ethics. “The alignment of short-term interests,” he said, “is stacked against accomplishing that successfully.” While Klein argued that the mind can be trained to confront different ethical dilemmas that will arise along the road, Hershkowitz stressed that the key was to develop what the Jewish sages called “a good heart” — a basic ethical outlook founded on the principle of Hillel, “that which you do not wish done to yourself, do not do to others.”

Ultimately, Rohr concluded, it comes down to what an individual holds to be most important. “People stumble into ethical pitfalls because they act upon their feelings. Feelings are subjective and people are brilliantly creative, using all kinds of arguments to justify them. But values stand, irrespective of how we feel about them. In a society where decisions are often guided by other factors, it is vital that we consciously commit to act in accordance with an objective, immutable set of values.”

The program ended with an awards dinner, with the winning prize going to Stephanie Barana, a recent recipient of a master’s degree from the University of Arizona. Invoking the expenditure multiplier effect, she provided mathematical data and formulae to demonstrate that the fulfillment of the Torah mandate to give 10 percent of a person’s earnings to charity actually increases income levels. In keeping with the spirit of the day’s proceedings, Barana announced that she would be donating her cash prize to the Chabad program at the University of Arizona.

One Comment

  • Yossel

    It’s always hearwarming to hear from a guy with a jillion dollars, that money doesn’t mean anything…