Judaism in Daily Working Life: A Jew in the Street as Well as in Shul

Article excerpt

The purpose of this workshop was for the participants to share ideas and source texts around taking our Jewish life beyond our own Jewish communities and into our relationships with work colleagues, shop staff, customers and suppliers, and the wider society around us. We began with Yehuda Leib Gordon, the nineteenth-century Haskalah poet and journalist, who urged his fellow Jews to 'Be a Jew in your home and a regular person on the street'. We discussed whether Progressive Jews continue to feel that their Judaism is an aspect of themselves which is properly reserved for Synagogue and home. In particular we recognised that the multi-cultural and multi-faith nature of many workplaces and social spaces in Europe has enabled people to be more confident about asserting their religious identity in the past two decades. This change has helped Jews to feel that such assertion of their Jewish identity will not prevent them from being accepted by colleagues and customers. The Cohen no longer needs to become a Curwen to succeed in professional life.

Our next source text from bShabbat 33b challenged the increasingly popular notion that effective Judaism should be focused to the greatest extent upon spirituality achieved through worship and contemplation. The text told the story of Rabbi Simeon Bar Yohai and his son who, escaping from the Roman authorities, went and hid in a cave.

   A miracle occurred and a carob-tree and a water well were created
   for them. They would strip their garments and sit up to their necks
   in sand. The whole day they studied; when it was time for prayers
   they robed, covered themselves, prayed, and then put off their
   garments again, so that they should not wear out. Thus they dwelt
   twelve years in the cave. Then Elijah came and stood at the
   entrance to the cave and exclaimed, 'Who will inform the son of
   Yohai that the emperor is dead and his decree annulled?' So they
   emerged. Seeing a man ploughing and sowing, they exclaimed, 'They
   forsake life eternal and engage in life temporal!' Whatever they
   cast their eyes upon was immediately burnt up. Thereupon a Heavenly
   Echo came forth and cried out, 'Have you emerged to destroy My
   world: Return to your cave!' So they returned and dwelt there
   twelve months.

A meaning that we drew from this text in the workshop was that a Judaism which was not soundly based in the world of work and the reality of the wider society would always be incomplete.

We studied a text which helps to set out the standards to which a Jew could live up to in their working relationships: Maimonides' description of the Talmid Chacham in Hilchot Deot 5:13.

   All the transactions of the Talmid Chacham must be honest and done
   with integrity. His no should be no and his yes yes. In financial
   matters, he must be strict with himself but lenient with others. He
   pays the purchase money immediately; he does not make himself a
   surety or responsible for others; nor does he undertake the
   responsibility of power of attorney. In business he does not enter
   into such obligations as the Torah has not imposed on him, so that
   he may abide by his word and not depart from it. If others are
   legally indebted to him, he grants them an extension to pay, is
   forgiving, and lends graciously. He does not interfere with the
   business of his neighbours, and never acts harshly towards anybody.
   In general, he is rather of the persecuted than of the persecutors;
   of the offended, not of the offenders.

The text, we felt, was challenging in its applicability to prudent business behaviour but nevertheless records the responsibility of a Jew always to act in good faith. …