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The Jewish Ethicist: Sticky Status Seeker

May 9, 2009 | by Rabbi Dr. Asher Meir, Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem

Is it ethical to wear wannabe designer items?

Q. Is it ethical to make a show of being "high class," for example by wearing clothes that look like they come from a famous designer?

A. Trying to impress others with our wealth and taste is a common practice and raises a number of ethical questions. Let's examine a few.

One important ethical issue is why someone would be interested in showing off wealth he doesn't have. There are a variety of reasons, some valid and others less so.

It is valid to try and make a good impression on someone -- a date, a prospective in-law, a business contact, and so on. Research studies confirm what we know from common sense: first impressions have a critical impact on our long-term perceptions of others. So it pays to look our best when we are trying to build relationships.

There is a fascinating and ancient Jewish source that relates to this reality. We know that Jewish law forbids paying interest on a sum of money. However, a ruling found in the Tosefta (a collection of laws pre-dating the Talmud) states that it is permissible to rent money: in other words, to borrow specific coins (or bills) for a period of time and return them afterwards. This is no different from renting out a shovel.

Why would a person want to do such a thing? The Tosefta suggests that someone might want to "adorn" himself -- to present a substantial appearance. (1) (This idea was also the basis for a charming Mark Twain story, "The Million Pound Bank Note".)

But it is invalid, as well as unwise, to try and actually trick someone. If you really are a refined individual and a reliable business partner, you can work to project this image by borrowing an expensive watch or by wearing a look-alike. The seeming "deception" is actually allowing you to create a more accurate impression of your true character and abilities.

But if the other side is truly insistent on wealth, then it is unethical and counterproductive to weave a deceptive false impression. Some individuals -- hopefully the minority -- are not content to marry someone who is refined and reliable; they will only settle for someone truly wealthy. Likewise, some business deals just can't be carried out by someone who lacks deep pockets. If you are concerned that you are up against one of these, then at some stage of the negotiations you have to be open about your situation. (You don't have to actually tell them the watch is borrowed.)

Another thing we should avoid is flaunting our wealth, even when it is real. Judaism preaches modesty and moderation in our behavior and appearance; our Sages say, "Blessing is found only in what is hidden from the eye." (2) This problem is most serious when our appearance or consumption is likely to induce envy in others.

Finally, you do need to watch out for buying counterfeit designer items, since selling them is illegal. [See: Copycat Fashions] Very close look-alikes that fall just short of being counterfeits are not necessarily unethical, but it does seem a bit pompous and absurd to project an image of refinement by wearing fakes.

The most important message is that all kinds of misdirection, even permissible kinds, should be used extremely sparingly. Otherwise a person can compromise his character by becoming accustomed to deception.

The Talmud tells of a prominent rabbi who had a strained relationship with his wife. Whatever he asked her to do, she did the opposite. But when he started relaying his requests through his son, he found that his wife was more cooperative. When he mentioned this fact to the son, the latter explained, "It is I who reverse your instructions to her!" Hearing this, the father explained that from now on the son should leave off this habit, since it could accustom him to dishonesty.(3)

SOURCES: (1) Tosefta Bava Metzia 4:1, Shulchan Arukh Yoreh Deah 176:1. (2) Babylonian Talmud Taanit 8b (3) Babylonian Talmud Yevamot 63a.
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This week's column is dedicated
in honor of

Professor David Bahn
by Michael G. Sher.

Send your queries about ethics in the workplace to

The Jewish Ethicist presents some general principles of Jewish law. For specific questions and direct application, please consult a qualified Rabbi.

Copyright © JCT Center for Business Ethics.

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