Jewish Ethics: Links to Books

Image: An Amazon distribution center work floor. Photo from 7 Examples of How Amazon Treats Their 90,000+ Warehouse Employees Like Cattle by Jacob Weindling on PasteMagazine.com.

I often recommend books on this blog, and I am certainly an avid consumer of books. I’m working my way towards some better choices, and I thought I’d share the process with you.

Every consumer has a different menu of choices for consumption. The choices available to an able-bodied suburban consumer who owns a car are different from the choices available to a consumer living in an area with limited options for transportation and severe time or energy constraints. I want to emphasize that I am NOT making a judgment on choices forced by poverty, disability, or other menu-shrinking constraints. Rather, the same method follows: evaluate your choices and pick the best for you, whatever it is.

Jewish tradition bids us to take care not to injure others, directly or indirectly. When we do business with a company, we validate their choices about labor practices, sourcing their products, impact on the environment, etc. Their choices become our choices. Therefore it is worthwhile to think through our priorities for consumption.

Years ago, I boycotted Amazon.com because I saw it as a killer of locally owned bookstores. Gradually, as the bookstores succumbed anyway, and as my disabilities expanded, I altered my behavior and began using Amazon’s extremely convenient services, including book sales. The ability to have things delivered to my home as well as the convenience of the Kindle for reading in bed drove my decisions.

I winced whenever I read about Amazon’s labor practices, poor working conditions, and other questionable policies. Still I did not see better options for me, so I kept on buying from Amazon. Even here on the blog, I linked the names of books I recommended to their Amazon pages.

However, I made an error in my ethical calculations. I framed the choice to do business with Amazon as a binary choice: buy nothing from them vs. buy automatically from them. That is an easy mistake to make, since our brains tend to frame questions in the binary. There is also a sneaky convenience in saying, “I have to buy X from them, I might as well buy Y as well.” In fact, there are more options than those two.

Instead of “all” or “nothing,” I now re-frame the Amazon decision: I will buy from that company if and only if it is the least-harmful option available to me for genuinely necessary consumption. That’s going to take some extra time and effort, but I see it as a more ethical choice.

The part of that decision that will be visible here on the blog is that I’m going to start linking book titles to other choices than Amazon. In the most recent such post, Book List: Jewish Spirituality, I’ve begun my new practice. When an author has a web page with a link for buying the book, I’ll link to that, because no matter what it links to (usually Amazon) the author will get more money for their work. When there is no such page available, I’m going to link to an independent bookseller, and I’ll mix those up among several I know. On the recent list, I linked to Powell’s Books, an independent bookseller in Portland, Oregon with a good website and excellent service. Readers can navigate to the bookseller of their choice or to a local library.

Finally, as with all such questions, I’m open to the hope that Jeff Bezos (owner of Amazon) will see his way towards treating his employees with decency. Consumer pressure makes companies improve bad policies all the time: ask Nike, for instance, which has had an ongoing conversation with consumers and activists since the 1990’s.

Some principles to ponder:

Money is power, even in small quantities. We influence companies when we choose to do business with them, or not to do business, or to do business as little as possible.

Most menus have more than two items. I thought of Amazon as a yes/no decision, when in fact it was a yes/no/sometimes choice. If the only way a person can afford something they need is to buy it Walmart, Jewish tradition teaches that it is not my business to judge them, because I will be much too busy working out my own ethical problems.

Buying “Used” is an option, too. If we are concerned about the planet and sustainability, sometimes buying used goods is the most ethically sound option. I recommend this option with enthusiasm, although it has a downside: the author gets no pay for a used book sale. Again, the choices are ours and none of them are 100% “pure.”

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Children in Cages: Things We Can Do Today

Image: Rabbi Suzanne Singer and I working as poll observers in Macon, GA on election day in November, 2016.

Rabbi Suzanne Singer is a colleague with much social action experience who is currently in Homestead, Florida as a witness/protestor at the child detention facilities there. I asked her for suggestions as to what I, a person with disabilities that preclude travel to the camps, might do to help with the horrible injustice taking place on our borders.

Here are some of the ideas she sent to me. You will have to do your own research about specifics, what you support and what you don’t. There is no financial barrier to doing any of these things; the cost will be your time. For tzedakah (donation) suggestions, see Children in Cages: More Ways to Help.

Call your members of Congress (find them here) at 202-224-3121 with specific requests:

  • cancel raids
  • improve detention conditions
  • no funding for ICE/CBP (“Defund Hate”)
  • release of detained children and families
  • demand inspections of detention centers
  • demand hearings on immigrant detention
  • Support Merkley’s Shut Down Child Prison Camps Act (S.397)
  • Support Harris’s Families NOT Facilities Act (S. 388)
  • vote NO on extra funding for deportation

Call local representatives (find them here) with these specific asks:

  • initiate plans to help immigrant communities affected by raids
  • form rapid response teams around immigration raids
  • ask that local law enforcement not collaborate with ICE
  • ask when they will visit local detention centers

Learn, study, educate yourself and others:

When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him.

The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I the Eternal am your God.

Leviticus 19:33-34

Lights for Liberty

Are you frustrated, watching stories on the news about the situation of immigrants and refugees at the U.S. border?

Today I learned from a source I trust about this coalition of groups working to improve things.

If you are looking for something to DO, check them out:

Lights for Liberty

Whatever your feelings about the politics of the situation, our own government – the DHS Office of the Inspector General – has published a report calling the current housing for these people “dangerous” and “unsafe.” There are concerns about disease in “inhumane conditions.”

We can and must do better.

“Disturb us, Adonai!”

Image: A “do not disturb” door hanger, with “do not” replaced with “PLEASE” (Shutterstock with amendation, all rights reserved.)

Mishkan Tefilah, the Reform siddur, is full of “alternative readings” – prayer and poetry that may be read alongside or even instead of the usual prayers. One caught my eye this week, and I spent the rest of the service sneaking back to reread it and think about it some more:

Disturb us, Adonai, ruffle us from our complacency;

Make us dissatisfied. Dissatisfied with the peace of ignorance,

the quietude which arises from a shunning of the horror, the defeat,

the bitterness and the poverty, physical and spiritual, of humans.

Shock us, Adonai, deny to use the false Shabbat which gives us

the delusions of satisfaction amid a world of war and hatred;

Wake us, O God, and shake us

from the sweet and sad poignancies rendered by

half forgotten melodies and rubric prayers of yesteryears…

Mishkan Tefilah, 173

The prayer was precisely what I needed that night: a kick in the pants.

Curious, I went to the back of the book to see who wrote it, and I discovered a wonderful, almost-forgotten character, Rabbi Mitchell Salem Fisher, a Reform rabbi from the early 20th century who left the rabbinate for a law practice in 1930 because he was frustrated with the limits of the pulpit. More about him in a future post!

I’ve held off from copying the entire prayer out of respect for the copyright, but you can find this prayer in any copy of Mishkan Tefilah.

If ever there was a prayer for our times, it is this one.

Why Small Donations Matter

Image: Two piggybanks: one plain white on a wooden table, one gold on a steel background. Photos from Pixabay.

In a recent post, Tzedakah for Healing and Empowerment, I talked about the effect of the mitzvah on the person who contributes tzedakah. Even the smallest tzedakah contributions contribute to the well-being of the giver as well as the recipient.

Now I’d like to talk a little bit about the importance of those same small donations. Many small donors have said to me, “The donation that I can afford will not make any difference to Congregation Beth Plony* or Jewish Family Services. They have big donors who give a lot of money.”

It is true that Jewish non-profits have a tendency to lionize large donors. They do this because the competition for their dollars is fierce. There has been a shift in the past quarter century, moving from the model of the Federations as central clearinghouses of tzedakah to a model in which individual large donors support pet projects and organizations. Partly this reflects the shift in the American economy towards income inequality: people at the top have more discretionary income, and people at the bottom have less.

Most Jewish nonprofits rely almost entirely on fundraising to support their activities and efforts. In this structure, the major portion of budgets is raised from a select number of ultrawealthy Jews. These donors are given significant leadership positions in Jewish institutions, resulting in what is effectively an undemocratic and unrepresentative plutocracy.

“Big Jewish Nonprofits Can’t Keep Letting Only the Ultrawealthy Call the Shots,” by Jay Ruderman and Hanna Shaul Bar Nissim

While a potential small tzedakah-contributor may chafe against the domination of major donors, there is also the lure of FREE: free trips, free programs, etc. “Why not let the big donors take care of it, and I will participate, maybe even volunteer a little, and enjoy the free stuff?”

I believe this is unhealthy for the donors, for the organizations and for individual Jews in those organizations:

  1. For the donors, Jewish institutions become a place where one’s goals or behavior are not challenged, because a challenge might mean that the money goes elsewhere.
  2. For the institutions that dependent on a smaller number of donors, or worse, a single donor, donors’ whims loom large.
  3. And perhaps worst of all, for the individuals in or served by the organization, this arrangement is infantilizing: they become passive consumers of services rather than participants in a living Jewish community.

Small donations matter. Participation matters. Representation matters.

I challenge large donors to consider that part of tzedakah is releasing the money and the power it represents. In Leviticus 19:9-10, landowners are commanded to leave the corners of the field for the needy. While this agricultural mitzvah is binding only on farmers in the land of Israel, our sages used it to talk about the obligation of tzedakah, to care for the suffering and needy. The verb תַּעֲזֹ֣ב  (ta-ah-ZOV,) meaning “you will leave” is significant: it denotes a giving-up of some control. Also, Maimonides’ emphasis on anonymous giving can be a healthy move, as well as a meretricious move, for large donors.

I challenge institutions to consider how much they depend on large donors, and how they might cultivate and appreciate more ordinary donors. Currently, what are your practices regarding small donors? How might those be improved? How economically diverse is your board of directors? What does your treatment of donors large and small say about the values of your organization?

I challenge those of us who are ordinary tzedakah-givers to renew our interest in giving to Jewish institutions, and to bring our ideas about cultivation and appreciation to the leaders of those institutions. The world is full of worthy causes – but how are Jewish institutions going to thrive without Jewish donors? How are they going to grow and be there for a future generation without you?

*Plony is the Aramaic equivalent of “John Doe.” “Congregation Beth Plony” means any congregation: mine, or yours, or someone else’s. If you want the feminine form, that would be Plonit.

Al Vorspan z”l: Justice, Justice You Shall Pursue

Image: Al Vorspan, image from ReformJudaism.org.

I don’t often use the word “tzaddik.” A tzaddik (tsah-DEEK) is a person who seems almost to embody Torah, his righteousness is so great. A true tzaddik is also a person with the humility to laugh at himself and to laugh with others. There just aren’t many of those people, so it’s always sad when we lose them.

Al Vorspan was one of those rare individuals, and I was sad to hear of his death on February 16, 2019. I only had the pleasure of meeting him once, when I worked for the Union of Reform Judaism (at that time it was called the Union of American Hebrew Congregations) but I remember his broad smile and his warmth. He leaves a multifaceted legacy, the most tangible part of which is the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism which he helped to found.

I did not know him well enough to do him justice, but I can recommend two articles that include some great stories about the man, by people who knew him well:

Al Vorspan was a Jewish Giant of Justice by Rabbi Jeff Salkin

Remembering Al Vorspan z”l: The Prophet who Loved to Laugh by Aron Hirt-Manheimer

Zikkrono livracha: May his memory always be for a blessing.

Teshuvah: Doing the Work

Image: Woman pointing angrily at man; man in defensive posture. (eurobanks/Shutterstock)

We’re in a time of change, when norms are shifting and emotions are high. Things that did not get much reaction from the public at large five years ago have become serious debates: racism, sexism, homophobia. This is actually progress, but it sure isn’t comfortable.

Every time someone is revealed to have done something racist or sexist or homophobic we seem to have to go through the same little dance:

  1. “News Flash! Joe Blow (JB) has been accused of a racist act or words.
  2. Talking heads talk. Much wagging of tongues and fingers.
  3. JB insists, “My heart is in a good place! I’m a good guy!”
  4. Other talking heads: “… young and stupid. Give him a break.” or
  5. Other talking heads: “OK he did it but he’s not a RACIST.”
  6. JB hires PR firm specializing in crisis management.
  7. JB says, “If I offended anyone, I apologize…”
  8. Item is crowded out of news cycle by the next outrage fest.
  9. Rinse and repeat.

In the end, nobody seems to learn much of anything, and everyone is even angrier than before.

Jewish tradition offers us another way. It’s called teshuvah. That word is sometimes translated “repentance” but it’s more than “I’m sorry” and it is a lot more productive than the meaningless apology-lite in step #7 above.

Good teshuvah can sometimes take a big mess and turn it into a net win for everyone, because it involves sincerity and actual change. Here’s how it looks:

  1. “News Flash! Joe Blow has been accused of [insert racist item here.]
  2. Talking heads do their thing.
  3. JB meets with advisors, discovers why everyone is mad at him.
  4. JB issues a statement. “Yes, it was offensive. There is no excuse.”
  5. JB says, “I am very sorry that my words/actions hurt people.”
  6. JB says, “I am going to learn about this and do better.”
  7. JB says, “Here is my action plan for making sure that I never do this again, and maybe fewer other people will do it in future, too.”
  8. JB executes action plan.
  9. JB says, “I accept the consequences of my actions.”

Notice that the person doing most of the talking is Joe Blow, not the talking heads and not a crisis-management PR specialist.

Here is an important fact about human nature: we all mess up. We hurt people’s feelings. We do stupid things. We may do or say something racist or sexist or otherwise offensive. We are fallible. The important thing, Jewish tradition teaches, is that we own our behavior and we make sure that whatever it was doesn’t happen again. Most of all, WE do the work, not the people who suffered from our mess-up.

You don’t have to be a public figure to mess up. And good news: teshuvah can work for us low-profile types too. It isn’t anyone’s idea of fun, but I can tell you from personal experience that it works.

Teshuvah: Yes, it’s a Jewish thing, but anyone who wants can give it a try.