Jewish Organizations: The Importance of Acting Ethically
Remaining in Focus
What many of us strive for in life is achieving personal integrity, a state of being when our ‘inside’ motivation matches our ‘outside’ behavior.
Ideally, our actions should reflect who we (really) are. We don’t just want to believe that we’re honest, we want to act in ways that are honest, a perfect match-up of our intentions and behaviors. Don’t be deceived; this sounds relatively easy but is in fact very difficult.
It is just as challenging for businesses and organizations to hold a high ethical standard.
Years ago a new field emerged called ‘corporate responsibility’. It was the very beginning of companies making an effort to conduct business honorably.
No longer can companies quietly go about the dirty business of polluting the environment, paying unfair wages, and not treating employees equitably. At least not without negative social consequences and losses of revenue. To a large extent, social media sees to that. However, even more now than before, it seems that there is still a long way to go.
In the last weeks, we’ve seen that even organizations who promise to uphold the highest ideals of communal values of fairness fall short. As a society, it is challenging to change stubborn and hateful behavior.
What about Jewish organizations?
But should we not hold smaller organizations, those with an especially narrow focus, to the same standard? After all, relationships with employees and constituents are more regular and frequent.
In the current economic climate however, as organizations might need to downsize, it is even more important not to compromise on these values. People are more vulnerable in so many ways and the more expedient way is not the most sensitive.
The Torah provides a foundation for how employees should be treated and laws are expounded in the Talmud regarding specific challenging situations and additional pressures.
This information would ideally inform decisions and interactions so that the values of a religious organization should live up to its potential as a model of ethical behavior.
Rabbi Sidney Schwarz states in Judaism and Justice: the Jewish Passion to Repair the World that there are two principles in operation regarding Jewish behavior.
“Jews are driven by their twin impulses to survive as a people (Exodus) and to help the world be ordered in accordance with a higher moral standard (Sinai).”
Expanding on this concept, Jewish organizations need to survive in order to fulfill their ultimate mission of bringing the ethical teachings of Torah out into the world. But not at the cost of compromising its own behavior.
Leadership in a stressful time
The challenges facing the Jewish community now are perhaps more acute than ever and as a result, we need to be aware of ethical breaches and inconsistencies and expect more of our organizational leaders.
This pursuit of ethical excellence is discussed widely in the Talmud as well as the intimate relationship between character, leadership, and community. In Arachim (17a) our sages note:
“One said: According to the leader, so the generation. The other said: According to the generation, so the leader.”
We are ultimately accountable. Our leaders need to hold us to a higher standard, but they too are products of our culture. Our culture seems to value the development of our outsides (material gains) in favor of focusing on our insides (ethical and spiritual development). Organizations have often conducted themselves similarly, prioritizing external goals (a new building, more members) over those that are less tangible (meaningful experiences, membership connections).
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in the Seven Principles of Jewish Leadership states that “Leaders must be relentless learners and believe in the people they lead”.
Leaders must be open to change and in so doing, model that for others.
Yes, these are extremely challenging times. Organizations need to work extremely hard with minimal resources to reconfigure themselves in the (God-willing) post-pandemic world.
We can weather this storm but in order to do so ethically, we need to uphold our values.