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RJ Guide: Reform Judaism—30 Stories
Section VIII. Leading an Ethical Life

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RJ: Are ethics central to your identity? Do you believe being a Reform Jew has made you a more ethical person?

Mike Sims: I believe that living an ethical life and Reform Judaism’s imperative to engage in acts of tikkun olam are inextricably bound. How can you say that you are committed to repairing the world if you destroy the lives of others through deceit? The first step toward making the world a better place is to make your own life, your part of the world, an ethical place.

If I were to write my children an ethical will, the first thing I would tell them is that very often big crimes start out as small misdeeds. I don’t believe the folks at Enron woke up one day and said, “Let’s commit massive fraud.” Rather, I suspect it started with a few small deals that may or may not have been “technically” legal and snowballed into a mess that bankrupted a company and ruined the lives of thousands of employees and investors.

Photo by Walter Zimmerman

I once had an impassioned argument with a friend about whether it was right to pay for one movie at the multiplex and then stay for two or three movies. She argued that once you paid to get in you should be able to stay. Plus, she said, “they expect us to do it, and they charge too much for popcorn and soda anyway.” Remember, I told her, “we paid for one movie and got what we paid for, even if it cost too much.”

Small ethical acts can make a big difference—for the good or the bad. I choose to make them for the good.

Dawn Mollenkopf: I am particularly conscious of my actions because I live in a college town of 27,000 people and the nearest synagogue is over 2 hours away; consequently I may be the only Jew some of the people around me will ever meet. My greatest challenge is to guard my tongue when talking about others and to be careful of the information I share. Although I am fairly level-headed, I can get very angry when I see others hurt or put down, or witness people breaking rules to benefit themselves at another person’s expense. As a person of action, I struggle not to overreact in haste, which can end up hurting others. I also struggle to make sure my words effectively express my concerns without attacking the person. When I find I have wronged someone, I arrange a time to talk out the problem and remedy the situation in a way that addresses that person’s feeling of injustice. I find that most people will gladly accept my apologies and appreciate my attempts to right the wrong; however, a few people prefer to hold a grudge. I’ve learned that teshuvah is important to me even if the other person chooses not to accept it.

Marzy Bauer: I have the privilege of teaching Jewish ethics to religious school students. I explain the rabbinic teaching that we need to try to achieve balance in our behavior, even though we can’t be expected to behave perfectly all the time. Some ethical concepts, like not engaging in l’shon hara (gossip), are struggles—after all, who doesn’t want to be “in the know”? I love the Hasidic story where the rabbi instructs a tale-bearer to take a pillowcase full of chicken feathers and scatter them in the wind; how much harder would it be to gather up words that have been spoken falsely? I try to think of that teaching whenever I’m confronted with a bit of juicy gossip, and I’m pleased that many people in my congregation turn to me because they know I will keep their confidences. Still, I know I could do a lot better to balance my middot (character traits).

Knowing that our ancestors were challenged by the same ethical issues has helped me understand that doing the right thing takes effort, but it’s a goal well worth the struggle.

Steve Arnold: Living an ethical life, which I take to mean personal integrity and honesty in all dealings, has always been a central goal. My chief failing has been the habit of hiding or making excuses instead of taking responsibility for my mistakes. I do struggle to overcome this tendency, and I have made small advances, but I am still a long way from being the person I should be.

Judy Fisher: My ethical decisions are guided by “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you,” and balanced by Hillel’s quote, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?” When I am evaluating what to do in a given situation, I test myself by answering these questions. When I can achieve the right balance of doing what’s right for others while doing the right thing for myself, then I know I am making the correct ethical decision. I always try to behave toward others how I would like others to behave toward me.

Still, I have had trouble with forgiveness–-forgiving myself and forgiving others—to say I’m sorry and truly mean it. To truly repent, I have to learn how to forgive, so I have striven to examine this over the past year. Rabbi Harold Kushner has helped me reframe forgiveness with his teaching, “Forgiveness is not a favor we do for the person who offended us. It is a favor we do for ourselves, cleansing our souls of thoughts and memories that lead us to see ourselves as victims and make our lives less enjoyable. When we understand we have little choice as to what other people do but we can always choose how we will respond to what they do, we can let go of those embittering memories and enter the New Year clean and fresh.” I want others to be able to forgive me, so I am learning how to forgive.

Barbara K. Shuman: For the last 3 years I have been studying Mussar, a centuries-old Jewish spiritual tradition that cultivates personal growth and spiritual fulfillment through a system of ethical behavioral modification. The teachings focus on key character traits or qualities of the soul, including humility, generosity, gratitude, trust, patience, and enthusiasm. Paying attention to these qualities has improved my personal relationships and hopefully made me a better person.

Laurence Kaufman: Although ethics are central to my identity and I consider ethics central to Reform Judaism, I don’t see Reform Judaism as having made me a more ethical human being. I believe I lived ethically before I came, as an adult, to Reform Judaism. Since then, Reform Judaism has given me texts to quote in support of what I would probably have done anyway.

Abbey Shepard-Smith: The Reform ethical teachings of my childhood have shaped my decisions in adulthood. Thirty-five years ago, in either 4th or 5th grade religious school, we used a text called At Camp Kee Tov. Through the stories in this book I learned to “put myself in the other person’s shoes,” and “not to do to another what I would not want done” to me. I use those teachings in making any decision today.

William Berkson: My passion for Jewish ethical teaching was awakened at the rather late age of 50. Fascinated with how people make decisions under the pressures of modern life, I had read widely in psychology and philosophy, looking for helpful ideas, and increasingly came to feel that the critical dimension of values was overlooked. This led me to explore the wisdom of the Jewish sages on how Jewish values can guide us in love, work, and family. I learned enough Hebrew to be able to study Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers, and followed up by exploring the same issues in Torah and Talmud.

It was a revelation to find in these texts all of the Jewish values and attitudes that I had always treasured—the passion for justice, kindness, and peace; the near worship of learning; the conviction that we can move closer to the truth through the discussion and debate of serious issues; the idea that we experience the sacred Presence in love and in the natural world.

Most important for my personal quest, I found in the rabbinic sages a more sophisticated personal ethic, truly helpful values-based guidance that I had not encountered anywhere else. The sages saw that the Jewish values of kindness (chesed), compassion (rachamim), and justice (tzedek), among others, promoted strong relationships. And they worked out in detail how these values apply in a practical way: how parents and children, husbands and wives, businessmen and customers should treat each other. This ethic not only guides but inspires, increasing the sanctity of daily life. Still, it takes real effort to learn how to apply its values today, in our very different world than when the Torah and Talmud were written. So I am inspired, and hunger for more.

John Planer: I understand the purpose of life to be compassionate altruism—giving rather than receiving—and continually struggle against myself to become a better person. My core values are emet (truth), chochma (wisdom), and chesed (kindness). In pursuit of truth I seek to understand the patterns underlying the events and realities around us; in striving for wisdom I seek to understand the human heart and to know how best to use my limited time; and in acting with kindness I try to alleviate the suffering of others.

These ethical commitments are shaped by many Jewish and non-Jewish sources: Torah and Talmud, parents and teachers, religious leaders and congregants, authors and artists, evils and injustices observed and experienced. Perhaps, ultimately, all these sources come from God—for I believe that God interacts with us continually through others. But whatever the source, I alone am responsible for living my life in accordance with the values I have willingly adopted. In the microcosm in which I live—in my family, in the college classroom, and in my congregation—I realize that I cannot expect others to behave with compassion, honesty, accountability, and love if I myself do not behave nobly. I must model what I value.

RJ: What Jewish ethical teachings do you think are important and should be passed on?

John Planer: Pirkei Avot contains much sage advice. Rabbi Shimon affirms that among the pillars of leadership the crown of a good name (keter shem tov) is above the crowns of Torah, priesthood, and royalty (4:13). To strive to merit a good name—to be a mensch—requires that we behave ethically, honestly, and compassionately. And when Rabbi Yochanan asks, “What is the good path to which a person should cleave?” Rabbi Elazar answers that one should have a good heart (2:9).

Judy Fisher: Over the last few years I have been writing a spiritual-ethical will filled with family stories and values to give to my children. My parents have passed away, and I feel a need to pass on their legacy, as well as my own, not just to my children but to their children and their children’s children, so all future generations will know what our family valued. My top three values are a love and commitment to family, a love of Judaism and connection to the Jewish people, and a commitment to community service to leave this world a better place. Also I’ve written that as part of my legacy I want Jewish grandchildren!

Laurence Kaufman: If I were to leave an ethical will for my children, I’d tell them: 1) Recognize that no good deed ever goes unpunished, yet do good deeds anyway; 2) Understand the meaning behind your dad’s license plate/email name “Hinneni”—it’s a “Here I am” answer when summoned to engage in what’s difficult; and 3) from Pirkei Avot: Do not separate yourself from the community.

The Rabbis Speak

“We bring Torah into the world when we strive to fulfill the highest ethical mandates in our relationships with others and with all of God’s creation.”

—A Statement of Principles for Reform Judaism, CCAR, 1999

To Learn More...

about ethical living, read Judaism and Spiritual Ethics by Niles E. Goldstein and Steven S. Mason (URJ Press). The rabbis address such issues as “Does a selfish motive negate the merit of charitable action?” based on the Sefer Ma’alot Hamidot (Book of Virtues and Values):


Union for Reform Judaism.