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Bible in the Boardroom?
 

Rabbi Visotzky explains how his Bible-study group helps CEOs apply stories from the Bible to issues that arise in running a business, including moral dilemmas, negotiations, and bargaining.
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Whatever outrage you've experienced in business pales in comparison with stories told in a book written more than 2,500 years ago

For the past seven years I have been leading nondenominational Bible-study groups in boardrooms. The participants have been CEOs in both large and small companies. Jews, Christians, Muslims, atheists, you name it: they've all sat around the table to discuss the stories of Genesis and Exodus. While I recognize that there is a place for doctrine in Bible study, that place is in the mosque, the church, or the synagogue. When we study in the boardroom, the Bible becomes a secular document rich in moral quandaries that allow every member of the group to take the risk of learning. If there is a price of admission to my groups, it is this: the realization that there is no right answer in this particular form of study.

Over the years we have met in midtown Manhattan, usually at the end of the workday. We share a light meal and then spend an hour or so studying. Each businessperson comes for his or her own array of reasons. For some, this kind of study enables them to exercise their intellect in a way they have not done since reading King Lear in college. For others, the community that forms around the study of a text is essential to their sense of well-being. Still others come to the groups to network.

I come to the groups as a facilitator more than as a teacher, and I constantly learn new ideas. If I bring my expertise in the Bible and its history of interpretation to the table, the other members come with life and business experiences to teach me the realities behind the text. We have learned over the years that Genesis and Exodus, the first two books of the Bible, are full of stories that afford opportunities for conversation about marriage, children, family, and community. And Genesis and Exodus are replete with tales that illustrate the moral questions that beset business folks on a daily basis. Trouble with the boss? Bargaining in an uneven negotiation? Getting an edge in the real estate market? Passing on your business to an unscrupulous child? Those situations are the very predicaments found in the Bible's first two books.

Let's begin with one of the most famous narratives of negotiation in all of Western literature: how Moses set about to persuade Pharaoh to let the Israelites go. You may remember that Pharaoh seems to have held all the cards in this particular negotiation. He was an absolute ruler who used the Israelites as his slave force to build garrison cities. Although Moses had grown up in the Egyptian court, he had to flee the country when he killed an Egyptian. He was sent back to Egypt by God to ask Pharaoh to free the Israelites. Imagine, then, how Moses would have approached those negotiations. There was no apparent upside for Pharaoh here. Still, Moses had his orders, so when he appeared before Pharaoh, what did he demand of him?

"Let my people go, so they may hold a festival for God in the wilderness" (Exod. 5:1). When Pharaoh dismissed Moses' demands, as he would those of any other erstwhile union organizer for the slave local, Moses pressed him: "Allow us to go just three days' distance into the wilderness and sacrifice there to the Lord our God, lest God strike us with plague or by the sword" (Exod. 5:3). Pharaoh responded by increasing the work burden on the Israelite slave force.

The Israelites, none too pleased, complained to Moses, "You've made us reek to Pharaoh and his servants, you gave them a sword to kill us!" (Exod. 5:21). It seemed Moses had failed. All he could muster before mighty Pharaoh was a meek request for a three-day weekend? "What kind of a wimp way was this to bargain, anyway?" I asked my CEO study group. It's like some office Milquetoast's working 40 years and finally screwing up the courage to ask the boss for a week of vacation time.

But what do I know from bargaining? The host of my study group, a real estate developer, totally approved of Moses' technique. "You have to open with something they can swallow, get them saying yes," he said. I countered that Pharaoh had hardly said yes. Another group member, in advertising, said, "No, but he reacts, and that's good. Had Moses started with asking for the whole hog, Pharaoh would have thrown him out, maybe killed him. The fact that Pharaoh ups the work quota is just a negotiating strategy on his part. There's definitely movement here."

Wow! Those executives played hardball. And they were right. Moses asked Pharaoh for something small, an idea he could possibly consider. Maybe a day off was conceivable; the slaves could have come back to work refreshed and more productive. There were lives and empires at stake. Moses' negotiations with Pharaoh are a primer in major-league bargaining.

When it comes to bargaining, the other famous head-to-head match was that of Abraham and God over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah, the twin peaks of corruption in the early biblical world. But Abraham had a stake in the city of Sodom. When, in Genesis 18, God told Abraham that Sodom was about to be destroyed, Abraham was desperate to save the condemned and evil city, for his orphaned nephew lived there with his family. Abe bargained with God about sparing the city, asking, "Will the Justice of the world not do justice?" God was willing to entertain an offer for saving Sodom. Would he spare it if Abraham could produce 50 righteous people from the city? God agreed, and Abraham immediately countered, "Forty-five?" God concurred. "Forty?" Yes. "Thirty?" All right. "Twenty?" OK. "Ten?" Here, God finally abandoned the negotiations. The bitter irony was, Sodom and Gomorrah still get nuked in the end, but Abraham's nephew and his family were saved.

What are we supposed to learn from this Bible story? That even God has to hew to justice? Or that it's fruitless to argue with a power who's holding all the cards? I suspect the answer depends on what, exactly, Abraham was bargaining for. If it was an abstract principle of justice, the moral of the story is somewhat shaky. Shouldn't God save a city for even one righteous person? But what if Abraham was, in fact, trying to save his nephew and that's all? Maybe the point of the story is that you have to know what you want in a negotiation, especially a negotiation as uneven as the one Abraham entered into with God. Set modest goals. Have a plan to achieve them. Let everything else go for the sake of that one goal.

In our study group, after reading that story two lawyers got into a heated debate about whether bargaining can ever achieve justice. If justice is an absolute, then by definition no bargained compromise can achieve it. If justice is black- and-white, no amount of gray should be admissible. But if justice is in fact compromise, then it is achieved when both sides are satisfied. If that's the definition, then Abraham went a long way toward his goal. Both he and God seemed satisfied by their bargaining session. There is another possibility, though. Abraham was not interested in justice at all. That was just a red herring to get God bargaining. What Abraham was doing was playing the lawyer to save his nephew. If so, Abraham won. Justice be damned: put the client's interests first.

Another example, from Genesis 23, illustrates the proverb that crisis equals opportunity. Abraham's wife of many years, Sarah, died at the ripe old age of 127 in Qiryat Arbah--that is, Hebron--in the promised land, Canaan. Abraham arrived on the scene "to eulogize Sarah and to weep for her." Then the bargaining began as he sought a grave site for his departed wife. He was but a sojourner: no real estate was yet owned by Abraham in the very land God had promised to him and his offspring. Abraham had his eye on a certain cave for Sarah's final resting place. He turned to a Hittite named Ephron, who generously offered him the cave and its surrounding fields as a gift. Abraham replied that he really wanted to pay for the land. Ephron then asked for 400 shekels. Abraham counted out the outrageous sum, and the Bible lists the details of the real estate he had just purchased, as in a deed of sale.

Here, again, my real estate friend served as my rabbi on the deal. I'd assumed this passage was elaborate Oriental bargaining. Ephron the Hittite had outfoxed Abraham. He had opened with an offer he knew Abraham would refuse--an outright gift of the property. I supposed that Near Eastern etiquette would preclude Abraham from being so much in Ephron's debt, and so he would demand the privilege of payment. Then Ephron clobbered him by naming an outrageous price that Abraham couldn't bargain with if he wanted to keep "face." Ephron got the best of the deal. Right?

Wrong, says my mogul. Abraham won this one. He did not want to accept a gift of a burial site, because it gave him an insecure hold on the real estate. Abraham forced Ephron into deeding him the property and happily paid a high price so that Ephron couldn't later contest the ownership of the land. Indeed, Hebron remains a famous burial site for the Jews to this day. Perhaps even an infamous burial site--it is still a contested piece of real estate.

The story still nags at me for another reason. Abraham was there to bury his wife. Yet he used the occasion of her funeral to do a real estate deal. Her very death provided him with the opportunity to make good on God's promise. Now Abraham owned a plot of land in Canaan. Doesn't it seem unsavory to use the burial plot as a wedge into the property market? Or is Abraham to be commended for turning a crisis into an opportunity to "fulfill God's promise"?

One last example to round out this quartet: Jacob, just a boy, had the chutzpah to sell his hungry brother, Esau, a bowl of lentil stew. The price he demanded was his older brother's birthright--the ancient primogeniture that afforded him a double portion of the family estate! An expensive bowl of lentils, that. Later, Jacob again managed to outfox his older brother. Their father, Isaac, was a blind old man and wanted to give his sons a blessing before he died. The essence of that blessing was like naming a successor to take over the family business. As the story tells us, Isaac had a decided preference for the elder brother, Esau.

So Isaac sent Esau, a hunter, out to get some venison with the intention of giving the elder brother his blessing over the meal. Jacob, at his mother's connivance, dressed in Esau's clothing and brought his blind father a tasty dish cooked up by his mom. Isaac ate it but knew something was amiss. He pulled Jacob closer; he touched him and felt Esau's clothing. "The voice is Jacob's voice, but the hands are the hands of Esau," Isaac stated, perplexed. Blind Isaac gave Jacob the blessing and left Esau with crumbs. Esau was furious. His brother had cheated him again. First the birthright, now the blessing. Jacob, not Esau, now inherited Isaac's legacy. Jacob eventually went on to father the people Israel.

The question is, Did Isaac really mean to give the blessing to Jacob or to Esau? Did he wish to be "fooled" so that the succession would go to the wily, unscrupulous brother? Or did he genuinely want Esau to have the business, even if he was not as skilled in preserving the family's capital? One of the CEOs in the group, who had inherited his family's business, defended the idea that Isaac had planned to give Jacob the blessing all along. He reasoned that it was Isaac's obligation to both Jacob and Esau to bestow leadership on the "brother who had the smarts" to preserve the family's wealth and prominence. But another CEO countered that as far as she was concerned, Jacob's ability to "close the deal" no matter who got in the way effectively cheated not only Esau but Isaac, too.

When I asked what role Isaac's wife, Rebekkah, played by favoring one son over another, members of the group were even more vocal. One suggested that Rebekkah was just fulfilling God's will. Another suggested a business analogy: "Sometimes a CEO or board chair is blind, like Isaac. Someone else has to step in and ensure appropriate succession for the good of the company." A heated debate ensued on the differences between businesses and families and between mothers and outside directors.

Those four stories in Genesis and Exodus raise the opportunity for discussion not only of business techniques themselves but of their moral and ethical implications, as well. Once pointed in the right direction, readers around a table will quickly take up avenues of exploration for themselves. To study that way we must be on guard against reading for the "right answers." That kind of reading belongs in church. Now, it might please me to know that there were business leaders who were inspired by their boardroom discussions to go to a church or a synagogue in search of a denominational reading or the vibrant community found there. But for business owners, it is more important to realize that the Bible can serve as a rich source for conversations about issues with immediate relevance to the workplace.

By working through issues that took place back in biblical times, we all can learn how to consider the moral issues that take place in the here and now. By learning to listen to differing points of view, we gain extremely valuable business skills. By forming a study group in your own office, around your own board table, you have the opportunity to develop business ethics. Ultimately, we all owe more to shareholders, partners, and fellow workers than merely an increase in profits or share price. By learning how to study the Bible in the boardroom we can continue to tap the wisdom of the greatest book of business ethics ever published.

Rabbi Burton L. Visotzky is a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City.


How Bible-Study Groups Can Make Ethics Officers Obsolete

The current ubiquity of "ethics officers" stems from a necessity for political correctness in the workplace. Sure, every company should have a code of ethics that all employees can consistently apply. What worries me is that folks too easily get the idea--frequently with help from the company--that they need not think for themselves.

I don't believe that having an "answer man" is the best way to ensure ethical behavior in the workplace, whether the relationship is between fellow workers or between companies. In business, ethics are something that must grow inside each employee, officer, or board member. There is no way to shortcut the process, and you can't hide behind the convenience of an ethics officer.

I believe that through the study of the Bible one can learn business (and personal) ethics and internalize those lessons. The trick is to create a situation in which the ethics are not dictated as correct answers. To succeed in moral education, one must have a place where, through the study of ethical questions, businesspeople can learn from one another how to weigh options and reach decisions.

That type of moral education won't obviate the need for an ethics officer to promote a company's policies, but it will give employees a foundation without making them feel that someone is hoping to "convert" them to a particular point of view. I'm referring to both religious conversion (the kind that might come from participation in a denominational Bible-study group) and ideological conversion (which happens when an ethics officer becomes the dictator of behaviors large and small).

Last updated: Jul 1, 1998




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