By Aaron Howard
There is a well-known teaching (Talmud Shabbat 31a) that when one arrives at judgment in the Heavenly Court in the next world, the first question asked is: “Were you honest in business?” This reflects the idea that right choices – righteous choices – are not a matter of armchair philosophy, but knowing the ethical choice to make in real life. Jewish ethics is the arena where the teaching of spirituality confronts the daily business of making money.
Rabbi Yossi Grossman first began teaching a course in Jewish Medical Ethics 14 years ago. In 2009, he helped establish The Jewish Ethics Institute as a division of TORCH (Torah Outreach Resource Center of Houston). Now, JEI is going national. With a grant from the Wolfson Foundation, Rabbi Grossman plans to establish 12 branches of JEI in different cities across the United States. He already has opened branches in Dallas and Miami Beach. Seattle and Philadelphia are in the works.
JEI is an educational resource for physicians, attorneys and business professionals. The goal is to assist professionals in developing a Jewish ethical perspective to properly handling contemporary dilemmas from a position of knowledge, while adhering to the highest ethical standards.
“In Houston, JEI has been changing the way people practice their professions,” said Rabbi Grossman. “I’ve had physicians tell me it has changed the way they practice medicine. Business people tell me it has changed the way they do business. When we started getting requests by email from across the country, we realized our model wasn’t being duplicated anywhere else.”
Many professionals, including physicians and attorneys, are required to complete continuing education units each year to keep their licenses to practice. These professional requirements have opened a venue for the JEI to provide classes and networking opportunities to Jewish attorneys and physicians.
“Once they come to the class, they realize that Judaism is relevant to questions they deal with in their daily practice. After the Madoff scandal, which involved so many Jews, there were many questions about the role of honesty in business. There are people who call themselves religious. But, when it comes to business practices, they don’t necessarily keep to a high ethical standard.
“Judaism is about taking the mundane aspects in our lives and sanctifying them. How do you do that? One primary way is by taking your business dealings and making sure everything you do is done at the highest standards of Torah ethics. Practically, you go to work every day. And, if you’re doing your work with the proper ethical standard, your daily acts become sanctified. Business is not simply business.”
Rabbi Grossman argued that there’s a major difference between Jewish ethics and secular ethics. Secular ethics is subject to individual, cultural or societal norms, he said.
“For example, euthanasia used to be considered capital murder. Today, you’re not considered a good doctor for keeping someone alive and causing them suffering. Many hospitals have medical ethics boards who make ethical decisions based on secular ethical standards. In contrast, a rabbi depends on Torah opinions. Although the applications may have changed over time, these principles are eternal. So, while our society’s ethics may condone mercy killing, Jewish ethics do not.
“Western medical ethics tend to be based on individual rights; the concept of autonomy, the right of the patient to choose. Jewish ethics are based on the duties of each individual. What are my duties in medical or business practice as a Jew? So, for example, as an employer, I have obligations to my employees and vice versa. Our goal is to teach that we need to be ethical in our everyday professional dealings. We do that by exposing Jews to the fact that the Torah is relevant. We’re imparting a vision: You can make highly ethical decisions in your professional life based on Torah ethics.”
To expand JEI, Rabbi Grossman hooks up with educational organizations in other cities. He provides them with a national website, curriculum, handouts and source material. He also helps them gain academic accreditation, since each state mandates different criteria for continuing education. When Rabbi Grossman applied to the State Bar of Texas for continuing legal education credits, the name of the course was “American Cases in Talmudic Law.” The state bar’s response: What is Talmud?
“I had a University of Houston law professor write a letter to the Texas State Bar explaining what Talmud is and its importance in the American legal system. They had no idea that much of Anglo-American common law is based on Talmudic precedence.”