Loyalty is arguably one of our most valued character traits. We aspire to be a loyal child, a loyal friend, a loyal Jew. Accusing someone of being disloyal is casting a particularly damning aspersion. As illustrated below, loyalty has factored into many of my most consequential life choices. Nevertheless, I repeatedly discover that decisions concerning loyalty are fraught with confusion and ambiguity and Torah discussions exploring its appropriate parameters are scarce.
In community matters, for example, though loyalty is regularly raised as a significant consideration, definitive and uniform guidance is elusive. For example, when making charity allocations, should I focus on an institution’s effectiveness and communal impact, or should loyalty justify prioritizing my alma mater, institutions led by friends or mentors and institutions long supported by my parents and grandparents? Does switching one’s children into different yeshivos, changing shuls or attending a backyard minyan constitute disloyalty? And, in the reverse, what duties of loyalty do religious educational institutions owe their alumni? Should they prioritize accepting the children of former students? Should they give precedence to alumni’s requests for references for either job applications or shidduchim? What duty of loyalty is owed by a not-for-profit to long-term employees who, unfortunately, can no longer be productive, or former donors no longer capable of philanthropy?
Similarly, to what extent, if any, should loyalty to friends and family be taken into consideration by those able to influence a communal institution’s choices, whether it be regarding allocation of project funding, allotment of funds to be distributed to the needy, or notifications regarding internal job openings? Does influencing communal allocations differ from allocating one’s own resources? I have personally repeatedly encountered these types of dilemmas during my tenure as OU president.
As an OU lay leader, I often receive calls from close friends and relatives asking me to intervene and have their children placed on the top of a waiting list for one of the NCSY or Yachad summer programs. It is fairly common for philanthropists to receive similar calls regarding children’s admission to popular schools and yeshivos. Frequently, accommodating such requests would necessarily deny admission to a different child who had been next on the waiting list.
Does loyalty justify helping a friend at the direct and express expense of others? The Torah imposes a duty of areivus, binding each Jew to each other. Does areivus demand an obligation of loyalty among all Jews? If we are required to be loyal to all Jews, how can we ever favor one at the expense of another? Or is there an enhanced duty of areivus and loyalty to close friends?
And when does loyalty to family members trump our loyalty to other fellow Jews? We are taught that “u’mibesarcha lo tisalam, do not ignore your own kin” (Yeshayahu 58:7). Does this principle convey that there is a particular duty of loyalty to family members, and if so, how should such loyalty be balanced with loyalty to close friends or to all Jews?
Ethical concerns can arise when, for example, one is asked to help in matters that do not align with one’s own standards of behavior. A relationship may suffer irreparable damage when one declines to provide rather benign assistance that advances an unethical, or even illegal, activity. Perhaps the most dramatic loyalty dilemma arises when a person is threatened by the authorities with a lengthy prison sentence unless he compromises others in a criminal investigation. I often hear folks adamantly declare that they would never be so disloyal as to succumb to betrayal. Personally, I cannot imagine the anguish of such a choice. But what parameters does the Torah provide for such a dilemma?
I once served on the board of directors of a company headed by a close friend. Suspecting that my friend had violated a federal securities law, the board members dutifully reported the apparent violation to the Securities and Exchange Commission, and I submitted my resignation from the board. My friend viewed my resignation as an act of disloyalty, of abandoning him in his time of need. I felt it was he who had been disloyal to me by unilaterally committing violations that damaged the company and put me and the other board members in harm’s way. It is now years later and I still wonder, who betrayed whom?
What about less dramatic decisions? Is there a particular loyalty one should feel toward neighborhood proprietors? To a business one has patronized for years? To service or merchandise businesses owned by old family friends?
During my legal career I twice changed firms, first as an associate and later as a partner and department head. In each instance, I struggled with the ethic of loyalty in deciding whether to make the move. In retrospect, I wonder whether I resisted the offer out of a genuine sense of loyalty or because I wanted to avoid being in the awkward situation of informing valued and respected peers that I would be leaving. In any event, I soon learned how very subjective loyalty really is.
Several months after joining the new law firm as a department head, I met with the firm’s Management Committee to report on my group’s annual performance. In the course of the meeting, I was asked for my input regarding the compensation of individual partners. Regarding a particularly accomplished and ambitious partner, I recommended a certain degree of overcompensation, suggesting that he was likely being aggressively recruited by competing law firms. A veteran member of the committee scoffed at my suggestion, disdainfully noting that if my suspicions were correct, the firm would prefer to be rid of a partner whose character was so flawed as to be prepared to betray his fellow partners by even entertaining a competitor’s offer.
Discretion being the better part of valor, I refrained from noting that the law firm was actually not reluctant to include flawed partners of such “disloyalty.” After all, I fit that very description, having just joined the firm after being successfully lured from my prior partnership!
Was I being disloyal when I agreed to transfer my legal practice to a different law firm? And if loyalty should have been factored into my decision process, how should that loyalty have been balanced against the loyalty I simultaneously owed to my family and to myself to pursue a significant career opportunity?
Are We Being Prepared for the Intricacies of Loyalty?
While I was growing up my parents modeled a deep sense of loyalty to family and friends. I do not recall, however, my teachers or rebbeim exploring the topic. My only recollection of loyalty being addressed by teachers was when they admonished us not to use classmate loyalty as a reason not to tattletale on the classmate who was responsible for whatever offense had taken place that day. Indeed, loyalty was apparently held in higher esteem in the playground than in the classroom.
To be sure, the Torah is replete with lessons of profound loyalty to Hashem and to the Jewish nation. Tanach also provides models of loyalty to family and other Jews. For example, Avraham Avinu went to battle out of loyalty to his nephew Lot, and a young Moshe Rabbeinu suffered the fate of being exiled from Pharaoh’s palace in choosing to protect a Jewish slave from a ruthless taskmaster.
But there are also examples of family loyalty being compromised, sometimes wrongfully and other times justifiably. Examples include Cain killing his brother; Avraham permitting Sarah to torment Hagar; Yaakov defrauding his father to deny his brother Eisav the firstborn birthright; and Yosef ’s brothers selling him into slavery.
Curiously, certain incidents in Tanach are fraught with conundrums of conflicting loyalties, but the Torah conveys little about how the conflicts were considered, weighed and resolved. From what I’ve seen the commentators do not often address the quandaries of these conflicting loyalties and they are rarely explored in yeshivah study halls. Two examples come to mind: Out of loyalty to her sister Leah, Rachel shares the wedding night secret codes that she and her future husband Yaakov had designed to shield against her father Lavan’s beguilement. Only a few commentators address Rachel’s evident betrayal of Yaakov in favor of Leah. Out of loyalty to his beloved friend, the future King David, Yonasan betrays his father, King Shaul. The text and commentators provide some insight into Yonasan’s decisions, but provide us with little guidance regarding how we should apply appropriate parameters if forced to choose between competing loyalties.
A Possible Approach to Loyalty
Perhaps some of the confusion regarding loyalty is due to our failure to recognize that there are actually multiple kinds of loyalty, each with distinct rules governing when and how it should be prioritized and practiced. Despite the significant distinctions between them, each genre evokes similar emotional inclinations, further obfuscating the differences.
Among the numerous types of loyalty, distinguishing between three general categories may be extremely helpful: commitment, gratitude and identity.
Commitment Loyalty: “Commitment Loyalty” often signifies being faithful to one’s own commitments. One who promises, for example, to enter into a partnership but then partners with someone else is considered disloyal. Unlike other types of loyalty, however, this kind is actually about honesty. Its application and priority must therefore be considered in that context. The Torah considers a man’s word as his bond. Failure to honor a promise, even when a counterparty has no legal recourse, exposes one to the curse referenced as “mi she’para” (Bava Metzia 44a).
Commitments are frequently regarded as creating a loyalty obligation. For example, through our acceptance of the Torah at Har Sinai we can be described as Hashem’s loyal subjects and our religious observances as reflecting our loyalty to the Torah’s precepts and values. Similarly, a couple committing to each other under the chuppah thereby embraces inviolable mutual loyalty, through good times and bad.
This category of loyalty is actually implied in the broadest array of roles of responsibility, such as serving as a corporate officer or director, assuming a meaningful communal position, joining the military or accepting a government office. Betraying these or other similar commitments is both an act of disloyalty to others and an act of disloyalty to one’s own integrity.
Gratitude Loyalty: Loyalty is also often a demonstration of hakaras hatov (gratitude). This kind of loyalty may not only influence to whom we allocate our time or resources but may even induce us to do gracious favors. In certain ways, this form of loyalty is less compulsory than commitment loyalty, as the latter only leads us to honor commitments, while gratitude loyalty may engender a more expansive range of responses.
Thus, for example, we may feel pain when a person or institution to whom we owe significant gratitude is suffering, and out of loyalty we may aggressively defend them. A student may therefore vehemently defend a favorite teacher or yeshivah against criticism, and a congregant may emphatically shield his longstanding rabbi from blame.
The loyalty we show close friends is partially rooted in love, but may be partially rooted in gratitude, as well. Aside from appreciating the assistance and support our friends provide, we treasure the warmth and security generated by authentic camaraderie. In addition, we deeply appreciate the reciprocal loyalty of dependable friends.
Identity Loyalty: We may discover within ourselves a sense of loyalty to people or entities to whom we owe neither commitment nor gratitude, but rather in whom a sense of our own identity is invested. The degree of our invested identity may be significant, such as when we identify as members of a nation, community, family or even an ideological or religious movement. Or the commonality of identity may be rather superficial, such as the fellow who pulls over to assist someone with a flat tire and explains that “as a Volvo driver I always feel a sense of loyalty and duty to another Volvo driver in need.”
Though my personal identity loyalty is currently dominated by substantive and meaningful ideals and values, I first learned of identity loyalty in sports. As youngsters, my friends and I had a firm allegiance to the Montréal Canadiens hockey team. We were dyed-in- the-wool fans and would treat disparagingly (and potentially worse) anyone in the neighborhood who dared to root for a competing team. But during my youth, from 1965 to 1979, allegiance to the Canadiens was easy since they won the Stanley Cup championship ten out of those fifteen years. Far more challenging was our loyalty to the hapless Montréal Expos baseball franchise, which failed to have a single winning season in the first ten years after its founding in 1969.
One might suppose that identity loyalty would be the type that generates the least sacrifice or effort. After all, no commitments were made, and there was no nexus between the parties to generate a debt of gratitude, other than appreciation for the identity provided. Yet, it is often the source of the most profound and intense expressions of loyalty, occasionally even breeding a willingness to kill and be killed. Such extreme devotion is observable on the battlefield, during political uprisings, and, most shocking of all, in soccer stadiums. Perhaps the occasional intensity of such loyalty should not be surprising since our identity is ultimately of our most precious and prized possessions.
The Need for Further Exploration
As Orthodox Jews we believe that all of our choices and actions should be informed by halachah and Torah values. When practicing ritual or conducting life cycle events, we instinctively turn to these guideposts, and we also do so when considering everyday actions, like eating or conducting business, which are directly addressed by halachah.
Throughout life, however, we also confront choices and dilemmas that do not fit squarely within the four corners of halachah, but nevertheless must be resolved in consideration of what Hashem would want us do. Loyalty dilemmas are one such example. In all such situations, we rely on our Torah teachers to provide the principles and parameters by which we can make appropriate choices. It is our responsibility to insist that they do so.
Mark (Moishe) Bane is president of the OU and a senior partner and chairman of the Business Restructuring Department at the international law firm Ropes & Gray LLP.