One Shabbat I was at the usual Kiddush that a bunch of the guys have after synagogue is over. A discussion started between myself and a friendly neighborhood labor lawyer about how Jewish non-profits deal with those who work for them. During the discussion, as I stood up for the rights of the employee, the lawyer said to me “OK, they’re being #$%@%^ [expletive for a certain oriface], but are they doing anything illegal?” That, to me, was a discussion stopper. After all, shouldn’t it be illegal to be an a–hole?
This was a huge wake up call for me. In my childhood, I thought I wanted to be a lawyer. After all, the attorneys I saw on TV all stood up for the downtrodden. They were the good guys. And I really didn’t know any attorneys personally. My parents weren’t college educated and were on the lower end of middle class, so professionals weren’t part of their social circle. Finally, in high school, a well-meaning guidance counselor said to me, “Do you know what attorneys actually do?” I had to admit, that I really didn’t. The idea that an attorney could be doing nothing more than drawing up contracts, or wills, or pre-nups never occured to me. All I wanted to do was to pursue justice. And now, as an adult, an attorney was standing before me and basically saying the same thing: in America, attorneys stand up for the law, not for righteousness.
When I was studying for the rabbinate, I looked at Jewish law and again tried to equate law with tzedek, righteousness. For a while, I was able to make a case for it. But when I looked closer, it turned out that here, too, the “law” wasn’t always on the side of righteousness: 50% of the people in synagogues I attended were precluded from ritual leadership or meaningful participation, a Kohen who was a nasty person could bless the people but a genuine mentsch non-Kohen could not, and the Torah had mandated genocide against an entire nation (Amalek).
Over the course of a lifetime, I’ve worked to bridge the gap in my life between tzedek and law, at least in Judaism (and to some degree in my activism and voting as an American). It’s not easy. Even the ancient rabbis realized how easy it was to be a naval birshut ha-Torah…a despicable human being, but with the seeming permission of Torah. While there was implicit understanding that following mitzvot was a guideline to becoming a mentsch, there was recognition that it didn’t always work. And only with the mussar movement that reached a peak in the 19th century did character education finally become as valued as the performance of mitzvot.
At the risk of being mildly vulgar, I remember making a point to my kids when someone Orthodox acted in a nasty way. I would ask the question: what is a putz [Yiddish expletive for a male body part) with tzitzit [ritual fringes]? The answer, of course, is….a putz.
So, in the end, it’s better that I didn’t become a lawyer (sorry, mom, if you’re reading this in Gan Eden). And also better that I became a rabbi in an era in which many rabbis do pursue justice, and not merely ritual observance, for their followers, whether it’s the hechsher tzedek in which kashrut means an establishment follows ethical as well as ritual laws, whether it’s organizations that push traditional law to its absolute limit to give women rights in divorce cases, or human rights organizations in which rabbis are leaders.
This is the kind of rabbinate that I signed up for.