Choices and Voices



Last year, the Jewish Publication Society began issuing a series of brief books (on average, 125 pages), all in paperback editions with colorful, attractively designed covers bearing the overall title "Jewish Choices, Jewish Voices." Geared to young readers, they consider several large issues of relevance to the modern world — in the case of the first two volumes, these were money and the body — then ask a number of central questions while providing excerpts from Jewish writings that have particular bearing on the discussion.

The editors of the series are Elliot N. Dorff, a longtime member of the Committee of Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly, and a well-known author, and Louis E. Newman, the John M. and Elizabeth W. Musser Professor of Religious Studies and director of Judaic Studies at Carleton College.

The editors explain that they conceived of the series as a "forum of discussion." The questions posed in the volume on money include things like: "Do I have enough? Do I give enough? Can I work for a morally questionable employer? Can I pay my nanny under the table? What's so bad about a little credit-card debt?"

In the case of the book on the body, the questions are: "Is my weight anybody's business but my own? Can a tattoo express my Jewish identity? How risky is bungee jumping, anyway?"

Each of the books offer three case studies, followed by the writings from traditional, then contemporary sources. After that comes what's called a "symposium," where a dozen current writers and thinkers expound on the problems raised by the case studies.

The choice of readings come from ancient and modern sources because the editors wanted to present the Jewish tradition in its most representative way: as what they call a multivocal experience.

"Seeing moral issues through a Jewish lens," they write, "even one that produces multiple refractions of the Jewish tradition and of Jewish modernity, will, we hope, enable modern Jews to grapple with those issues more intelligently and more sensitively. It is our deepest conviction that these voices from the Jewish tradition and today's Jewish community will invite you to consider your moral choices in a different light. At the very least, they give us all new questions and perspectives to ponder and, more often than not, moral wisdom and guidance."

The newest volume in the series considers power. The questions in this case are "How do we avoid the temptations to use power chiefly for our own advantage? How should bosses treat workers? Teachers treat students? Government treat citizens?"

On Manners and Money

It seems appropriate that a book on power should be reviewed in the High Holiday season since much of what is discussed in these all important days, in a liturgical sense, concerns the way we treat others. Money, too, is a pressing subject now, in matters of tzedakah — and in lieu of the Madoff scandal.

Not surprisingly, the first case study in the new book combines both issues.

"Karen is Jewish and a vice president of a large investment firm. She is heavily committed to a variety of charitable causes, and she knows that it would be good for her business to be known as a contributor to charity. She therefore wants to approach her subordinates to ask them for contributions to the following causes. Given the inequality in their power relationships, is it legitimate for Karen to ask the employees for contributions to any of these causes. If so, to which and why?

The local art museum

The United Way

The local Jewish Federation (assuming the employee is Jewish)

Planned Parenthood

The Republican Party."

Two questions are posed: "Would it make any difference if Karen approached the subordinates who were already giving to the cause in question, and she was merely pressuring them to give more? Would it matter if Karen pressured her employees to give money but left it to them to choose the recipients, provided that they inform her of their gifts so she could use the information in the corporation's public relations campaign?"

There is no discussion after this, just the selections gathered from traditional sources, specifically ones that deal with how Karen must proceed. There are several from Maimonides'Mishneh Torah: "The Jewish and non-Jewish poor must be cared for in order to keep the peace."

"One who settles in the community for 30 days becomes obligated to contribute to the charity fund together with the other members of the community. One who settles there for three months becomes obligated to contribute to the soup kitchen. One who settles there for six months becomes obligated to contribute clothing with which the poor of the community can cover themselves. One who settles there for nine months becomes obligated to contribute to the burial fund for burying the community's poor and providing for all the needs of burial."

Next appear three contemporary selections. After a scene from Arthur Miller's play Death of a Salesman and a portion of Danny Siegel's poem "Tzedakah Is All Rage" come several passages from Faye Moskowitz's story collection A Leak in the Heart: "Winter Sunday mornings in Detroit my father and I would walk to the Warsaw Bakery on 12th Street to buy bagels. … No matter how early we came, the Pushke Lady was there before us, sitting in a chair safely out of the draft, shaking her canister under our noses. Jewish National Fund, Pioneer Women, Hadassah, milk for Jewish orphans, trees for Palestine — thanks to the Pushke Lady, no Jew would have to slather cream cheese on his bagel with a guilty conscience.

"During the Depression, when we moved to a little town not far from Detroit, spring brought the tramps, pale and spindly, looking like plants do when they have had to reach too far to find the sun. Coming home from school, I would often spot a man at the back door looking for odd jobs, slouch hat or cotton cap held in both hands over his chest, hungry, and my mother would feed him: cold potatoes, bread, coffee; we had little enough ourselves. … Afterward, she would tell me, as though making excuses, 'It's a mitzvah to the feed the poor.' "

Again, there are no mediating words on how to interpret these choices or how to apply them to the case at hand. The young readers — and any more mature ones so inclined to pick up these stimulating volumes — are merely left, as a brilliant comedian once said, to "talk amongst ourselves."


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