A Tribute to a Mentor

By: Rabbi Jay Kelman |

Regardless of their personal piety (or lack thereof), Jewish law affirms that an almost superhuman level of respect be shown to our parents. What is less well known is that, in theory at least, one must display even greater honor to our teachers, “for our parents bring us into this world, and our teachers bring us into the World to Come”.  Jewish law even records a practice that requires students to observe many of the practices of shiva upon the death of their (primary) teacher.

This article appeared on the twelfth yahrzeit of my mother, Ruth Kelman, z”l. One week later, our family observed the second yahrzeit of my father, Rabbi Joseph Kelman z”l. I, my sister, and my brother were most fortunate to have had such wonderful parents/teachers, who get much of the credit for whatever we may have achieved.

But I would like to focus on the recent passing of one of my teachers, Rabbi Dr. Aaron Levine, z”l. Rabbi Levine was an accomplished Torah scholar and received rabbinic ordination not just in ritual law, but in commercial and civil law, an extremely rare accomplishment. Elected to Phi Beta Kappa at Brooklyn College, Dr. Levine received his Ph.D. in economics from New York University, and chaired the department of economics at Yeshiva University for many years. He, perhaps more than any other, “invented” the field of Jewish business ethics, bringing his tremendous expertise in economic theory as a tool for analysis of ancient Talmudic texts and using Jewish texts to help explain economic theories. Through this synthesis, he shed light—both economic and moral—on the most complex of business transactions in the modern marketplace. At the same time, he was the dedicated and beloved rabbi of the Young Israel of Avenue J in Brooklyn.

Some thirty years ago, I had the privilege of enrolling in his course, Comparative Economic Systems. Ostensibly, this fascinating course was a blueprint for how a Torah-based economic system might be put into place in, say, the State of Israel. The course served as the basis for his first book, Free Enterprise and Jewish Law. This book was followed by Economics and Jewish Law, Economic Public Policy and Jewish LawCase Studies in Jewish Business Ethics, and Moral Issues of the Marketplace in Jewish Law.

A quick perusal of these books—and I highly recommend them all—will introduce the reader to a discussion of such topics as strikes and unions, taxation policies, pricing of pharmaceuticals, ethical investing, corporate takeovers, teacher evaluations, layoffs, marketing, whistleblowing, and telemarketing, to name but a few of Rabbi Dr. Levine’s fascinating subjects.

In addition to his encyclopedic knowledge and keen analytical skills, he was one of the finest people I have ever met. Humble to a fault, unassuming, soft-spoken, he took a deep interest in his students. On those occasions when I would call to discuss a moral quandary with him, he greeted me with the warmth and concern befitting a close friend.

It is no exaggeration to say that it was Rabbi Dr. Levine who kindled my interest in the field of money and morality. The articles I am able to present are a result of the influence and inspiration of this wonderful person. May his memory be a blessing.