Life is about making choices. Most commonly, it is about choosing between right and wrong, attentiveness and carelessness, commitment and indifference. Our decisions frame and impact both who we are and our relationship with the Almighty. They matter.
The leadership of the Orthodox Union is presented with a constant flow of choices. Decisions, both large and small, are made on a daily basis. While participating in many of these decisions, I began to notice that they actually fall into a variety of categories, often requiring different attitudes and decision-making processes. Though the categories are self-evident, thoughtfully assigning each decision to its appropriate box makes it easier to consider the best approach.
Impacting Others: Choices often appear to be personal but actually impact others equally, if not more. The challenge is then not only making the core decision but also determining the extent to which we consider others. In fact, our degree of concern for others in making such personal choices may be the more significant test of our character.
Sometimes we must make decisions on others’ behalf, whether for our family, colleagues, employees or community members. When making choices that only affect ourselves, we have the latitude and entitlement to forgo our rights, defer our interests, and forgive insult or disrespect. Making decisions on behalf of others not only demands more thought but also requires consideration of how much latitude we have to forfeit the rights, defer the interests or tolerate the indignity of others.
Judgment Calls: Many decisions are not a choice between wrong and right, but rather an exercise in judgment—we have an objective but are uncertain how best to achieve it. In our personal lives, serious judgment calls include choosing which job offer to accept or which neighborhood to live in. At the Orthodox Union, judgment calls dominate decision-making, such as which approach to outreach is likely to be most effective for a particular cohort, which of various communal program proposals will be most impactful, or which style and voice of Torah teachings will be most well-received. Throughout OU history, many delicate judgment calls were made that dictated the legendary success of NCSY and OU Kosher. For example, judgments included assessing whether non-observant Jewish teenagers would engage in a youth movement that resisted compromising halachah and that was unwavering in teaching authentic, traditional Torah principles. Similarly, OU leadership considered whether the broader American food industry would appreciate the value proposition of adopting kosher supervision, and whether the kosher consumer would recognize the reliability and benefits of a national kosher symbol.
Weighty judgments are frequently close calls, with strong arguments going either way. Moreover, the outcomes are affected by so many external factors that the results may not be a fair measure of the wisdom of the decision. Nevertheless, though any single decision may not reflect the quality of an individual’s judgment, patterns emerge over time, similar to professional baseball where any team can win a single game, but over the course of a season the strongest teams win most often.
Whether a judgment call is addressed appropriately is also dictated by two further aspects: the degree of effort expended and the extent to which subjectivity is mitigated. Making a judgment is thus also an exercise in choices, since a decision must also be made regarding how to address these obligations.
Subjectivity: Every individual is a bundle of personal interests and biases that should be shed prior to making communal decisions. Integrity certainly compels those with financial or familial interests impacted by a communal decision to recuse themselves, but other subtler aspects also come into play. Subjectivity may be a reluctance to disagree with others whom we rely upon for support on unrelated issues, or with whom we have outside relationships. Subjectivity in communal decisions is often overlooked, since it is challenging to remember that when acting in a communal capacity it is inappropriate to indulge in granting favors or act upon particular sympathies in ways that would be fully appropriate when making personal life choices.
Though perhaps too difficult to fully eliminate, subjectivity can be mitigated. The first and most crucial step is simply acknowledging it. I have occasionally been disappointed when individuals of integrity deny their own obvious subjectivity. One manner of checking subjectivity is seeking input from others. Just as we seek counsel from wise and informed individuals to ensure that we are aware of the applicable halachah and Torah values, we should do the same to assess whether our judgment is being unduly influenced by personal interests or biases.
Time and effort: When making decisions, especially for the community, our duty is to invest the time and effort appropriate to the particular seriousness and complexity of the situation. In my legal practice I have been privileged to represent extraordinarily astute and successful investors in distressed companies. I have occasionally commented at Jewish communal meetings that my clients spend countless hours researching, studying and debating the benefits and risks of potential investments. And their decisions primarily concern money. Should not community activists, who are entrusted with making decisions that impact the Jewish community and that may affect the Jewish community’s relationship with God, expend the same degree of time and effort, if not much more?
Consultation: Finally, a communal leader contemplating significant judgment decisions should test whether others reach the same conclusions. Sometimes others disagree because they are committed to different values or goals. But if others who share similar values and goals unanimously find the particular judgment flawed, the community leader may be well served to rethink the judgment. There is a fine line between being a courageous leader who is oblivious to outside pressure and being one who is simply out of touch or even delusional. When the prevailing uniform view is that the leader’s judgment is flawed, it may be time for him to be less courageous.
Certain individuals tend to be uniformly aggressive and forceful when negotiating personal business transactions or when dealing with their employees but are overly accommodating and eager to compromise when communal values and resources are at play.
Identifying Right and Wrong: Often our choice is not whether to do right or wrong in the eyes of God, but to first determine which alternative is right and which is wrong. In other words, although certain aspects of Orthodox Judaism are governed by “absolutes,” many areas are not, particularly public policy choices confronting murky facts or uncharted territory, such as addressing religious challenges imposed by technology or new social norms. Seeking guidance from experts in the applicable field, and in the relevant areas of halachah or Torah values, is important, but is often not enough to fully resolve the dilemma.
Word choice occasionally influences our perspective of right and wrong. For example, do we describe one who is being accommodating as being “admirably tolerant” or “hopelessly naïve?” Do we refer to one standing his ground as “obstinate” or “courageously principled?”
Moreover, sometimes traits typically viewed as admirable are not as commendable when employed to make momentous public policy decisions. For example, while we typically strive to be accepting, tolerant and loving, these very traits may be wholly inappropriate and harmful under certain circumstances. Employing these traits inappropriately could result in our compromising communal interests and values when we have no right to do so. Similarly, though we are taught to control our anger, stubbornness and suspicious natures, these very traits may occasionally be justified, if not mandated, when employed for the purpose of protecting the welfare of a community or the authenticity of Torah life.
Ironically, certain individuals tend to be uniformly aggressive and forceful when negotiating personal business transactions or when dealing with their employees but are overly accommodating and eager to compromise when communal values and resources are at play.
Values Triage: For me, the most daunting decision-making challenge, particularly with regard to determining public policy, is when I am forced to choose between pursuing one of two or more equally good options or between avoiding one of two or more equally bad options. These predicaments usually present in one of two fashions—being compelled to allocate resources or accommodate the interests of competing individuals or groups; or being forced to prioritize among competing Torah values.
Just as the fairest-minded parents will occasionally have no alternative but to accommodate or favor one child over another within a family, community leaders at times need to favor the interests of one group within a constituency. Choices often require prioritizing the accommodations offered to different cultures and styles, varying degrees of communal religious stringencies, or multiple levels of intellectual sophistication and education. North American Orthodox Jews have varying degrees of religious background and education and belong to families that arrived on these shores from myriad different countries and cultures. Community leadership usually aspires to accommodate these disparate needs and comfort levels. In many instances, however, choices must be made that inevitably favor one group over another.
Often, limited resources force choices among different important community priorities. How do we allocate limited resources when choosing between addressing urgent chesed needs and the Torah education of our children? How do we choose between addressing the pressing needs of a large, established Orthodox community or the more acute needs of a relatively tiny community? How do we allocate resources between (i) outreach to the unaffiliated (ii) elevating the religious commitment and inspiration of observant Jews who are lacking passion and (iii) intensifying the deep commitment and skills of the potentially future religious leaders of the community?
In other instances, non-resource allocation policy choices will be compelled by competing Torah values. The most common of these tensions, arising in our personal lives and even more noticeably in communal choices, is a tension between emes (truth) and shalom (peace). While which view or position constitutes emes can be the fodder of endless debate, individuals and communities adopt principled positions as truth, at least for themselves. In the same vein, it is debatable whether shalom means peace and tranquility or mutual respect. But it is evident that open hostility and resentment do not constitute shalom.
Both emes and shalom are cornerstone Torah values and each one is intrinsic to our relationship to and understanding of God. In most instances, these values complement each other, and in Biblical verses they are occasionally referenced jointly. But they sometimes conflict, in which case, choices must be made.
For example, in one’s personal life, for the sake of shalom one would never admit that the expensive, non-refundable suit makes one’s spouse look fat or that one’s sister’s dinner party was a disaster. More troubling is grappling with whether family harmony justifies dancing at and celebrating Cousin Benny’s intermarriage or attending Aunt Judy’s Thanksgiving dinner, notwithstanding her suspect kosher standards.
On a communal level, tensions between emes and shalom regularly arise, albeit far more visibly. Orthodox community segments commonly struggle with the degree of accommodation they should afford to others’ approach to Torah values and halachah. Every community faction views certain other community segments as being far too right and dogmatic and certain community factions as being far too left and progressive. By the very nature of Orthodoxy, each and every Orthodox community has lines that cannot be crossed and is thus faced with choices regarding the degree of tolerance and accommodation that should be extended to those to their right or left.
Community decision-makers confronting these choices face unique difficulties. Many suffer immense discomfort with confrontation, which leads them to invoke shalom to justify accommodations that they would criticize if introduced by others. Others, who refuse to give an inch in their personal, rather adversarial business dealings, urge compromise when it comes to religious principles—for the sake of peace.
On the other extreme, the invocation of emes is used to justify religious confrontation that could actually be avoided without compromising principles. For some, evidencing and expressing religious superiority is intrinsic to the religious experience; thus, breaches in shalom are not only tolerated but actually celebrated.
Whether in our personal, professional or communal roles, we are each decision-makers. Indeed, at the core of religious belief is the notion that we can choose. Moreover, we understand that ultimately we are responsible for our choices and their ramifications. “Uvacharta ba’chaim—And you shall choose life” (Deuteronomy 30:19) is not merely an instruction, but a revelation of remarkable mortal power, and consequently, enormous responsibility.
We can embrace making choices, or we can allow our personality, experiences and environment (complemented by a good measure of inertia) to predetermine our choices. Clearly, choosing to choose, and investing the proper thought and energy into the choices we make, is a threshold step to being a Torah Jew.
Though our power of choice is clear, we should not forget that ultimately it is the Almighty who controls the world, and we must look to Him for support and help in our choices and our decision-making processes. When confronting a decision of importance, in addition to exercising effort and ensuring objectivity, praying to Hashem for wisdom and insight is essential.
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.
Ask the President
The Orthodox Union is first and foremost a communal services organization. Your feedback and input about how the OU is doing in that role is critical to our success as a community. As president I want to hear from you.
Your input and views will certainly be studied, and will be considered in the context of the views of others.
If you pose questions that are appropriate for a public response, I will do so if you provide permission.
I’m looking forward to hearing what you have to say.
President, Orthodox Union