A New Perspective on Traditional Jewish Ethics
More than twenty years of personal experience as a Jewish communal professional has taught me unequivocally that Jewish organizations are challenging work environments. What would happen if we revisited some basic Jewish values to consider how they might offer a contemporary framework for evaluating our institutions in order to create an ethical, vibrant, and welcoming Jewish community?
Recently, Jay Michaelson wrote eloquently about the “myth of authenticity,” the wrong-headed idea that one version of Jewishness has more value or genuineness than another. (December 23, 2009, in The Forward) A truly self-hating Jew is one who treats his or her community members with contempt rather than kindness, judgment rather than compassion. How do we expect to preserve Jewish continuity when we treat each other like trash? And why do we collectively tolerate this culture of narcissism, judgment, suspicion, and contempt, not to mention fiscal mismanagement and administrative irresponsibility?
In order for our synagogues, our schools, and our community agencies to survive and thrive, Jews need to create a new covenant and organizational culture, grounded in relationship and mutual respect. When we genuinely relate to one another as beings created b’tzelem Elohim, from the Board president to the administrative assistant, our communal organizations will become gardens of creativity, prosperity and peace. We will celebrate each other’s successes and simchas. We will view intermarriage and conversion not with suspicion, but as an opportunity to welcome new members into our Jewish family. Our religious, cultural and relational diversity will be seen as a “value add,” rather than a threat to the fabric of Jewish life.
I have always been eager to apply my knowledge, enthusiasm, and skills, from my first job at the Federation in Philadelphia to my most recent position at a national organization that supports LGBT inclusion in Jewish life. While I remain passionately dedicated to that goal, it is difficult to engage my passions when the organizations that should be my source of spiritual sustenance are, instead, eating the beating heart and stomping on the neshama of their dedicated workers.
I grew up in a secular Jewish household, so I had never heard of Federation, and I knew almost nothing about the established Jewish community. As a young social worker, I worked in the Allocations and Planning Department at my local Federation at a time when there were abundant educational opportunities for professional development. I learned about the history of Jewish communal service, and felt deeply proud of how the American Jewish community established a support network for Jewish families from birth to death. I took classes about lay/professional relations and community planning. I learned about Jewish ethics and values, and attended synagogue for the first time since my own bat mitzvah. I strove to live up to the ideals implicit in the organizations whose labor I shared, constantly measuring my performance against values I learned through my ongoing professional education.
Working there provided me with a positive education in what it means to be a member of the organized Jewish community—but I also saw the flip side of the good work we did in the world: the backstabbing, resource grabbing, one-upmanship and ego-stroking that exists behind the closed doors of Jewish communal organizations. Did the ends –our work in the world—justify the means–our poor treatment of one another—by which that work was accomplished?
It was 1987, the early years of the HIV epidemic, and Jewish Family and Children’s Services was providing services to Jewish people, mostly gay men, with HIV and AIDS. Because of homophobic pressure from wealthy Federation donors, any conversation or support for these efforts was kept highly confidential; documentation was kept in a locked drawer in a locked file cabinet in a closet at the back of the office. The organization’s shame in the face of human suffering was very hard for me to take. The “closet” built around our HIV work seemed to shine a glaring light on the closet I was already forced to live in during my work hours. When I worked at the Federation, I had identified proudly as a lesbian for years, and as a young feminist for even longer. But while I was at work I could not be out or proud. The Federation was not an environment that welcomed sexual diversity or progressive politics.
No matter my efforts to hide my difference, difference makes itself known subconsciously in a way that bullies can navigate with their eyes shut. I was frequently scapegoated by senior colleagues in an attempt to cover their own cowardice or errors in judgment. Jewish values like “klal Yisrael” were tossed around like Frisbees, yet people’s behavior did not match their rhetoric. Some of my liberal and progressive (straight and gay) colleagues in other departments had similar experiences, and to survive under this repressive and ego-damaging environment, we created an informal, scrupulously confidential network of peer support.
There was also a sense of elitism and competition, “Jewish sparring:” who went to day school, who went to Jewish camp, who lived in Israel, who belonged to which synagogue, who spoke Hebrew, who donated the larger campaign gift. I will always remember the first lunch meeting I attended, when people started bentsching after the meal and I was like a deer in headlights, terrified that I would look stupid or inadequate for not knowing the prayer. No one bothered to explain or educate or encourage. It was an elite club, and I was clearly not a member.
Over time I felt increasingly disillusioned and disappointed, and after a year it became painfully clear that working in the culture and climate of the professional Jewish community was neither hospitable nor sustainable. Surprisingly, I persisted with my dedication to Jewish service organizations, and my entire career has been shot through with these challenging experiences. What is provoking me now, however, is that today, several decades later, not much has changed. The way we treat each other is still a shanda.
Agencies are having enormous difficulty retaining qualified staff at all levels, and most people below the executive level are woefully underpaid and expected to work far beyond the customary 40-hour work week. There is almost no mentoring or true support for new and younger Jewish professionals, let alone for those of us who’ve been at it for decades and are in need of replenishment.
Many innovative new programs are perceived as a threat unless they bow to the establishment, and people wonder why synagogue membership and communal affiliation are dropping at an alarming rate.
Differences are shamed into silence or twisted into conventionality. Anyone who publicly raises questions about Israel’s policies or behavior toward the Palestinians is labeled a self-hating Jew and put in their place, or fired. The vitriolic debacle in the SF Bay area last year over the screening of the movie “Rachel” by the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival brought out the most egregious behavior in people from all political perspectives. Character assassination, name calling, threats to withhold funding, and ultimately a repressive new policy from the local Federation that denies funding to any program that would “advocate for, or endorse, undermining the legitimacy of Israel as a secure independent, democratic Jewish state” was the result.
I have worked in the area of outreach and inclusion for over a decade, first as the director of an interfaith program, and more recently with an organization that works to foster greater inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in the Jewish community. Even within this particular subset of outreach professionals, the lack of transparency and accountability, and the prevalence of elitist cliques whose strategies and behavior undermine and devalue others, have been staggering. Organizations compete for funding, membership, notoriety and power, often cleverly sidestepping transparency or accountability.
In contrast, I have been privileged to develop collegial friendships with people from other religious communities. They are consistently warm, welcoming and respectful, reflecting the ethical practice of hospitality. I encounter a much more welcoming stance of hospitality among my Christian colleagues, who are eager to learn more about Judaism and invite me into their conversations and onto their bimah (as it were).
These colleagues encourage interfaith dialogue, shared activism and shared spiritual practice. In my experience, their hospitality has extended farther and deeper than a nametag at the oneg. They have risked “foot in mouth disease” with a genuine willingness to learn, to admit what they might misinterpret or misunderstand, to learn and grow together, to study sacred texts together, to work for social justice together.
I occasionally quip that everything I know about hospitality I learned from my Christian friends. While I am well aware that Christian normativity allows those in power to be more hospitable to others, some of my colleagues from other faith traditions have also experienced marginalization and oppression as LGBT people, or as progressive activists within their churches and communities. My most recent experience has been as a member of the Advisory Board of the Bay area Coalition of Welcoming Congregations, an initiative coalescing around the issue of LGBT inclusion in congregational life, as well as interfaith community organizing on behalf of marriage equality and other civil rights issues of mutual concern.
What would this new community covenant look like? We would honor each other’s Jewish authenticity. Our relationships, our institutions, and our community would actually reflect the core values that have been an essential part of Jewish ethics for generations. These are not new concepts; however, it is our responsibility to continue to revisit and refresh our commitment to them.
In the spirit of renewed commitment to these core Jewish values, I offer the following Ten Guidelines for Jewish Communal Life:
1. Derech Eretz
“The way of the land;” thoughtful conduct and common decency toward others.
According to midrash, derech eretz preceeds Torah (Leviticus Rabbah 9:3); perhaps one might say Torah rests on the foundation of derech eretz.
Our individual and institutional conduct as a Jewish community rest on the foundation of derech eretz in visible, tangible ways. We actually live up to the ethics and values we allegedly espouse.
Mutual responsibility; accountability
We hold each other accountable to “walk our talk,” and we are as invested in the success of other organizations as we are in our own success. Our practices are transparent and we are fully and equally accountable to constituents, donors, funders and colleagues.
Honor and respect
We treat all of our colleagues with respect and dignity regardless of role, level of education, or economic privilege. Our respect for them is apparent in every encounter.
4. Mishpat v’rachamim
Justice and compassion
Justice and compassion are two critical cornerstones of our community values, and are evident in all of our interactions and institutions.
5. Hachnasat Orchim
We are genuinely warm and welcoming to everyone who enters our institutions; evident in every human interaction on the phone, via email, or in person, from the Board President to the administrative assistant. Hospitality is not just an industry; it’s a spiritual practice.
6. Chesed and Gemilut hasadim Acts of loving kindness
We extend ourselves to one another with kindness regardless of whether we have ever met before. We offer the same kindness we would want to receive.
7. Lashon ha’tov
“Good Tongue;” right speech
How many times have you heard someone say, “I don’t want to engage in lashon hara, but….,” and then launch right into gossiping about someone in the community?! Lashon ha’tov is more than just abstaining from gossip; it is also about the spirit and flavor of how we talk to one another. Lashon ha’tov is about listening and speaking from the heart.
8. Lo levayesh
Do not embarrass
Closely related to kavod, lo levayesh means that we actively engage in behaviors that are expressly intended to comfort, delight, protect and honor someone else. Specifically, we don’t behave or speak in a manner that would embarrass others or ourselves.
All Jewish communal professionals are compensated sufficiently, with salaries that allow them not only to meet their basic needs, but also to participate fully in the programs, culture, education and services of the Jewish community.
10. V’ahavta l’reyacha kamocha and ahavat ger:
Love your neighbor as you love yourself, and love the stranger (ger)
This mitzvah appears more often than any other in the Torah. It’s about love, folks—expressing love for our neighbors, ourselves, the Other. We are not only polite to one another; we are actually loving, warm and generous of heart.
We are just about to finish the season of counting the omer, a seven week period in the Jewish calendar where we reflect daily on middot, “soul traits” or character traits, to spiritually prepare ourselves for Shavuot. May this testimonial, and these guidelines, serve as a framework for introspection, discussion and renewed commitment to a Jewish community that reflects the spirit of liberation and revelation.
K’eyn yehi ratzon– May it be so.
Thanks to Noach Dzmura and Caryn Aviv for their kind and skillful assistance with this article.
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