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My friend’s wife is immoral

He thinks she's a total star -- I think she's poisoning the environment; do I say something or not?

Today’s Jam

My best friend from college is married to a woman I like very much. He and I get together about once a year, usually alone. We also email and text a lot, talk frequently on the phone about our families and our work, and of course we are friends on Facebook (though he doesn’t post there much). He is very proud of his wife’s professional accomplishments. But she does scientific work in an industry that I find morally reprehensible, because of its nearly undisputed (though until now, lesser known) negative environmental impact.


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As far as I know, he is oblivious to how destructive this work is, or even to how controversial it is. He’s never acknowledged any of it (though he talks a lot about her work), and it hasn’t come up on social media (where somebody else would definitely say something). I say nothing, not even to the extent of asking if he’s seen a recent national newspaper article about his wife’s field. But as the kind of research she does becomes better known, and its impact is taken more seriously, I don’t know how much longer I can keep this up. Eventually, he will ask why I’m not responding enthusiastically to reports of his wife’s achievements — and why I’m not responding sympathetically when he inevitably talks about the negative press. I don’t want or expect to try to convince him that his wife’s work is immoral, but I can’t be dishonest about my feelings when it comes up. And I’m afraid of the rift that could develop when we have to face the fact that we see this important issue so differently. For him, it’s personal. How should I handle this?

There are several Jewish values in conflict here: shalom bayit, maintaining peace between spouses; emet, speaking the truth; tochecha, of speaking up when we see someone doing something destructive; and avoiding lashon harah, negative speech that denigrates another person.

In general, Jewish tradition errs on the side of keeping the peace — the Talmud (Yevamot 65b) goes so far as to say, “It is permitted to change the truth for the sake of peace” — and of avoiding any speech that might cause harm to the reputation of another.  Yet our tradition asks us to speak up, in a loving manner, when we see someone engaged in harmful behavior. One midrash (Genesis Rabbah 54:3) teaches, “All love that has no reproof with it is not true love,” and goes on to say, “All peace that has no reproof with it is not peace.”

But here, your relationship is not with the person doing the negative act, but with her husband, who may or may not be aware of the implications of her actions. And ultimately, your sense of discomfort will likely make little difference to the work your friend’s wife is doing.  I wonder if, as a friend, you might be someone with whom he could share his own concerns, if and when they do arise.  Assuming the negative implications of her work become more public, he might find himself in a difficult position.

It is natural for a spouse to become defensive on behalf of his partner, even if he has his own qualms. Could you initiate a conversation that doesn’t have your own discomfort at the center, but rather his well-being?  Could you say something like, “I just read about the project that your wife is working on, and saw that some people are quite critical of it.  I wonder how that felt for her, and for you?” There, in the context of a caring relationship, there may eventually be an opening to get both him and his wife to consider the implications of her work. To get from here to there, you will need to examine your own heart, and make sure that you can speak with your friend from a place of love and lack of judgment.

Rabbi Toba Spitzer is the spiritual leader of Congregation Dorshei Tzedek in West Newton, MA.  She is a past president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association and serves as Treasurer of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights.

Rabbi Josh Feigelson says…

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Toba offers a useful way of thinking about the conflicting values here, and I’d like to expand a bit more on the question of tochecha, or rebuke. I don’t think it’s a simple call.

The question of justice needs to be present — not just the question of relationship. For instance, Maimonides, building on a talmudic passage (Shabbat 54a), codifies as law the duty to rebuke when we are in a position to do so: “One who sees his fellow sinning or walking along the wrong path, it is a mitzvah to return him to the good and to let him know that he is sinning in his evil acts, as it is said, ‘You shall certainly rebuke your kinsman.’” (Laws of Knowledge 6:7). He adds some ethical texture, instructing that rebuke should take place privately (e.g., not on Facebook) and in a loving manner. Nevertheless, he concludes, “Anyone who has it in his power to rebuke and does not, the sin is designated as his, for he had the ability to rebuke.”

Toba’ instincts are right; you need to balance many values here, and you might do more good by keeping the door open. But there’s another challenge: This is an issue that seems to matter to you. What if you end up being actively engaged on the “other side”?  How will you approach things if and when you move from heartfelt opinion to action?  Consider whether you might eventually need to say something like this: “I want you to know that as I’ve been learning more about this issue, I’m getting involved with some activism, as this is something I care about a lot. I know your wife’s work is on the other side of the issue, and I would love to talk with you both about it. And I promise not to do anything to personally attack her. I value your friendship, and I want to make sure we talk about this directly and openly.”

Sooner or later, you’re going to need to speak about this, It’s important to think ahead about how you can preserve your ability to constructively disagree with your friends.

Josh Feigelson is Founder and Director of Ask Big Questions, an initiative developed and launched by Hillel International to foster reflective conversation on university campuses. He was ordained by Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and a PhD from Northwestern University. He lives in Skokie, Illinois.

Rabbi Shoshana Friedman says…

shoshfriedman (140x140)I will go one step further and push you towards taking action yourself. Josh suggests what you might say were you to get involved in opposing or improving the industry in question. Given the strength of your feelings and the importance of the issue, isn’t it time to make this hypothetical a reality? If you care about enough about the issue that this is a genuine ethical dilemma, I suggest that you care enough about to act on it.

Ultimately, this isn’t just about what you or your friends think about the industry involved. It’s more broadly about what you need to do to maintain your integrity — in a world that is ecologically falling apart.

For me, this has meant throwing myself headfirst into climate activism. I do this out of love for this world, not out of malice toward the people who feed their families by working in the fossil fuel industry. Put your discomfort to work while at the same time doing your best to communicate that you are doing so out of your deepest convictions. It’s even possible that your friend and his wife, with whom you have a longstanding connection, will understand and your relationship may even grow stronger.

If they become very reactive, give them space. Consider passing along information you find from sources they will respect. Think about how you can make your communication with them about your concern for the planet, not about needing them to agree with you. Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa teaches: “When one’s action is greater than one’s wisdom, one’s wisdom is upheld. When one’s wisdom is greater than one’s action, one’s wisdom is not upheld” (Pirkei Avot 3:12). It may be that, paradoxically, when you are more invested in activism, you will be on stronger footing to have an eventual influence on your friend’s work. Be the change you are advocating.

Rabbi Shoshana Meira Friedman is the Assistant Rabbi for Temple Sinai of Brookline, MA. She serves on the leadership team of the Mass Interfaith Coalition for Climate Action (MAICCA) recently started ClergyClimateAction.org, a website to organize religious leaders to do nonviolent civil disobedience for climate justice.

Now, what do YOU say?

What do you do if a friend does professional work you find morally problematic? How do you maintain a friendship when there’s an ethically troubling issue on the line?

And of course, if you have a dilemma you’d like us to address in the Ethical Jam, send it to EthicalJam@timesofisrael.com

Ethical Jam is a project of the Center for Global Judaism of Hebrew College, Newton Centre, Massachusetts, which is working to create a rich pluralistic discourse on issues of vital concern to the Jewish community and to the world at large.

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About the Author
Ethical Jam presents contemporary ethical dilemmas and the responses of Jewish thinkers from across the world Jewish community. Ethical Jam is a project of the Center for Global Judaism (CGJ) at Hebrew College in Newton Centre, Massachusetts and of the Times of Israel, and was created by CGJ’s director Rabbi Or Rose and Hebrew College president Rabbi Daniel Lehmann. It is edited by Rabbi Sue Fendrick, Editor at CGJ. (Illustrative ‘thinking woman’ author photo via Shutterstock.com)
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