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Spreading Jewish Values to the Broader Society: Torah Before Israel

There is so much that is beautiful about Judaism. While the State of Israel is a value that for many of us is at the cornerstone of our faith, there are many other beautiful aspects of our religion as well. I am a fervent Zionist (well, as fervent as can be for someone living outside Israel…), but I think that we may need to change tactics when we share Jewish values with the outside world.  Here’s why.

Over Shavuot, our shul hosted two panel discussions with three congregants regarding what it means to be Jewish in the workplace.  The first question that I asked our panelists was whether they believed that their work had religious significance.  I think that there are at least three approaches to answer this question.  The first approach may not attribute any religious significance to our work other than the fact that it provides us with income to help support ourselves and our families.   If we subscribe to this approach, then we approach our work potentially as a challenge to our halachic observance and we try to ensure that we can practice halacha freely and we can suffer no discrimination either as Jews or as orthodox Jews in our places of work.  Within this first approach, some of us will just keep our head down and not make waves if we experience antisemitism or microaggression in the workplace, while some of us may speak up to protect our own interests.

The second approach is that our work is a calling, not simply to earn a paycheck or advancement in the workplace.  Those who subscribe to this approach believe what Rav Lichtenstein wrote about, that God placed man in Gan Eden “le’ovdah u’leshomrah,” to work or cultivate the garden and to guard it.  The charge of “le’ovdah,” to cultivate it, essentially is to be creative, develop, work and innovate.  God created an imperfect world and our job is to perfect the world.  I think that it Is more natural for people in certain professions like health, education or public service to view their work as a calling, as part of a holy partnership with God to perfect the world, but it is more difficult for people in other professions to feel that way.  According to this approach, each one of us acts as a tzelem Elokim, a human being created in the image of God, but not specifically as a Jew, when we partner with God to better the world in the workplace.

The third approach towards our work is that we view work in the broader society as an opportunity to help shape the world by sharing our specific Jewish message with the world.  Proponents of this approach believe that we must be an “or lagoyim,” a light unto the nations.  We believe that it is our mission not just to protect our interests but also to share our values with the broader world.  There are potentially two different ways to achieve this goal.  Perhaps we don’t need to do anything proactive to promote Jewish values, but we simply need to be God fearing, honest and ethical Jews.  By behaving with integrity, others will look at us and say what the Torah promises in Parshat Va’etchanan (Devarim 4:6), “rak am chacham v’navon hagoi hagadol hazeh,” or “surely that great nation is a wise and discerning people.”  Alternatively, we could achieve this goal by proactively sharing our specific Jewish values with our colleagues at work about the pressing social issues of the day, whether it’s racism, abortion or gun control.

Some of the panelists and some members of the audience shared that they actually viewed their work according to the third approach, that they use it as a platform to occasionally share Jewish values.  Many places of work now celebrate diversity and minorities and they create safe spaces to celebrate this.   From the small sampling of panelists and audience members who discussed their Jewish activism in the workplace, it seems that for some of them their initial impetus was to protect Jewish interests, such as having their company put out a statement supporting Jews after an antisemitic incident just like the company would put out a statement supporting Asian-Americans after a racist attack against Asian-Americans.   However, once they felt comfortable speaking out for Jewish interests, many felt comfortable speaking out for Jewish values, and they would share divrei Torah about upcoming Jewish holidays and they would share Torah perspectives on a whole host of issues that came up.

What was interesting to me was that none of the panelists mentioned that the State of Israel came up when they shared Jewish values.  Israel is a hot-button issue for obvious reasons.  I am a strong supporter of AIPAC and we must garner support from both non-orthodox Jews and non-Jews who are becoming ever so increasingly critical of the State of Israel.  At the same time, many of us in the workplace are not adept at debating the issues surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but Judaism has so much more to offer.  There are so many beautiful messages from our Torah about how we should treat each other, how we perfect ourselves and how we can lead rich, meaningful lives.

What I learned from our panel discussion was that, contrary to the belief that the world is antisemitic and Jews will never be accepted in society, ordinary individuals in the workplace can make a real difference in fighting antisemitism and sharing Jewish values with the broader world.  This is something that many of us can do now more than ever as there are far greater opportunities in the workplace than in years past.  Many companies openly celebrate diversity, so we have safe spaces to both protect our interests and to be an “or lagoyim.”   Secondly, I think times have changed with how best to connect with non-orthodox Jews and non-Jews.  With the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, we may have argued that the best way to connect with non-orthodox Jews or non-Jews was through the State of Israel and not the Torah because people are more secular and would identify with orthodox Jews more through a modern, Jewish democratic state than through religion.  However, now, I think that the tables have turned.  We still must defend and promote Israel.  AIPAC, for one, is a critical organization that we all must support.  When Israel is being maligned in the media, we must speak out on social media and in the workplace.  At the same time, there is a lot that we can share with the broader world, especially in our workplace, that does not necessarily include Israel.  Often, perhaps, counterintuitively, the most effective way to share our Jewish values at the outset with the broader world is through religion, through our timeless Torah values.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.
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