With the rise of the “Me Too” movement, there’s been much coverage in the secular press about sexual harassment in the workplace. According to a 2018 online survey, more than 80 percent of American women in the workforce1 have experienced some form of sexual harassment. Furthermore, between 2010 and 2015, through the EEOC’s administrative enforcement prelitigation process employers have paid out almost $700 million to employees claiming sexual harassment before the cases even went to court.2 Since sexual harassment is so widespread, it poses a significant challenge for women in the workplace, including, of course, Orthodox women. (Men can be challenged in this area too but statistically, women are far more at risk.)
While certain mitzvot may feel like a challenge to observe in the workplace, in many ways they protect us and help us maintain appropriate boundaries at work. Tzeniut, the laws of modesty in dress and behavior, distinguishes us. Yichud (the prohibition against being alone with members of the opposite sex) protects us from what could turn into difficult situations.
But not all spiritual challenges in the workplace are overt. In fact, there are perhaps dozens of situations that take place on a daily basis in the workplace that can compromise one’s spiritual equilibrium: the lashon hara at the water cooler, petty stealing (i.e., taking paper or pens from work to use at home or for your own purposes, et cetera) and other integrity issues. While there’s an opportunity to make a tremendous kiddush Hashem in the workplace, there are real challenges that test one’s religious identity and commitment.
Many years ago, Lady Amalie Jakobovits, a”h, wife of the late Chief Rabbi of England Lord Immanuel Jakobovits and mother of Dr. Yoel Jakobovits, a prominent physician in Baltimore, mentioned that she had davened every day when her son Yoel was in medical school that he overcome the spiritual hurdles.
We have to view our lives not as an either-or situation but as multi-dimensional, which includes work, family, and our spiritual lives. Our task while working at our jobs is to be simultaneously dedicated to God and to our families.
There is, however, a more subtle challenge facing the religious personality in the workplace that few recognize: the all-consuming nature of many professions often stifles one’s religious development. How does one retain one’s spiritual focus and even bring kedushah, a sense of sanctity, to one’s role at work? In a famous responsum, Rabbi Yitzchok Hutner once guided a young man who was preparing to leave yeshivah and go out into the workforce. The young man asked how he should deal with the fact that he would now be leading a double life. Rabbi Hutner responded that working and being a Torah Jew should not be considered as leading a double life, but should be viewed as leading a broad life, analogous to two different rooms in the same house. One must take his spiritual life with him when he enters the workplace.
In order to achieve this, it is, of course, important to bear in mind what not to do in the workplace:
As mentioned above, do not legitimize petty stealing. Do not take paper or pens from work for personal use. Don’t spend time on private phone calls (unless it’s your lunch hour).
Don’t compromise your standards. Recently, in an effort to boost camaraderie, a book club was started at work. The first book to be read was authored by one of the administrators’ friends, and free copies were to be provided for all participants. I signed up. When I received the book, I realized that there was hardly a single page I felt comfortable reading. I returned the book and explained that I could not read it. My colleagues understood and respected my decision.
Do not speak or listen to lashon hara. If you can’t stop the gossip or redirect the conversation, just walk away. This is a great means of protection for yourself as well; have no doubt that anything you say will be repeated, and by not indulging in gossip you will protect yourself from being a target one day. On the flip side, below are suggestions of what one can do.
One of the most important ways to lead a life of kedushah even when immersed in secular pursuits is by davening every day. Focusing on the berachot you recite during the day, after eating or when saying Asher Yatzar, is a concrete way of proclaiming to yourself that your spiritual self is with you in the office as well.
Being mindful while saying Birchot HaTorah is also very relevant. The blessings we recite in the morning on learning Torah essentially instructs us to busy ourselves throughout the day with words and concepts of Torah—not to leave it at home when we go to work. Learning Torah at some point during the day is very helpful in retaining spirituality in the workplace. With the plethora of online Torah materials available (including shiurim on OUTorah.org!), one can easily make time for Torah during a break or lunch hour.
Play fair. When I was doing a shomer Shabbat internship, we were working just as hard as the other non-Sabbath-observant interns, but their schedule was constrained to accommodate us. For example, they would have to work every Friday and Shabbat, every yom tov, et cetera, while we did not. Most interns in the shomer Shabbat program expressed their gratitude, but there was one intern who took advantage of the system, and this caused a great deal of ill will among the interns who were working on the regular schedule.
Sometimes your attitude alone can make a kiddush Hashem among your patients or colleagues. In my role as an ophthalmologist and low-vision specialist, I often care for people with very poor vision, for whom there is currently no treatment. I try to give them a dose of optimism and I often mention Hashem (i.e., thank God you don’t have that).There are also circumstances in which I do specialized testing to determine if a patient has severe progressive retinal degeneration. I often daven for the patient before I administer the test, when the outcome of the test is not yet known.
Judging people favorably, as Pirkei Avot advises, is critical in the workplace. It’s easy to become angry and impatient when you have obligations and deadlines, but it is worth stepping back and viewing your coworkers or employees in a good light. For example, as a physician it is very important for me to get the referring doctor’s notes before I see a patient. There are times when the notes are not in place. It would be easy for me to lose my temper and criticize my secretary whose job it is to obtain the notes. I try not to. Oftentimes, when I look into the particular situation, I discover that the secretary has called the referring doctor’s office several times to get the notes in question and is as anxious as I am to have it in place.
Know that the work is not yours to complete. I gave birth to my second child during my ophthalmology residency. It was a very stressful time. I was trying to nurse my newborn baby while maintaining my on-call schedule at a hospital that was forty-five minutes away from my home. When I discussed with someone how stressed I felt, he advised, “Lo alecha hamelachah ligmor, you are not required to complete the task.”
There are two mishnayot from Rabbi Tarfon that appear at the end of the second chapter of Pirkei Avot. The first, very well-known mishnah is: “Hayom katzar vehamelachah merubah, the day is short and the work is abundant . . .” One should live with the sense that there is a vast sea of Torah for us to acquire. This should motivate us to work hard. But one might argue that since we will never be able to accomplish everything, why even try? The mishnah that follows continues: “He [Rabbi Tarfon] used to say, ‘Lo alecha hamelachah ligmor, it is not up to you to complete the task, but you are not free to desist from it.’”
Sometimes your attitude alone can make a kiddush Hashem among your patients or colleagues.
The second mishnah is regarded as the necessary response to the first. The first mishnah is supposed to stir us to action but can also lead to a sense of frustration and futility. The work to accomplish is greater than a man could do even if he lived a thousand years. So why should one even start to work, knowing that he cannot finish? In the second mishnah, Rabbi Tarfon responds to this paradox and expresses profound ideas that have great implications for our own lives today.
We are not obligated to complete the work. We are merely obligated to engage. The Chofetz Chaim emphasizes that not only are we not obligated to complete the work, but it is not even in our hands to accomplish. We must make the effort but achievement and success are up to God.
Limit the stress. In one of his books, Rabbi Paysach Krohn tells of a young student, new to the yeshivah, who was the chazzan one day and raced through the davening. When he finished, the rosh yeshivah took him aside and said, “You should know that ‘v’nastem v’ein rodef etchem’ is a kelalah (curse).” The Tochachah (rebuke) in the Torah includes “and you will flee with no one pursuing you” as a curse. In everyday life, too, we must try not to pressure ourselves beyond what is good or healthy for each of us individually. Emotional equilibrium requires a sense of tranquility, at least to the degree this can be attained. I have found in my working life that if I feel satisfied and not overly stressed, things fall into place at work and at home. But if I get too stressed or too frustrated at work, it carries over to the home environment and things more easily fall apart. It must be a priority in life to keep ourselves healthy and reduce stress to the extent possible.
Finally, keep in mind that your goals in life may be different from those of your coworkers. I applied for my residency in ophthalmology in 1977, a different era. It was right after I had my first child. I had done very well in medical school and in my elective rotation in ophthalmology, and I had every expectation that I would be accepted into the school’s residency program. But I was not. Two other members of my class were accepted, and their credentials were not as good as mine. I called up the chairman of the Ophthalmology Department and asked him why I was not accepted. He explained, “We want every resident to become a dedicated ophthalmologist, and in your case we weren’t sure that family considerations wouldn’t intervene.” Of course, today no one would be allowed to say this. Nevertheless, we have to view our lives not as an either-or situation but as multi-dimensional, which includes work, family, and our spiritual lives. We may have to stagger things, reduce our workload in certain phases of our lives and assume more as we are able to. Our task while working at our jobs is to be simultaneously dedicated to God and to our families.
Janet Sunness, MD, is medical director of the Richard E. Hoover Low Vision Rehabilitation Services at the Greater Baltimore Medical Center. She gives lectures on Tanach, Judaism and women, and other topics in the Baltimore area, and is a frequent contributor to the Jewish Press, Where What When and other publications. This essay is adapted from a lecture Dr. Sunness delivered at Maalot, an accredited women’s seminary and college in Baltimore.