March 4, 2009
Laboring for Ethics
Jews can’t sit still, especially when we see a member of the tribe royally mess up. A kosher slaughterhouse accused of grossly violating labor laws? A money manager caught stealing billions? Unacceptable! A stain on our good name! A communal crisis!
We get so worked up it’s easy to overreact and overreach.
One effort that I think might be overreaching hit Pico-Robertson last Shabbat, when a group of Los Angeles’ Modern Orthodox rabbis announced an initiative called Peulat Sachir: The Ethical Labor Initiative (Hebrew for “the worker’s wage”), as initially reported in The Journal in October.
The organization is planning to offer local Jewish business owners a “Covenant Document that is to be signed by you and a representative of Peulat Sachir that will hang in your window and will favorably promote your business as being in compliance with proper labor practices.”
They add that “the areas that Peulat Sachir will certify are minimum wage, overtime, meal and rest breaks, workers’ compensation insurance, leave policies and discrimination/harassment policies.”
The group says in a news release that the initiative will enable business owners to “proclaim their compliance with federal and state labor laws,” and that “to qualify for the Ethical Labor Covenant, business owners will allow Peulat Sachir to spot-check their payroll records, and interview employees regarding policies in the workplace.”
On the surface, this program, which was founded “in conjunction with leaders in the business and legal communities,” seems like a progressive slam dunk. It takes a noble and abstract idea — improving ethical behavior and standards in the Jewish community — makes it specific and puts real teeth behind it. Let’s face it: hanging a proclamation on a wall regarding legal compliance is serious business.
But while I love the daring nature of the initiative, the more I think about it, the more it makes me uneasy.
First, let’s imagine that I’m a perfectly lawful Jewish merchant on Pico Boulevard who would prefer, for whatever reason, not to trumpet my compliance with any set of laws, which is my right. Is it fair that I might end up looking bad — or even unlawful — and that my business might suffer, just because I choose not to get the Peulat Sachir document?
Also, isn’t it weird to announce that you’re following the law? Isn’t that like running an ad that says, “We don’t steal”? And if legal compliance is important, why single out treatment of employees? What about suppliers, clients, competitors or the INS and the IRS? Are they any less important or ethically relevant?
Where do you draw the line? If you’re going to look at laborers in the workplace, should you also look at the thousands of Jewish households in our community who violate labor laws when they employ illegal workers?
In short, is it smart for spiritual leaders to get involved with the messy business of legal compliance? What will they do, for instance, if they hear a sexual harassment accusation in a workplace? Try to figure out who’s telling the truth?
I realize I’m critiquing a program before it even starts, but if my points have merit, I figure it’s better to share them early. The question many of us are wrestling with is: What is the best way to promote ethics?
For one thing, ethics is about more than following the law. It’s about developing character, the kind of character that aims higher than the law. If you are honest, loyal and generous, you won’t think twice about giving a trusted employee a few days off to stay with a dying mother, even if the law doesn’t require it.
If you haven’t developed a good character, there’s no window declaration that will make you an ethical person. And Judaism is very much about becoming an ethical person.
Instead of a narrow focus on labor laws, imagine rabbis from across the country announcing at the next Rosh Hashanah that this will be “The Year of Character and Ethics.” Throughout the year, our spiritual leaders would create a series of classes, innovative programs and inspirational teachings around the values of character and ethics — not just inside the workplace but in all places.
In their teachings, the rabbis would remind us that ethical behavior applies to everyone in our lives, not only our employees but our colleagues, competitors, suppliers and clients — not to mention our spouses, children, parents, friends, neighbors and community members.
It’s true that Jews have always had a special place in their hearts for employees’ rights — for the ethics of protecting the vulnerable worker. But ethical living is a package deal, not an à la carte menu. If I’m ethical with my employees during the day but then turn around and abuse my wife or deceive a client or steal from a competitor, then my character is flawed and I’m not ethical, and any document on my window that suggests otherwise is misleading.
On the other hand, if I’m ethical in all my dealings, my character will make my reputation, and my ethics will come not from a sign but from my inside.
Rabbis are at their best when they motivate rather than regulate. Maybe while the lawyers work out Peulat Sachir, the rabbis could emphasize what they do really well: instilling in our community the Jewish ideal of the complete ethical life. They might even include a communitywide debate.
I’ve learned a lot about living ethically from the rabbis behind Peulat Sachir. Over the years, I have seen the power of their teachings and how their words nourish the conscience, refine the character and inspire the highest level of ethics.
Perhaps because we’re in crisis mode, it’s tempting to seek dramatic action. But in our search for progressive ideas, we should never forget the old-fashioned power of a spiritual leader, alone at the pulpit, inspiring us to be our best.