Dec 9, 2009: Jewish Ethics in the Neighborhood

First and foremost, we should acknowledge that this week's class comes just as we are gearing up for Hanukkah!  Click here for a copy of the Hanukkah candlelighting blessings.  Click here for some great Hanukkah recipes.  And check out this irreverent (and informative!) video for a reminder on how to light the menorah: down to the business of our third installment in the Ethics course.

Click here for a copy of the class handout.  Click here for a transcript of the session's online chat.

You can listen to an audio recording of this class session by clicking on the icon below:

Given our subject, it somehow seems appropriate to invite you to click here for audio and video of Mr. Rogers singing "Won't You Be My Neighbor."  :o)

More seriously: our class will consider two paradoxical elements of living in a neighborhood: the Jewish right to privacy (within our own domains), and the Jewish obligation to not close ourselves off - to be sensitive, aware, and responsive of the needs of others (particularly through the giving of tzedakah).  The paradox is best expressed by Judaism's competing claims of when we are, and are not, supposed to mind our own business.

We'll begin with a close reading of Robert Frost's famous poem "Mending Fences."

Then we'll look at a number of sources that establish the Jewish right to privacy.

From a very contemporary perspective, check out the Conservative Movement's important responsum (Jewish legal ruling) on issues relating to computer privacy (especially at the workplace)

We'll also touch on when Jewish law allows for our privacy to be violated.  (In this regard, we'll look at a text from Menachem Elon, former Deputy President of the Israeli Supreme Court.  Elon is an expert on Jewish law and its application to secular Israeli law today.We'll also look at the Reform rabbinate's response to 9/11.  Note the concluding clause about civil liberties.

After a survey of Jewish sources concerning the giving of tzedakah, we'll wrap up by seeking, once again, to place this section of Jewish Ethics into the context of our Hanukkah observance.

November 18, 2009: Jewish Ethics in the Workplace

The handout for our second installment in the ethics course can be found here. The chat transcript from the class can be found here. You can click on the icon below for the full audio recording of the class:

Workplace ethics is such a vast topic. With only an hour together, it would be impossible to even survey the issue in its entirety. Thus, choices have to be made.

Reluctantly, our discussion will not include issues of gender discrimination/sexual harassment in the workplace. Indeed, we will skip almost entirely the ethical issues surrounding the power differential that inevitably exists between supervisor and supervisee.

We will skip, as well, the ethics of financial propriety and transparency, which are really better situated under the heading of Jewish business ethics.

What then will we talk about?

It seems to me that the biggest (ethical) challenge in spending time in the dealing with our co-workers and customers: the people that we are obliged to interact with on a daily basis, as we go about the business of simply doing our jobs.

Think about it: in most of the other realms of our lives, we have some kind of choice about who we spend are time with (for example, there's no rule that requires us to spend Thanksgiving with our nutty relatives!). But, with our jobs, we're kind of stuck with the people that we're surrounded by. Unless we are willing to quit our jobs(an unlikely scenario in this economy - especially given that there's no guarantee that our next job will be an "annoyance-free zone") just to avoid certain annoying or difficult people, we have to figure out a way to deal wtih them.

On a humorous level, there's no better exploration of these issues than on the TV show "The Office" (I'm a huge fan!). Check out this clip for just a small example of the kind of antics that these co-workers engage in as a strategy for dealing with each other's personalities.

In our class, we'll discuss the Jewish sources surrounding the notion of tolerance, and of pluralism.  Will it be a challenge for us to buy into these age-old Jewish ideas?  Our secular society, at the moment, isn't particularly pluralistic, at least when it comes to politics and our consumption of political news

We will come to see that Judaism celebrates the notion of the minority opinion.  As an illustration, we'll be discussing the landmark Supreme Court rulings of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) and Brown v. Board of Education (1954).  Do take the time to read the Harlan minority opinion in Plessy (we'll look at one excerpt during class).  It's remarkable (for its time anyway).

We'll conclude by exploring some of the theological implications of pluralism, including a remarkably progressive piece by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, (Orthodox) Chief Rabbi of Great Britain.  I'm a big fan of Sacks' writing.  Check it out here and here.

October 28, 2009: What are Jewish Ethics?

The presentation materials for this class can be found here.  A transcript of the online public chat from the class can be found here.

Click on the icon below for an audio recording of the class:

Our first class will introduce us to the topic of Ethics in general, and to Jewish Ethics more particularly.  In terms of Ethics in general, one of the classic foundational texts would be Aristotle's "Nicomachean Ethics" written around 350 BCE .  In far more contemporary terms, John Rawls (a philosopher of liberalism) articulates his sense of "the good" in "A Theory of Justice."  Some have described it as a work that specifically addresses political ethics, but it seems to me that it (at least the parts in the book that I was able to understand!) can easily be applied to our personal lives as well.

In its broadest possible terms, Jewish Ethics is concerned with the way that we treat one another.  We will touch in the class on Heschel's reminder that God cares about the way that we treat one another.  But, there's a humanistic element to Jewish Ethics also.  We should want to do "the good" because it will benefit humanity as a whole (theoretically, anyway). 

This gets lived out in the realm of interpersonal ethics (the way that we treat our friends, neighbors, and family) and in the realm of political ethics (the way that we treat each other as societies-as-a-whole).  Regarding the latter, Jewish social action organizations like the Reform movement's own Religious Action Center and the non-denominational Jewish Funds for Justice become so important: these organizations become our Jewish ethical values writ large - for all the world to see, and hopefully to be moved.

We concluded our discussion by touching on mussar, the Jewish ethical practice of mindfulness (especially in relationships with others). 

An online introduction to Jewish Ethics can be found here.

Suggested reading on this first session's themes, in no particular order:
  • "The Prophets" - by Abraham Joshua Heschel, maybe the greatest rabbi of the 20th century!  The first half of the book reviews the prophets of the Hebrew Bible.  The second half talks about his "theology of pathos" and its connection to social justice.
  • "Law, Politics, and Morality in Judaism" by Michael Walzer - an academic (but mostly accessible) volume that explores Jewish ethics (particularly in the political realm).
  • "A Code of Jewish Ethics" (Volumes 1 and 2, with a 3rd possibly forthcoming) by Joseph Telushkin - if you are interested in Jewish Ethics, these are a must-read.  A lovely combination of thought-provoking substance with plenty of entertaining vignettes thrown in.
  • "Judaism and Ethics" by Daniel Jeremy Silver.  Published in 1970, but I like it because it combines an academic approach to ethics with Jewish values, an interfaith perspective, and material on Israel.
The following titles direct relate to, or were inspired by, our mussar tradition:
Of course, many of these titles are available at the Temple Solel Library.