Orthodox focus on Jewish ethics at High Holidays


SAN FRANCISCO (JTA) — On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Moshe Shulman of the Young Israel of St. Louis devoted his sermon to yashrut, the Hebrew notion of fairness and honesty, calling it a “foundational concept” in Jewish life.

“That goes without saying, but sometimes it needs to be said,” he explained in his September talk.

After a year of highly publicized scandals involving Jewish institutions and businessmen, the Orthodox world has been paying markedly greater attention this holiday season to promoting Jewish ethical behavior.

Two books on Jewish business ethics have been published. Agudath Israel of America, an umbrella organization of haredi communities, is holding seminars on the topic. And in the biggest initiative of all, the three major institutions of Modern Orthodoxy — the Orthodox Union, the Rabbinical Council of America and Yeshiva University — sent a joint letter in early September to movement rabbis asking them to address Jewish ethics in at least one of their High Holidays sermons.

Such concerted focus on one issue is unusual, Orthodox leaders say — but so were the past 15 months.

Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, first vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America, said he cannot remember any other instance of all three major arms of Modern Orthodoxy issuing such a joint appeal.

Richard Joel, president of Yeshiva University and a co-signer to the Sept. 3 letter sent to more than 2,000 Orthodox rabbis nationwide, said the community needed to make a serious statement.

“There has been a great shock to our system,” Joel said, “and there cannot be any prevarication.”

The letter cited  “recent scenes of religious Jews being led off in handcuffs, charged with corruption, money laundering and even organ trafficking,” referring to the late July arrests of New Jersey rabbis — an incident that Joel and five leading rabbis who signed the appeal said left them “sickened and embarrassed.”

The letter suggested rabbis discuss the prohibition against stealing, which includes stealing from the government by not paying taxes; the need to obey secular laws; and the goal of serving as “a light to the nations” through honest social interactions.

Quoting the late Rabbi Joseph Breuer, the letter said that “a Jew must not only be glatt kosher, he must be glatt yosher,” one who leads an upright life.

It’s the second year in a row that a Jewish movement has made a High Holidays sermon appeal to its rabbis.

Last fall, in the wake of the immigration raid and arrests at the Agriprocessors kosher meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa, leaders of the Conservative movement asked its rabbis to discuss Magen Tzedek, the seal of ethical justice proposed for kosher food manufacturers. Several hundred complied, according to Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive director of the movement’s Rabbinical Assembly.

More than 50 Orthodox rabbis heeded this year’s call to address Jewish ethics from the pulpit.

It was the first stage in what organizers hope will be “a unified international initiative” to promote Jewish ethics in the Orthodox community, said Rabbi Moshe Rosenberg of Congregation Etz Chaim in Queens, N.Y., who spearheaded the appeal with Rabbi Asher Bush of Congregation Ahavath Yisrael of Wesley Hills, N.Y.

“We wanted to do something to restore a fraction of the ‘kiddush Hashem’ ” or sanctification of God’s name that had been “destroyed” not just by the miscreants themselves but by the media coverage of their wrongdoings, Rosenberg said.

The communal shame goes deeper than “a shanda fur de goyim,” the Jewish reticence to air its dirty laundry in public, said Michael Wex, author of the just-released “How to Be a Mentsh (and not a Shmuck).”

Wex says that when non-Jews look at someone like Bernard Madoff or the Rubashkins, former owners of Agriprocessors, they might conclude that their actions “are the logical outcome of the Jewish way of life and belief.” That, he says, casts shame on Judaism itself.

Orthodox day schools also are signing on to the campaign. Rabbi Shmuel Jablon, principal of the Torah Academy of Greater Philadelphia, said his K-8 school developed a new curriculum this fall to teach one midah, or positive character trait, every month related to the Jewish text being studied.

Teaching ethics to pupils is not new, Jablon said, but he and his staff were moved to increase their focus on the subject because of last year’s arrests and scandals.

“We want them to know there are real ethical lessons to be learned from the text,” he said. “Torah is not just about prayer, kashrut and Shabbat, although those are important, but also about how we treat each other and each other’s belongings.”

The haredi world, which usually ignores negative media coverage, is taking it seriously this time.

In late July, at a “legal symposium” in the Borough Park section of Brooklyn, the grand rabbi of the Spinka sect delivered a personal apology to more than 1,000 Chasidic attendees for his 2007 arrest on money-laundering charges. Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Weisz had pleaded guilty the previous week.

And Agudath Israel is sponsoring a series of workshops to urge its member organizations to obey all state and federal laws, in the name of Jewish ethics. A first workshop in late September addressed administrators of charitable funds, including synagogue funds, and similar workshops are planned for yeshiva and day school administrators, as well as other fervently Orthodox groups.

Dealing fairly and honestly with non-Jews is a central Jewish value, say the organizers of these recent initiatives.

Noah Alper, founder of the Noah’s Bagels chain, notes in his new book “Business Mensch” that the first question departed souls are asked by the heavenly court is how did they conduct their business.

Goldin, also the spiritual leader of Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood, N.J., gave two High Holidays sermons on Jewish ethics and was to deliver another during Sukkot specifically addressing the ethics of dealing with the non-Jewish world.

“There is a sentiment within the Jewish community that believes you can have different ethical standards when dealing with the non-Jewish world,” he said. “That to me is frightening. If our role is to be an example unto others, how can we fulfill that role through a desecration of God’s name?”

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