6 January 2012
11 Tevet 5772
Welcome back from winter break, which, I hope, was restful and restorative for everyone!
In preparation for and commemoration of Martin Luther King Day, this week’s Limud Clali was an ethics lab focused on labor issues, our responsibilities as consumers, and the often unforeseen consequences of our choices. Specifically, we discussed and debated the boycott of the Hyatt Hotels by the Massachusetts Board of Rabbis and others, which is of particular interest to our community because, in past years, not knowing about the boycott, we have held our Junior-Senior prom at the Hyatt in Cambridge. We welcomed Rabbi Barbara Penzner, the Reconstructionist rabbi of Temple Hillel B’nei Torah in West Roxbury, who talked about her work in support of hotel workers. We also heard from a former Hyatt employee who was among the 98 housekeepers fired in 2009, which put a human face and experience on this issue. We invited the Hyatt to send a manager to put a face on the perspective of management as well, but no one from the hotel was able to attend. Instead, we heard a letter sent by one of the Hyatt managers explaining the difficulty and complexity of the hotel’s decision in light of the economic challenges. The presentation was engaging and, as always, our students asked the speakers thoughtful and challenging questions. As is often the case with a powerful Limud Clali, what impressed me were the many conversations that followed—in advisor groups, classes, minyanim, and sichot (discussion groups). What is the relationship between law and morality and which should govern business decisions? Are these specifically Jewish issues or are they universal, human issues? What values should we as a school consider when making decisions such as where to hold our prom?
In one conversation, a student challenged: “There are so many huge issues out there; why are we focusing on 98 workers and a situation where nothing done to them was even illegal?” His question was a powerful illustration of the educational challenge that arises whenever we try to raise awareness about issues relating to social justice. Where do we begin? How do we not feel that almost anything we do or learn about is just a tiny drop in a huge bucket?
One answer to his question is an important principle of meaningful moral education. We started here because it was not just a philosophical conversation about labor issues; this is a real, live dilemma for our community. The conversation begins and ends with a practical choice that we, as a community, have to make. In the past we were not even aware of these issues. What could be a more important or empowering place to start? As I reflect more on the student’s question, I am also reminded of a well-known quote attributed to different rabbis, including Rabbi Yisrael Slanter, the founder of the modern Mussar movement, and to Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, the Chafetz Chaim:
I set out to try to change the world, but I failed. So I decided to scale back my efforts and only try to influence the Jewish community of Poland, but I failed there, too. So I targeted the community in my hometown of Radin, but achieved no greater success. Then I gave all my effort to changing my own family, and failed at that as well. Finally, I decided to change myself, and that’s how I had such an impact on the Jewish world.
Both the quote and this week’s Limud Clali illustrate Gann’s approach to character and Jewish identity development. As Rabbi Penzner stated at the close of her presentation, we are Jews and human beings with power, knowledge, and free will, and we make choices all the time that have consequences, some obvious and many not so obvious. It is our responsibility to learn about the implications of our choices and, to the degree that we are aware of these implications, to be thoughtful, reflective, and intentional about them. When our choices are also informed by Jewish texts, values, and aspirations, we strengthen the moral character and Jewish identity of ourselves and our community.
Rabbi Marc Baker