Tag Archives: Jewish Ethics

Do Not Stand Idly By…

This article was originally published on May 10th, 2017, in the Ops & Blogs section of Times of Israel. The full article can be found on their website here.

Times of Israel

This past week, we had a different sort of Shehechiyanu moment. My three-year-old son was the first of our children to visit the emergency room, after slicing his finger on a sharp piece of metal. He’d return with quite the souvenir: five stitches. He was proud. He showed off his bandage of gauze and medical tape like he was a hero, and this was a necessary battle scar. As parents, my spouse and I worried and panicked. And yet, looking back, we realized that this was something small, only a laceration, and we are grateful that such an emergency room visit was a minor expense, literally a couple of bills in my wallet. I also understand that his handful of stitches on a small finger pale in comparison to the serious illnesses and diseases that others at the hospital were being treated for. I am grateful that we now live in a country where someone cannot be denied healthcare or treatment because of lack of finances or because of pre-existing conditions. I fear that this reality will change.

This past Shabbat, we read the joint Torah portion of Acharei Mot-Kedoshim, which began with the command “be Holy, for I, the Lord, Your God, am Holy.” Such a command means that we must see everyone as holy and see the divine spark within each person. Therefore, denying the rights of any individual means that one refuses to acknowledge the holiness of that person, and denies that they are made in the image of God. If we are to all strive to be holy like God, then we must strive to treat each individual in the same way our faith teaches us to treat God, with sanctity, honor, and respect.

In Tractate Taanit of the Babylonian Talmud, we learn of Abba Umana, the surgeon who saves lives. The text compares him to Abaye and Rava, to great rabbis who appear throughout the Talmud and offer their own rabbinic teachings. Abaye and Rava often offer differing opinions, but it’s their opinions that often conclude rabbinic debate about a topic. More often than not, it was Abaye’s opinion that was deemed correct. Still, Abba Umana is seemingly seen as more sacred than these learned rabbis. It is taught here that Rava would receive greetings every year on Yom Kippur from the celestial beings, the angels on high, and God. The same text teaches that Abaye, whose teachings the people sided with far more than Rava, would receiving greetings from God weekly, on Shabbat evening. Abba Umana though, the surgeon, would receive these greetings every day. Abaye, upset by this wants to know why Abba Umana encounters God more frequently than he — an incredible rabbi and scholar — does. The celestial beings respond to him that “he cannot do what Abba Umana is able to do”, referring to saving a life. This helps us to understand how important and essential healthcare is in the eyes of the Talmud.

In addition to the command to be holy in last Shabbat’s Torah reading, we are also commanded “do not stand idly by your neighbor’s blood” (Lev. 19:15). In Tractate Sanhedrin of the Babylonian Talmud, we find an interpretation of this verse. The Talmud says that one must go out of one’s way to save a neighbor from danger. In fact, the Talmud says that one must even use one’s own resources to hire another individual to help assist and care for this person. The Talmud in this case is pretty clear: we have an obligation to ensure that all receive medical care, even if that means that our costs ensure that our neighbors who are ill get the medical treatment that they need and deserve.

The Torah is clear that we must do all that we can to prevent further harm to our neighbors. The Talmud goes into great detail about how we must ensure the health and safety of our neighbors, and even sees medical treatment as a holy and sacred act, with medical professionals placed on a higher level than Torah scholars. The Shulchan Aruch, often referred to as the leading Jewish law code and most widely cited law code, also confirms our halachic obligation to ensure everyone receives the healthcare they need and deserve. The Shulchan Aruch teaches that taking care of those who are ill is a religious obligation and that if a physician withholding treatment is the equivalent of bloodshed (YD 336:1). The text adds that if there is medicine that will help a sick individual, one is forbidden from charging more than what is appropriate for that medicine (YD 336:3).

I can’t speak about all the details of the latest version of the AHCA because I, like most people, haven’t read it in its entirety. I can’t speak to the economic impact it would have on our country, because the House voted on it before the CBO scored it. I can only speak as a rabbi, regarding what I believe the Torah, Talmud, and Halacha teach us. We are taught that it is our responsibility to do whatever we can to save a life. We are taught that saving a life is so important it supersedes every other mitzvah. The values of our Torah are meaningless if they do not guide us to act. Therefore, I am saddened by the House of Representative’s vote last week that makes it harder and more expensive for those with pre-existing conditions to get health care coverage. This hurts the poor and the elderly more than anyone else, but it especially hurts anyone with a pre-existing condition. And this hurts all of us, because when a law is passed that denies the rights of an individual to be treated, that denies the holiness of that individual, we fail to live up to our responsibility and obligation. When a law is passed that is antithetical to who we are as Jews and to what we stand for, then we must take a stand. We cannot stand idly by. One who saves a life, saves the world. Let us do all in our power to ensure that many lives, and many worlds are saved.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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What it Means to be a Jew

There is a well-known story – or at least a well-known story among us as rabbis who tell stories about rabbis – about Rabbi Solomon Schechter and Rabbi Louis Finkelstein. Schechter founded United Synagogue and served as President of the Jewish Theological Seminary. He is referred to by many as the architect of Judaism’s Conservative Movement in North America. One day, while President of the rabbinical seminary, he went for a walk with a young rabbinical student, Louis Finkelstein. Finkelstein would eventually become chancellor of JTS from 1940-1972. Schechter, the Romanian-born scholar, told Finkelstein that in order to be a successful rabbi in America, you need to know the game of baseball and you need to be able to play the game of baseball.

In the early twentieth century, Baseball was more than just a game. It was America’s pastime. It was ingrained as part of one’s American identity – like apple pie. To say that a rabbi must know baseball is to say that a rabbi must fully embrace American culture and society. Schechter, who was of Eastern European descent, was suggesting that to be a rabbi in America one must identify as American. One must know pop culture, but more so, one’s Jewish values must also be American values.

There are legends of Jewish immigrants coming over to America from the persecution and pogroms of Eastern Europe. As they saw Ellis Island in the distance, they would toss tallitot and tefillin, Jewish ritual objects, overboard. While these stories may only be that of legend, the symbolism is clear: they were leaving Judaism behind. Judaism was what caused hate and harm. Coming to America meant that they had to fully embrace their American idealism and abandon their Jewish identities. But this is not what Judaism teaches, nor what Schechter was suggesting.

And then you find the opposite of these legends in the Torah. We read this past Shabbat in Parashat Acharei Mot, the following command from Leviticus 18:1-3:

I the Lord am your God. You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt where you dwelt, or of the land of Canaan to which I am taking you; nor shall you follow their laws.

A strict interpretation of what God tells Moses in this week’s Torah portion – don’t associate yourselves at all with secular society – would suggest that we should not embrace society. We should put up barriers to society. But this interpretation of Torah couldn’t be further from the truth, and certainly is not what Solomon Schechter was teaching a century ago.

The pious rabbi still laid tefillin every morning. He was not suggested giving up Judaism in favor of the religion of America’s pastime. In fact, he was quite religious and observant. He understood the importance of Judaism and Jewish values, and still the importance of being immersed in society. This was not assimilation. This is acculturation. For throughout our history – as Jews and as Americans – we see that religion influences society and society influences religion. We cannot truly live a life based on Jewish values if we are disconnected from society because it is exactly that society that we are supposed to impact with our values!

Wikipedia_blue_star_of_davidThe prophet Isaiah reminds us of our divine responsibility to be an ohr lagoyim, a light unto the nations of the world. We believe Judaism and our values has something to teach the world, and guides us in this world. If that is the case, then we cannot be disconnected from this world. Judaism is a part of this world and the decisions we make in this world.

This also means that we cannot limit Judaism to the synagogue, to Shabbat meals, or to lifecycle events. As my father, Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, teaches, Judaism has entered the marketplace of ideas. Jewish ethics are a part of society. They have something to teach us. So we must live a Jewish life daily by ensuring that the ethics and values of our tradition guide us.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Would You Sleep Well in a Hotel Bed Made by an Underpaid Maid?

This article was originally published on September 1, 2014, Labor Day, by Haaretz. The full article can be found on their website here.

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The Torah has much to teach us about Labor Day.

For many in the United States, and especially the northeastern part, Labor Day is the official end of summer. If schools are not yet back in session, the school year begins after Labor Day. The last three-day weekend for quite a while, Labor Day is also the end of the “pool season” for communities that don’t have warm climates for most of the year. For most, Labor Day represents the finale of their vacation, one last attempt to get the most out of a summer that went by way too fast.

For others, it is a day for celebrating justice.

The day, thanks to the support and influence of labor unions, emphasizes the economic and societal achievements of labor workers. By marking this day, we celebrate the achievements of American workers who contribute to our society.

This year, Labor Day comes two days after Jews read the beginning of Parashat Shoftim, the Torah Portion of Shoftim:

“Justice, Justice, You Shall Pursue” (Deut. 16:20).

Shoftim reminds us that, unfortunately, justice does not come naturally; it is an ideal that we must work for. We are commanded to not simply love justice, to not simply believe in justice, but, rather, to pursue justice.

When we Jews consider Labor Day in the context of Shoftim, we understand that it is about more than just a celebration of hard work. It is about fighting to ensure that all those who work hard get their fair share. Labor Day becomes not just a celebration, but a reminder that the fight for justice and equality in the workforce is ongoing.

Deuteronomy 16:20 continues, clarifying that we are to pursue justice so that we can not only dwell in our land, but also thrive in our land. Without justice, without each worker getting their fair share, we cannot truly thrive as individuals, as a people and as a nation.

The legalized formation of labor unions with the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 was a large step toward justice and equality, fighting for the success that these workers deserve for their hard work. This law mirrors our faith’s collective imperative to pursue justice, but there is still much work to be done in our pursuit of justice for all.

Even with the influence of unions, Congress has failed to act in increasing the minimum wage, in ensuring that those workers who do in fact work hard get their fair share. The current federal minimum wage in America is only $7.25. A dual-income family where both individuals are earning only the minimum wage has a household income right around America’spoverty level. Clearly, the minimum wage is far from a living wage.

In light of Congress’ failure to act, cities and states across the United States have begun passing legislation of their own. Los Angeles, Seattle and San Francisco have been pushing wage increases between $13 and $15 an hour, while states like Minnesota, Maryland and Massachusetts have increased the minimum wage, albeit more modestly. Just like these states and cities stepped up and acted when the nation’s legislators refused to do so, the Jewish community, inspired by the teachings of the Torah, must exert pressure on our nation’s leaders to ensure that all hard working individuals get their fair share.

hotelbedWe cannot, in good conscience, be comfortable knowing that those who take care of us in hotels and hospitals, restaurants and retailers, live in poverty. We cannot allow them to work hard and not make a living wage, just to keep prices lower for us, the consumer. We cannot sit at the pool and celebrate Labor Day when those who serve us poolside are not getting their fair share. We must pursue justice. We must ensure that the minimum wage in America is a living wage.

As the United States’ Department of Labor points out:

“The vital force of labor added materially to the highest standard of living and the greatest production the world has ever known … It is appropriate, therefore, that the nation pay tribute on Labor Day to the creator of so much of the nation’s strength, freedom, and leadership – the American worker.”

We celebrate the worker because it is hard work that leads to freedom, justice and equality. The essence of the American promise, as well as the promise of democracies throughout the world, is that everyone has a fair shot. In a land of equal opportunity, if you work hard, you can succeed. It is up to us, to ensure that success for all.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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