Does God Belong At Work?

Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky writes:

To fully appreciate how high the stakes were, it’s necessary to realize that the scoffers were not merely challenging Moshe’s particular abilities as a spiritual architect. They were challenging the very premise of the entire religious endeavor, namely that human beings can produce works that matter to God. They were ultimately ridiculing the whole notion that the institutions we build, the deeds we perform or the families we raise can serve as toeholds for the Divine Presence in this world. Anything created by human hands, the scoffers believed, was too fleeting, too momentary, just plain too small to capture the interest of God. And any human belief to the contrary was the product of the most grandiose of self-delusions.

…Our Sages held up the building of the Tabernacle as the paradigm for all human labor. It is the metaphor that we are to bring to all of our creative endeavors, and most specifically, to the places where we do our work. Each time we make a workplace decision to value integrity over the bottom line, we build a tabernacle for God. Whenever, through our work, we extend the kind of love we wish for ourselves to a client, or an employee, or a co-worker, we cause God’s presence to become manifest. When in the course of our work we grant the benefit of the doubt, vanquish anger and strive to speak the whole truth, we satisfy God’s need to dwell among His creations.

Moshe’s prayer was, as we know, soon answered. And the Children of Israel learned a lesson for the ages. It is of course not coincidental that our very first prayer of the workweek — the one we recite even before Havdalah — is the very same: “May the grace of God be upon us, and may He establish the work of our hands.” May our workplace be a dwelling place for God.

This is a reply to David Suissa’s column of two weeks ago.

I first weighed in with my thoughts on this topic five months ago.

I want to discuss it further.

When Peulat Sachir is presented (and this is exactly how the rabbis pitch it) as, "Does God belong in the workplace?" then the rabbis’ initiative wins the argument every time.

Does God belong in the workplace? Yes.

Should the work of our hands be holy? Yes.

Should we earn money in a holy way? Yes.

Should employers treat their employees in a Godly way? Yes.

Will a rabbinic ethics certification that solely consists of getting employers to follow state and federal laws create greater goodness in the workplace? I’m not so sure.

Would a rabbinic ethics certification that solely consists of getting Jews to follow traffic laws make Pico-Robertson safer? I’m not so sure.

Would a rabbinic ethics certification that solely consists of getting rabbis to abide by the laws of the land that apply to them make our communities holier? I’m not so sure.

Here’s my main objection to Peulat Sachir: When you invoke God and Torah to do something that sounds good but does bad, you not only make yourself look bad, you make God and Torah (the best solution to humanity’s woes) look bad.

When rabbis speak publicly about matters outside their expertise, they not only make themselves, their profession and their religion look bad, they make God look dumb. They create additional reasons for thinking people to not take religion seriously.

I’ve got an exact analogy to this Peulat Sachir project.

Does God belong in the car? Yes. Does the Torah command Jews to follow the laws of the land? Yes. For about 2,000 years, it’s been a fundamental Jewish law that Jews should follow the laws of where they live (unless these laws are evil).

Does this mean Jews should follow the laws on the books or does it mean that Jews should follow the laws of the land as they are practiced? It is the latter, rule the rabbis of yore.

There is no Torah prohibition on driving 60 mph in a 55 mph zone so long as the cars around you are driving at least 60 mph too. Abiding by the letter of the law in this instance would create unnecessary danger and inconvenience.

Many businesses, particularly of those in construction and food, only survive by not following all of the laws of the land. They do many jobs off the books. They often allow their workers to work as many hours as they want so long as these employees do not expect to be paid extra for overtime. If the employees were to be paid as the law mandates for overtime, the business would grow broke.

I worked construction from 1985-1988. I got to work as many hours as I wanted — sometimes as many as 100 a week — so long as I did not expect to be paid extra for overtime. I was happy with that arrangement and my bosses were happy with that arrangement. Yet this very arrangement would violate Peulat Sachir (Modern Orthodox rabbinic ethics initiative for Pico-Robertson businesses).

I don’t think God was excluded when my bosses and I came to an arrangement that violated the laws of the land. I don’t think God will be any better served by rabbis seeing to it that such arrangements can no longer be made.

When I worked as a temp 11 years ago, I often worked straight through my lunch hour, preferring to go home early after logging in my eight hours. From my reading of Peulat Sachir, there would no longer be that option.

I wish being a good employer was largely a matter of following the laws of the land just as I wish being a good Jew was largely a matter of following Jewish law, but while law is an excellent guide in both instances, it’s not the primary requisite for goodness. Nothing beats good actions for creating goodness, and good actions are sometimes within the law and sometimes outside the law.

As Nachmanides wrote 900 years ago, you can be disgusting with the permission of the Torah.

If I am friends with an Orthodox Jew or doing business with an Orthodox Jew or working for an Orthodox Jew, what is most important to me is that he lives up to his word (not whether he obeys everyone one of the 613 Torah laws).

If I am undertaking to do work for an employer, what is most important to me is that my employer lives up to his word and he pays me when payment is due. Obeying some abstruse state law about overtime is of little importance to me.

I don’t think I am alone in this. I think most workers think like I do. We just want to work and get paid on time.

I suspect no worker in Pico-Robertson requested this ethics certification.

I suspect few if any of the rabbis talked to any of the workers affected by this.

If none of the workers requested this, then why did the rabbis create it? If the workers don’t want it and the bosses don’t want it, then what’s the point beyond making the rabbis feel like they are taking charge?

(Let us suppose that all the charges against Agriprocessors were true. Now that the firm is bankrupt and thousands of workers are out of work, are many of them better off? What wonderful jobs opened up for them when Agriprocessors closed down? The reason such workers have miserable lives is not because they had a miserable employer but because they have miserable job skills and are legal citizens in countries such as Mexico that have few opportunities. All the rabbinic ethic certifications in the world won’t change these miserable facts. The reason such workers get oppressed is because they have few job skills. The best way to help such workers is to instill in them a love of learning and high values that they pass on to their children just as Jews have done for thousands of years.)

I read that Bernard Madoff was a great employer. By all six categories of Peulat Sachir, he would’ve qualified. So what’s the use of one then?

Why not a rabbinics certification for screenwriters? All the working screenwriters in Pico-Robertson create programs (many of them R-rated) for millions of people to watch and almost all of these movies and shows run counter to Torah. If any of these screenwriters needed approval for their script from one of the main rabbis in town, then none of them would work.

Why not screen the screenwriters?

Does God not belong on television?

Should not movies reflect the presence of God?

How about a rabbinic ethics certificate before one makes love to one’s spouse? Does not God belong in the bedroom?

How about a rabbinic ethics certificate for plumbers? Does not God belong in the bathroom?

About ten years ago, I started going off the rails on another blog on another industry when I attempted to provide ethics scores for leading companies and individuals. The matter was way too complex to reduce to a score and it just made me look like an idiot and got in the way of my reporting the news.

Rabbi Kanefsky begins his column: "When every last acacia-wood board had been fashioned, every last curtain woven and every single vessel of gold or copper produced, Moshe stood in awe of the people’s accomplishment. “And Moshe saw all the work, and, behold, they had done it! As the Lord had commanded, even so had they done it” (Exodus 39:43). After so many months of effort, the components of the Tabernacle were now complete. It was time for celebration."

According to Rabbi Kanefsky: "Our Sages held up the building of the Tabernacle as the paradigm for all human labor. It is the metaphor that we are to bring to all of our creative endeavors, and most specifically, to the places where we do our work. Each time we make a workplace decision to value integrity over the bottom line, we build a tabernacle for God. Whenever, through our work, we extend the kind of love we wish for ourselves to a client, or an employee, or a co-worker, we cause God’s presence to become manifest. When in the course of our work we grant the benefit of the doubt, vanquish anger and strive to speak the whole truth, we satisfy God’s need to dwell among His creations."

Now let us suppose that the workers of the tabernacle above labored under the same conditions we have in Los Angeles today. First of all, it is overwhelmingly likely that all these workers would be illegal aliens.

Peulat Sachir says not a word about the immigration status of workers. It completely avoids the topic. Does God not care about the laws of the land? Are Jews not commanded to follow the laws of the land? The laws of the land say that it is illegal to employ these people, just as it is illegal for synagogues and markets and restaurants to employ illegal aliens but as we all know, these institutions do often employ illegal aliens to do their menial work — and probably couldn’t compete in the marketplace if they did not.

Why does Peulat Sachir not care about immigration status? After all, the rabbis behind this initiative say they want Jewish businesses to follow the law of the land. They have designed an ethics initiative that solely consists of obeying secular laws. But why did they leave this aspect of the law out?

Following the ethical rhetoric of Rabbi Kanefsky’s column, it must be that God is not to be found in this crucial aspect of the workplace and of citizenry.

But that is absurd. Of course God cares as much about observance of this part of the law as the law of paying extra for overtime. So why do the rabbis skip this? Because it is too messy. Too controversial. Too dangerous. Too much of a bother.

I’m not sure all the rabbis in Peulat Sachir believe that illegal immigrants should not be hired. I doubt they’ve ever preached against the widespread practice of hiring illegal aliens to do domestic work.

If the rabbis copped to skipping immigration status in their contract, they’d have a much harder time wrapping Peulat Sachir in the mantle of Torah. They’d be admitting that the most crucial parts of the employer-employee are outside the law of the land and will not be affected for the good by Peulat Sachir.

Now let us imagine that all the workers in the construction project outlined by Rabbi Kanefsky were legal. Let us imagine that they and their bosses labored under the exact conditions prevailing in Los Angeles today. It is highly unlikely they would be able to stay in business to do their job while following the conditions of Peulat Sachir. If you don’t believe me, ask anyone who works in construction.

Rabbi Kanefsky writes about the project: "Whether or not the Divine Presence would indeed manifest upon and within the objects they had fashioned was still an open question. It was also the only question that really mattered."

Only a clergyman would say that. Everyone else knows that a construction project or the production of a meal or a garment can have worth whether or not the divine presence rests upon it. If your survival or the survival of your family and loved ones depends upon the production of a building or a meal or a pair of jeans, then those things have intrinsic worth, even if God is not involved in their production, even if the production of such things violates the laws of the land.

If I were starving to death and the only food available to me was made by law-breaking labor, I’d gobble it up. If I was shivering in the rain and the only shelter available to me was built by violating the laws of Peulat Sachir, I wouldn’t think twice before taking advantage of it.

Only those who are not poor can claim that the only question that really matters about a piece of work is whether the divine presence rests upon it.

God’s presence is important but it is not the only thing that is important. I couldn’t write much of my blog if I worried whether or not God was with me every second. I couldn’t enjoy "The Sopranos" or a lot of other art if I constantly worried about the divine presence.

God is important but He’s not the only important thing in life. His presence is not the only thing that really matters. Those of us who live on the edge, those of us who never know where our next dollar is coming from, those of us who don’t have a fat guaranteed salary, we’re the ones most likely to suffer from the sanctimonious oppression of projects such as Peulat Sachir. I can well imagine that the only way I’ll pay for some needed medical procedure is if I agree to work my overtime hours at regular wages.

Here’s Rabbi Kanefsky’s phrase that gets to me most keenly: "…strive to speak the whole truth."

Can you, gentle reader, think of any clergy person who is a model for speaking the whole truth? Can you, gentle reader, think of any religious community that values speaking the whole truth?

I can not.

If you want a truth teller, listen to Howard Stern. He’s 100 times more truthful about his foibles than any clergyman I’ve encountered.

Every religious community of which I am aware regards all criticism from the outside as illegitimate and foully motivated. The more Orthodox and insular the community, the more it is closed to outside criticism, even when this criticism is grounded 100% in truth.

Orthodox Judaism places tremendous value upon conformity. What role does speaking the whole truth have in Orthodox Judaism? An instrumental one. Orthodox Judaism’s lying in the name of God is the subject of Marc B. Shapiro’s next book.

Dr. Solomon Schimmel, who’s belonged to an Orthodox synagogue all of his life, makes the case that Orthodox Judaism’s most distinctive claims — that the entirety of the Torah came from God — are lies.

I’d like to hear about anyone living in an Orthodox Jewish community who speaks the whole truth. Where are these supermen?

You show me an Orthodox Jew who strives to speak the whole truth and I’ll show you an Orthodox Jew without a community.

Shmarya Rosenberg, for instance, strives to tell the whole truth to the best of his abilities on FailedMessiah.com (I have all sorts of disagreements with Shmarya, I think he’s wrong about a lot of things, but I have no doubt that the direction of his efforts is towards truth). Send him an email and ask how his jihad for truth has worked for him in Orthodox Jewish life.

Rabbi Kanefsky concludes with this excerpt of the Havdalah prayer: "May the grace of God be upon us, and may He establish the work of our hands."

That sounds very nice, just like Peulat Sachir, but why won’t God heal amputees?

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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