Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Workshops or Ethics?

Yeshiva World News reports that the community of Lakewood held a workshop on how to do things legally:

For three hours, a prestigious panel of legal and accounting experts offered observations and comments on a hypothetical scenario that brought to life principles of criminal law and banking/regulatory law, as well as accounting and not-for-profit issues addressed by both state and federal law.

Or as the Spinka Rebbe put it a few moths ago, how to be in compliance with the law when raising needed funds.

Many seemed to think that this workshop was a Kiddush HaShem. I do not. Although I do think it was unfortunately necessary in light of so many violations of law in matters of finance by Orthodox Jews.

What is sad about it is that it was needed at all. To quote the CEO of Lakewood Yeshiva, Rabbi Aaron Kotler – grandson of his illustrious namesake:

“I think all of us yearn for the day when being an Orthodox Jew would in and of itself be a bond and a guarantor of honesty and integrity.”

I think this statement sums up the sorry state of Orthodoxy. We yearn for a day that should be an integral part of every Jew. Obviously it is not.

Although Rabbi Kotler’s implication that Orthodox Jews are not looked as being honest and honorable - that is not necessarily the case. Most non Jews still see us as basically honest and honorable. But I certainly know where he is coming from. He understands quite clearly what all those financial crimes can mean to an on-looking world. And the perception will change if our behavior does not. They will come to easily see a Jew and think, ‘Madoff’, or ‘Spinka Rebbe’. Fortunately most Americans do not think that. Yet. Workshops like this will hopefully change things.

The question is what is lacking in our religious system of education that ends up requiring this kind of workshop? Why can we not recognize right from wrong on our own?

Part of the answer can be seen by the very nature of this workshop. It was not billed as one of Jewish ethics but one of compliance with the law. As if to say Jewish ethics do not meet the legal minimum standards of American law. Our standards are lower. We allow for some of the shenanigans that people were arrested for. It is only our ignorance of the law that is the problem - not our ethics.

In my view that is the wrong message. Rabbi Kotler’s words should be taken to heart as a way of understanding what our ethics should be and not what they apparently are.

It should not take a workshop about compliance with the law to achieve this. It takes an understanding of who we are and what we are supposed to represent. God wants us to be a light onto the nations. That does not just mean compliance with the law. It isn’t about learning what lines not to cross. It’s about not even dreaming of going anywhere near those lines. It’s about setting an example for the world with our behavior. It is - as Rabbi Kotler says - about the world seeing a Jew as a bond and a guarantor of honesty and integrity”.

Workshops on compliance will not teach us that. It has to be taught at the most basic level of Jewish education, starting in the home at the earliest age where a child learns by example and then in school all the way from kindergarten through high school and beyond. It is about teaching these values and parents and teachers being living examples of them.

It is apparent from the need for compliance workshops that this was not taught in many homes nor was it taught in many schools.

Either our educators took them for granted - or paid them no heed - or outright taught their students that is was OK to cheat and steal from Goyim if they could get away with it. I am sad to say that in some schools that was the message. For this latter group it is obvious why the focus is on compliance rather than ethics.

If we want people to see religious Jews as the paragons of virtue that God wants us to be we have to make certain that the curriculum of every single school in every category of the Orthodox Jewish world includes teaching ethical behavior.

As for those of us who are adults and no longer in school - we all ought to stop looking at how close we can come to violating the law without actually doing so. We ought to run as far away from that line as we can. It is only then that Rabbi Kotler’s yearnings will come to fruition - and honesty and integrity will become synonymous with Orthodoxy.