Judaism is not a Faith of Fear

I spoke with someone yesterday who suggested that Jews have made a lot of our theological choices because we were frightened minorities operating within the context of larger societies who had the ability – and often the will – to oppress or kill us.

There can be little doubt that our collective experiences have shaped our culture. But I took issue to my friend’s broader point. We did not make our theological choices because we were tiny and scared, but because our Law says we must. Our rabbis based their decisions and psak din  on long and learned discussions on Torah, not on political science, and the reasons are documented in the Talmud, in Maimonides, and countless writings in between and since.

The Rabbis on the Environment

Two other little gems I found while perusing Greenfaith.org related specifically to Halacha and the environment.

The first is from Rabbi Lawrence Troster, who serves as scholar-in-residence at Greenfaith.org, where he lists “Ten Jewish Teachings on Judaism and the Environment.” The piece offers a rationale not unrelated to the one Jonathan Helfand offers, but it has the virtue of being written for a wider audience. I would recommend it as a first step, then go to Helfand for greater exposition.

The second is a list of Jewish statements on the environment that covers a wide spectrum of belief and practice. A perusal of the sources makes it clear that despite the intramural arguments that make up a core part of Jewish theological debate, there is significant agreement on the core principles.

Both are great reads, and Greenfaith.org is a superb starting point for those genuinely interested in probing the degree to which people are discovering that faiths to which faith advocates the despoilment of the environment.

In Denmark, Animals Come Before People

National Secular Society – Denmark bans religious slaughter.

Denmark has now added itself to the growing list of countries who have decided to restrict the practices of observant Judaism. What is most telling is this particular quote from the Danish agricultural and food minister, Dan Jørgensen:

However, defending the governments decision, Mr. Jorgensen told Denmark’s TV2 television that “animal rights come before religion.”

In other words, in Denmark, animals come before people. Better that every Jew and Muslim family be forced to leave Denmark than have one single animal be slaughtered according to the ancient laws of Kashrut and Halal.

It is increasingly apparent that Europe was never about freedom of religion. One can only wonder how long it will be before the country outlaws circumcision and distinctive religious apparel.

As to the practice of Kashrut, let me say only this: if science has proven that the current practice of shochet slaughter is not as compassionate as Talmud calls us to be, this is an occasion for us as Jews to consider submitting the question to our greatest Torah scholars: is it time for a change in Halachic practice?

The Blemishes of Orthodoxy

“Either/Orthodoxy
Lawrence Grossman
Jewish Ideas Daily
May 15, 2012

Lawrence Grossman of the American Jewish Committee sparks an thoughtful debate about the relevance of Orthodox Judaism when even some of its adherants are perplexed.

For his part, Grossman mounts a pithy assault on one book that argues against the divine inspiration of Torah, and another that defends Orthodoxy yet tries to frame Orthodoxy in the cast of modern spirituality.

In the end, Grossman poses a question: if, in fact, Torah is not from a divine source, and thus the justification for the mitzvot weak, why does Orthodox Judaism remain so “vibrant and successful?”

Read the article, but read it as you would attend a shiur: in other words, read the comments as well. They are in many respects the best part.

Assent and Corporate Ethics: The Sinai Question

I wrote a blog post over at Silicon Hutong earlier this week (“The Company Code: Morality, China, and Facebook“) that examined the moral issue around Facebook entering China. While I wrote the post for a secular audience, issues of Torah and Halakah were swimming in my head. It was one of the most difficult posts I have written in seven years of blogging.

One of the issues I wanted to cover, but in the end removed, was the question of assent. When Hashem gave the Torah to Bais Yisrael at Har Sinai, He did not give the Torah until the entire people had confirmed that they would accept the Law (Parshat Yitro). I claim neither Torah nor legal scholarship, but what that implies to me is that a law, a commandment, or a moral code cannot be made binding on anyone – even by the Almighty Himself – unless that person agrees to take that law upon himself.

As troubled as we may be about the potential for Facebook to conduct itself in China in a way that does not meet our approval, we have to ask ourselves whether we can hold the company to a moral code to which it has not formally subscribed. Indeed, I would question whether we can hold the company accountable to a moral code that has not been explicitly spelled out for the people in the company with ultimate decision power: the company leadership and its board of directors.

There are those who would suggest that a common sense of right and wrong should be enough to tell a company what it should and should not do. The history of the corporation, from the South Seas Bubble to the Global Financial Crisis, belies such assumptions. Leaving aside for a moment whether a company can, in fact, be held accountable for moral transgressions, we must recognize that a corporation itself may posses legal personhood, but it does not innately posses a moral compass, or a sense of right or wrong.

There are others who might suggest that merely by operating in the context of a nation or culture, a company gives its implicit assent to conform to the moral codes of that society. In today’s global and multicultural business operating environment, however, it is often impossible for a well-meaning company to identify a prevailing moral code in a single country like the United States, and infinitely more difficult when doing so across national boundaries.

Many companies, particularly small- and medium-sized businesses, that operate in accordance with set moral standards. Salesforce.com, In-and-Out Burger, and Google are among the most prominent examples. What each of these hold in common is that they take the time to spell out the moral strictures under which they will do business, and they extend those principles into the very core of the company through everything from operating manuals to the behavior that is rewarded at bonus time.

The solution is clear: it is not enough for us to simply expect (read “hope”) that a company will naturally operate ethically, nor to impose upon it a code of behavior ex post facto, but to articulate to each company at the outset a requirement that they adopt, publish, and make a part of their operations a clear moral code, one that reaches into the very fabric of the organization. In this, you have not only assent to a code, but collective ownership of and accountability for each aspect of those behavioral guidelines.

As outsiders, then, before we can criticize a company for its immoral behavior, we must first make clear that we expect it to frame what constitutes right and wrong (beyond simply “obey the law,”), or make clear that if they do not, we will do so for them, and then, if they do not set their own standards, we must make clear the code by which we expect them to operate.