Tag Archives: ethics

Subway sleeper, Rabbi returns cash: when people do the right thing

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You may have caught a couple of stories that have been spreading virally over blogs and Face book the last couple of weeks. Both share one theme in common – in simple and unassuming ways, ordinary people acting morally or compassionately. In the first story, a fellow traveler on a subway line caught a picture of an African-American man taking a nap on the shoulder of a white man wearing a kippah. I mention the specifics of ethnicity and religious identity here because I believe they are relevant to the impact of the story and the way it went viral. More on that in a moment.  In the second story, a rabbi in New Haven bought a second hand desk and, upon taking it apart to fit it through a door at home, discovered $98,000 hidden inside it. He called the previous owner and returned to her what happened to be an inheritance that she had hidden there years ago.

Why have these two stories caught the imagination of so many? They may have particularly moved Jewish readers, pleased (or perhaps even relieved) to see a story featuring a fellow tribe member in such a positive light, but clearly these stories have spread far beyond our own community. Are we surprised to see such acts of kindness, compassion and honesty in a world where we have come to expect only self-interest and getting ahead? That might be the cynic’s response, but I think there’s more to it than that.

First, let me back to the detail of ethnic and religious identity in the first picture. While I don’t believe for a moment that this had anything to do with the motivations of the individuals themselves, from a purely pragmatic perspective, I do think it had something to do with why the picture went viral. Think for a moment; if it had been two white or two black people side by side, with no distinguishing garb to demonstrate the difference in some aspect of their identity, would this have caught the photographer’s eye? There might have been an assumption that these were two friends, boyfriends or girlfriends. So, while it might detract a little from the overall ‘feel good’ of this story, I think it is hard to deny that part of the impact of the image is the underlying assumption that these two individuals were not previously connected in any way. There’s a whole other narrative we could write about that but, for now, let’s stay with the positive. What I see here is a visual cue that is largely interpreted as ‘the kindness of strangers’.

Likewise, the Rabbi who returned $98,000 had made a transaction for a second-hand desk with someone with whom he previously had no connection. So we see two examples of people acting kindly and morally toward others because of some inner calling that directs them to interact with others in these ways in these particular moments. And, in both cases, what drives that decision is consideration of the ‘other’. As Isaac Theil was reported to have said to the traveler who took the photo, “He must have had a long day, let him sleep. We’ve all been there, right?”

I’d like to suggest one other frame for both of these stories. We are presented with individuals who, by appearance or title, are assumed to be observant Jews. While I know that many others without such an identity may have acted in exactly the same way in these circumstances and, in fact, people are demonstrating these acts of kindness every day (but rarely to this attention because there is nothing remarkable about their identity to make them stand out from the crowd), I think that many may be assuming that an underlying spiritual ethic is at least a part of the story here.

And certainly, Jewish ethics are in alignment with the choices that were made in these stories. So often, when I talk about Jewish ethics as abstract theory, I will find my students (teenagers or adults) reflecting on what feels like lofty ideals to aim toward but that are hard to truly live up to in practice. Many of the stories we have to illustrate these values are drawn from times and places that seem so distant from our own, featuring exemplary figures who are hard to emulate. Take, for example the following ethical statement that can be found in our morning liturgy:

“May one always revere God in private as in public.” [L’olam yehay adam y’ray Shamayim ba-seter u’va-galui].  It’s a bit like the question, “Does the tree make a sound when it falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it?”  (cited from The Wisdom of Judaism: An Introduction to the Values of the Talmud, By Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins, Jewish Lights Publishing).

And here is a story that illustrates this principle:

The Chaffetz Chayyim was once given a ride in a horse-drawn carriage. The driver, unaware of the identity of his passenger, stopped the carriage near a grove, and stepped down. After instructing the Chaffetz Chayyim to ‘call out if anybody sees me,’ he started to gather fruit from the trees in the field. Within a matter of seconds, the Chaffetz Chayyim called out in an agitated voice, ‘We are seen, we are seen.’ The frightened driver dropped the fruit, rushed back to the wagon, and drove off in great haste. After he had driven for a minute or two he turned around and saw that the road behind them was empty. He turned to the Chaffetz Chayyim in anger, saying, ‘Why did you yell out like that? There was no one watching me.’ The Chaffetz Chayyim pointed skyward: ‘God saw what you were doing. God is always watching.’ (as told by Joseph Telushkin in A Code of Jewish Ethics Vol 1: You Shall be Holy, p. 489).

Perhaps what we have in these two recent stories are simply contemporary examples of a spiritual ethics story; ones that we can relate to, that we can discuss and debate, find ourselves in more easily and, ultimately, be inspired by. 

Posted on November 13, 2013

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‘Tis the season of the farmers’ market

Today’s lunch included stir-fryed Purslane. Until two weeks ago, I’d never heard of it or, to my knowledge, tasted it before. It is one of more unusual items available from the CSA (community supported agriculture) that we signed up for this Summer. I love our CSA. Unlike many programs, which provide you with a box of pre-selected items, our local farm allows you to choose your own, based on a point system, so that you can create your own weekly combinations.

I’m blessed to be living in a part of Central MA where there is an abundance of local farms. Many offer CSAs, and there are also many local farmers’ markets. Our town has a weekly market where the offerings of several local farms can be found, including meat and eggs, local wines, cheeses, and a local, small scale bakery.  Farmers’ markets may not be the cheapest way to shop, but a season’s worth of fruit and vegetables from a CSA is quite economic. Both offer an opportunity to bring a different kind of mindfulness to the buying and eating of food.

Two years ago, inspired by the collection of essays edited by Rabbi Mary Zamore, ‘The Sacred Table‘, my partner and I began to have a different kind of conversation about the food we ate, and particularly about Kashrut. I’ve been talking about the concept of ‘Eco-Kashrut’ for a very long time. I taught about it when I was a Hebrew school teacher in London back in 1990, having read Rabbi Arthur Waskow’s early writings on the topic.  Yet, while I had somewhat inconsistently tried to bring environmental awareness to my food shopping choices, I hadn’t really developed personal practices that I was happy with. I still haven’t – it is a work in progress.

After reading Zamore’s book and, more recently, ‘The Omnivore’s Dilemma‘, I was propelled to make some different choices.  I grew up in a home where we kept kosher and, until very recently, have continued to keep a fairly traditional form of kashrut in the house. Certainly, within the Reform movement, I would be in a minority in maintaining any observance of traditional kashrut laws – early Reformers often dismissed them as a ritualistic practice that had no truly ethical or rational basis, and served to separate us from the non-Jewish host population. While I’ve not necessarily found the Reform argument persuasive (it would have been more persuasive if, simultaneously, the movement had offered up a thoughtful, ethically-based alternative), the contribution of The Sacred Table, a publication of the CCAR (Central Conference of American Rabbis – the Reform rabbis), provides that very alternative.

The more that I have studied and learned, the more that I am troubled by the Kashrut industry. There are those who are doing good work to try and provide a path for observant Jews that is both traditionally kosher and ethically viable, with the Conservative movement leading the charge on providing a ‘hechsher’ (a stamp indicating kosher approval by an authorized team of rabbis) for foods that meet both kosher and ethical standards. But there is a long way to go before such an approach gains much traction among the majority of the kashrut-observant.

And so, for the first time this past year, I have started to move away from some of the kosher observances in our own home toward choices that, upon deeper consideration, offer something that feels ethically and environmentally grounded.  We’ve started with the CSA and an attempt to buy more from local sources more of the time. We’ve cut down on meat consumption considerably, and will buy non-kosher meat too. Last Thanksgiving, our local, free range turkey was sourced from a small scale farm less than 50 miles from our home. And we try to buy fish that is from the ocean and of a kind that is not currently at risk but sourced sustainably.  Its an imperfect system – nothing quite covers all of the bases, and we’re not yet consistent in our choices. But as I head back to the CSA tomorrow to try something new that, perhaps, I’ve never tasted or cooked before, I believe that I’m making progress, and I’m thankful to others who have been working hard to bring conversations about food, ethics, and the environment into the Jewish arena.

Posted on July 24, 2013

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Petraeus: When leaders let us down

Two days ago my colleague, Amy Small, wrote a powerful piece putting the news glut on the Petraeus scandal into perspective as neighborhoods continue to reel after Hurricane Sandy and many are still without light or heat in their homes.  While I wholeheartedly agree with her call for priorities, particularly when it comes to what gets the media’s attention and our own, I find myself reflecting on the Petraeus case this week, and looking at another aspect of the story.  I think it is because I can empathize with many who feel such disappointment in a man who was held in such high esteem.

And what I notice is that it is not unusual in these situations, when the esteemed fall off the pedestal that we have put them on, for our society to take things to the other extreme.  Disgust is expressed; more than disappointment, so often the whole being and legacy of an individual is put down and not just the specific behavior that is the focus of attention.  I’ve noticed many commentators on the radio and TV in recent days questioning Petraeus’ judgment on all matters, given his clear poor judgment on the matter of an illicit relationship.

My reflections and empathy stem, I think, from my own experience of watching an admired teacher fall from grace. When it happened, it also involved inappropriate relations that, as is so often the situation with men in positions of power and influence, were largely inappropriate because of the unequal power relations involved.  While it was questionable whether the behaviors were illegal, there was no question that they were morally and spiritually deeply flawed.

How do we react when someone we have learned from and admire acts in a way that deeply disappoints or, more, causes hurt and harm to others? Is it possible to maintain a connection or a friendship?  As a rabbi, should I continue to share wisdom in the name of the teacher I learned from?  Should one simply stop speaking of the person, or do we have an obligation to speak out and loudly about their deficiencies so that they become known to all?

Clearly the answers to these questions will depend on the nature of the behavior.  Sometimes we must speak out.  Sometimes we simply walk away in disappointment.

In my own life I have tried to walk the line, distinguishing between the behavior and the broader legacy, teaching or guidance received. I continue to share the wisdom of my teacher and recognize its value.  I do not speak of him, knowing that we live in a society that so often conflates words with personality, and I do not wish to lead others to flock around him.  But the line that I try to walk is one where I recognize, with humility, that our leaders who disappoint are often holding up a mirror to our own souls.  We may be repulsed, but is it solely because of our leaders’ behavior, or because we are reminded that even people who do great things are flawed human beings?

And, if those we mistakenly placed on pedestals can fall off them so easily, that must surely mean that each and every one of us, even if we think of ourselves as good people, are equally capable of revealing our flaws and weaknesses at any time.  And that is a picture we don’t like to look at.  So we ostracize and demonize the one, blotting out their good, so that we can more easily label them and their actions as ‘not us.’  But, in the quiet of a moment alone, if we are willing to take a good, hard look in the mirror, we find that its really not quite that simple.

Posted on November 14, 2012

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The Command to Forget

Deuteronomy 24

19. When you cut down your harvest in your field, and have forgotten a sheaf in the field, you shall not go again to fetch it; it shall be for the stranger, for the orphan, and for the widow; that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands.

20. When you beat your olive tree, you shall not go over the boughs again; it shall be for the stranger, for the orphan, and for the widow.

21. When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, you shall not glean it afterward; it shall be for the stranger, for the orphan, and for the widow.

22. And you shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I command you to do this thing.

These gifts to the poor are one key example of helping those in need. While beneficial to the poor, one can certainly argue that what is left behind is not enough to actually sustain the needy. A number of commentaries suggest that the primary purpose of these commandments is to build the moral personality of the owner of the field who must understand there are limits even to his/her ownership of the property. The poor also have a claim to it, albeit limited to certain categories. God is after all, the true owner of the field.

The forgotten sheaf which must be left for the poor is an odd example of a commandment to fulfill. There can be no intent here by definition, the sheaf was forgotten. I am forbidden to return to harvest it. It must remain forgotten. In a religion in which memory is so foundational, and it is precisely because we are commanded to remember we were slaves in Egypt, that when it comes to sheaves in the field, I must truly learn how to forget.

As we struggle in Elul to honestly look at ourselves and begin to reconcile with those we have hurt, we must first remember where we erred with others and with God. With repentance and forgiveness must then come a form of forgetting as we begin the new year.  

For a full discussion, please see Nehama Leibowitz Studies in Deuteronomy  pp 243-249.

Posted on August 30, 2012

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Why Bernie Madoff Didn’t Lurk in Dark Alleys

We all know that one of the Ten Commandments is “Don’t steal.” But it’s also hard for us to imagine Bernie Madoff or Jeffrey Skilling in a hooded sweatshirt in a darkened alley mugging a little old lady. And yet clearly, Madoff and Skilling violated that two-word, easy-to-understand commandment. So we have to ask: how in the world were they able to justify it?

A large part of that justification is because different forms of stealing have different “feels” to them. Physically taking money from another person feels more violent, more immediate, and less justifiable of an action. “Cooking the books,” however, can easily feel explainable by the perpetrator. It’s pretty easy to follow the commandment “Don’t steal” if it simply means, “Don’t go around robbing people in the middle of the night.” But Skilling and Madoff did steal – and stole significantly more money than all the armed robbers in America combined.

In fact, when people don’t deal in cash directly, they actually are able to rationalize their actions, and thus end up stealing significantly more money from people.

Cash Keeps Us (More) Honest

Behavioral economist Dan Ariely ran a fascinating study in the MIT dorm rooms to examine what might allow people to steal without feeling all that guilty about it. At first, he put six Coke cans in a communal refrigerator. Within three days, all six cans were gone. No doubt, people thought, “No one will notice, and hey – free Coke!”

He then put six one-dollar bills on a plate in the refrigerator. They were left totally untouched.

Why? As Ariely explains:

When we look at the world around us, much of the dishonesty we see involves cheating that is one step removed from cash. Companies cheat with their accounting practices; executives cheat by using backdated stock options; lobbyists cheat by underwriting parties for politicians; drug companies cheat by sending doctors and their wives off on posh vacations. To be sure, these people don’t cheat with cold, hard cash (except occasionally). And that’s my point: cheating is a lot easier when it’s a step removed from money. (Ariely, Predictably Irrational, 218-219)

There seems to be a psychological block that prevents most of us from simply forcibly taking cash from people, but allows us to rationalize small falsifications that ultimately end up being the same thing as stealing. And that is why, in fact, the Torah has more to say about honesty in business beyond just, “Don’t steal.” In Leviticus, the Torah even regulates what might happen one step away from money that might lead people to cheat.

Honest Weights and Measures

Leviticus 19 contains some of the most important and most famous laws in the Torah. The Ten Commandments appear here, as do the verses, “You shall not stand by idly while your neighbor bleeds” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The whole chapter is known as the “holiness code,” implying that beyond just being ethical, treating people fairly is truly a sacred obligation that God demands of us.

The very last laws in chapter 19 say, “You shall not falsify measures of length, weight or capacity. You shall have an honest balance, honest weights, an honest ephah (a unit of dry measure) and an honest hin (a unit of liquid measure)…” (Leviticus 19:35-36)

Why did this law have to be written in the first place? The simple answer is: you don’t forbid something from happening unless it has already been occurring. So clearly, there were people who would falsify their weights and measures. Cheating and stealing are nothing new in today’s society!

And that’s what makes this commandment so important and valuable. If the Torah had simply said, “Don’t steal,” our natural ability to rationalize would have given people the opportunity to say, “Well, if I weigh down my grain a little bit, no one will really notice. And after all, everyone else is doing it, so it’s not really stealing.” Instead, the Torah teaches us, “Don’t cheat even – perhaps especially – when you’re one step removed from money.” It’s a lot easier to steal when you’re one step removed – and that’s why that commandment is needed.

The First Thing We Will Be Asked When We Die

The Rabbis even elevated honesty in business to become one of the highest values we need to live up to. In fact, in the Rabbinic mind, the first thing God will ask us when we die is not, “Did you believe in Me?” or “Did you pray?” No – according to the Talmud (Shabbat 31a), the first question we will be asked when we die is, “Were you honest in your business dealings?”

We sometimes say that we know we are acting honestly if we can look at ourselves in the mirror in the morning. But perhaps that is not enough of a judge. After all, our ability to rationalize could make it very easy for us to say, “Well, it’s just a small thing I’m taking.” Moment by moment, we can easily find ways to steal that feel OK and won’t cause us to lose sleep.

So to truly bring ourselves up to our highest standards, the question should not be, “How do we feel about ourselves right now?” It should really be, “How do we want to feel about ourselves at the end of our lives?”

Only by having our day-to-day actions live up to the values we espouse can we truly be proud of the actions we take.

Posted on April 19, 2012

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The Singularity vs. the Gift of Death

“A gift is something that cannot appear as such.” – Jacques Derrida, The Gift of Death

And God came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built. And the God said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.” (Genesis 11:5-6).

What was it that the builders of the Tower of Babel did that was so wrong? Could you imagine a moment when the entire planet’s human population actually got along long enough to do something together. Here we were one planet, one people – can you imagine? John Lennon would be so proud (“Imagine”). Only, what? God doesn’t see it us coming together as all that good. In fact, He thinks its dangerous. Wait till 2045, the date that Ray Kurzweil, the 1999 National Medal of Technology award winner sets for the singularity.

What is the Singularity?
In short, the singularity is the moment in time, at the current rate of acceleration, that the technology we create, computers, will actually “think” faster than we do.

Click to read the Time Magazine article from Nov 2011

One of the major implications for faster, smarter, and smaller computers, may very likely be nanobots, artificially intelligent inventions that can be made as small as our blood cells. Could we have such nano-cells floating inside of us to keep us healthy? Could we live, 150 years? 200? Forever?

If we could continually renew and/or replenish our cells through technology would we? Why wouldn’t we? It is certainly Judaism’s point of view that we are partners with God, even in healing the body. If we could get rid of illness, rid of death, shouldn’t we?

I’ve recently watched the documentary Transcendent Man, which details Kurzweil’s expectations for our near future (if I keep my body moving, and if I survive my son’s driving lessons, and if I stop eating whatever deliciousness my wife bakes, I should make it). There is a compelling, yet disturbing argument being made that through faster and smarter technology our lives will be extended beyond the simplicity of one decaying body that ends in 80 to 90 years. If if happens, its because we built the technology to make it happen. The possibility is closer than some think. I’m pretty sure that the bio-tech company a few miles from my house already has the technology to clone me.

What would God say?

They said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth” (Gen. 11:4).

The rabbis teach that it was not the building that was an affront to God, it was there motivation: “A name for themselves”. In a famous midrash, a rabbinic tale, the people would climb a ladder on one side of the Tower, place their brick and climb down the other side. When someone would fall, the people would mourn the brick that should have been placed, and not the person.

We are told that God already had the Torah, the lessons and the Law before creation came into existence. This is a good model for science as well. We should get a handle on the issues (can does not mean should) before we reach points of no return.

I suggest that the same issue is at hand with the singularity and life-extension (or even re-animating the dead; Kurzweil hopes to bring back his deceased father). Motivation is an issue. There is no question that we will be able to do amazing things -beyond what you and I can imagine today. But the question of ethics, has never, and will never, be overcome by technology.

The most precious commodity we have is life. It is painful enough to see it wasted. A time when life extends forever? Well, that would be worse. Life would be rendered insignificant, meaningless.  Death always feels like such a tragedy, but it may very well be better than the alternative.

Posted on February 14, 2012

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