The Jewish Ethics Challenge: Where Do You Stand?

By Arthur Gross Schaefer

From Reform Judaism, Winter 1997

Reprinted with permission from the author and Reform Judaism Magazine (Published by the Union of American Hebrew Congregations)

“Who Am I?” and “What Do I value?” are sophisticated interrelated questions that deeply affect the decisions we make. Like a mirror placed before us, our closely-held beliefs and our personal ethical values are revealed in the many judgements and actions we take. Yet, we rarely take time to seriously consider the values that inform and motivate our behaviors. We should gaze at our reflection in light of our conduct and earnestly ask:

What ethical values do we use when making decisions? Are they consistent with our obligations as Jews? How can Jewish values guide us in making tough decision?

Take the Ethics Challenge and see how your values compare with important Jewish considerations. Certainly, the cases presented do not provide all the information you would normally require when making a hard decision. And yes, the choice selection is limited. However, if you answer the questions truthfully and then look at “The Answers”(listed at the end of all the questions), you will be able to gauge your answers in relations to Jewish tradition. Finally, please be honest. (Please circle the answer which most closely reflects what you might do in the given situation.)


You are being introduced to someone who may become an important contact for you. The person making the introduction describes how you planned a particularly outstanding event. In fact, you were a minor member of the planning committee and had little to do with the project’s success. Do you:

1. Remain silent
2. Act modestly and convey that others greatly assisted in making the project work so well
3. Acknowledge that you were merely a member of the committee
4. Admit that you actually had little to do with the project’s achievement


You are taking a youth group to an amusement park, and know that there is a substantially reduced price for children under 12. While the members of the youth group all look young, you are aware that some are over 12. Do you:

1. Order reduced children’s tickets for all the children
2. Request children’s tickets for all those under 12 and adult tickets for all those who are 12 and older.
3. Tell the ticket person that you are from a temple youth group, and while some of the children are over 12, you would certainly appreciate it if he/she would let you buy the reduced children’s tickets for all the kids
4. Ask for a reduced children’s ticket for most of the youth group except for the two or three children who look older


You are selling your car. A prospective buyer offers you $4,500 and, while you would like $5,500, you verbally accept the offer. A few minutes later, before anything is put in writing, another prospective buyer arrives and offers $5,500. Do you:

1. Sell the car to the first buyer
2. Ask the first buyer to match the new offer
3. Tell the first buyer that, while you are going to accept the higher offer, you are going to split the extra money and give him/her $500
4. Accept the higher offer of $5,500


You have developed many deep friendships in your chavurah. While there has always been tension between some of the members and one of your closest friends in the group, you have never taken sides and have remained friendly to everyone. Now, however, the tension has increased. A majority of the members want your friend ejected from the chavurah for no particular reason. Do you:

1. Distance yourself from the friend and keep silent
2. Privately offer support to your friend
3. Publicly support your friend
4. Privately offer support and speak to some of the chavurah members to find a peaceful resolution


As you are walking down the street, you see a woman seated on a blanket holding a sign which reads, “I need money for food.” A basket with some loose change is in front. Do you:

1. Decide that she’s drug-free, then give her money
2. Put money into her basket without questioning her character or motives
3. Walk on but make sure to donate funds to the local food bank
4. Walk by without stopping


You sold your piano and agreed to be paid over time. After the first two payments, the buyer calls to tell you he was just fired from his job. Desperate, he asks if he can return the piano at his expense and receive a refund to pay his rent. You are financially well-off and would have no difficulty returning his money, but you know it will be a hassle to resell the piano. Do you:

1. Take the piano back and refund his money, less the cost of reselling the piano
2. Take back the piano and refund all the money
3. Refuse the request and demand that he continue to make timely payments
4. Tell him to resell the piano himself


At a party with a group of friends, someone tells a seemingly “harmless” racial joke. Everyone laughs. You are offended. Do you:

1. Laugh with everyone else
2. Say nothing and not laugh
3. Announce to the group you believe racial jokes to be offensive and immoral
4. Tell the joke-teller privately that racial jokes offend you


You are a member of a temple board which is debating the need to renovate the main temple bathroom to accommodate people with disabilities. There is not enough money in the temple’s building fund to pay for the work and get the permit. Therefore, most of the board members want to proceed with the renovation without the permit. Do you:

1. Argue that it is against the law not to get a permit, but agree to go along with the majority view
2. State that such an action is illegal and you will not be a party to an illegal agreement
3. State that it is essential to have a permit and that you will help raise the extra money necessary for it
4. Agree to have the renovation done without a permit


Your synagogue is in the midst of a major building campaign. A known slumlord wishes to contribute. At the temple board meeting, a debate ensues regarding whether the money should be accepted. Do you:

1. Vote to reject the money
2. Vote to accept the money
3. Vote to accept the money only if the donor is listed as “anonymous”
4. Vote to accept the money if it can be earmarked for a tzedakah project to benefit the needy.


You prefer to buy a very good product made in a foreign country. Compared to American standards, however, the working conditions are poor and the compensation is very low. Do you:

1. Decide not to buy the product
2. Decide not to buy the product and send a letter of protest to the company
3. Decide not to buy the product and enlist others in a boycott and letter-writing campaign
4. Buy the product

The Answers, Please

There is often no one answer which everyone agrees is the most ethical thing to do in a given situation. Moreover, additional factors not fully provided in the questions above may greatly affect one’s conclusion. However, each of the scenarios above is directly tied to one of Eleven Core Jewish values. The following brief description of those values will help you determine an appropriate answers.

Scenario A — Honesty

Allowing someone to have a false impression is a form of stealing. We are commanded by our tradition to be truthful and to correct missimpressions. “Thou shalt not steal.” (Exodus 20:13) We are also taught that one should speak out against all forms of slander, defamation, and misrepresentation, whether of an individual, a group, a people, a race, or a faith, “They that deal truly are God’s delight.” (Proverbs 12:22)

Scenario B —Integrity

One is required to be consistent in words and actions. We often tell our children that it is wrong to lie and then teach them to do so through our actions. Integrity implies completeness, a consistency in word, action, and conviction. “Mark the person of integrity, and behold the upright.” (Psalms 37:37)

Scenario C — Brit

Keeping one’s word is a sacred statement of one’s spiritual commitment to be in a covenantal relationship with the Divine. This means mirroring God by fulfilling the letter and the spirit of our commitments to others.

Scenario D — Loyalty

Being in a trusting relationship means that one is willing to publicly take uncomfortable stands to support one’s friends. We are expected to be loyal to God, to our parents (Exodus 20:12), to our tradition, and to those with whom we have developed a trusting relationship.

Scenario E — Tzedakah

We are taught to give charity, to refrain from excessive judgments, to contribute directly to the needy, and to extend kind words. Tzedakah involves both justice and righteousness. Isaiah 1:17 states: “Seek justice and relieve the oppressed.”

Scenario F — Chesed

One is to practice acts of mercy, acts of chesed (kindness and compassion), even when it may not be convenient. As God has dealt with us in mercy, so we should deal with others. “Show mercy and compassion, every one to your neighbor.” (Zach. 7:9)

Scenario G — Respect

for Human Dignity: Jokes are powerful teaching tools. One’s silence in the face of racism can be viewed as concurrence. Our notion of the infinite worth of human life stems from the fact that all people are created “in the image of God.” Therefore, each individual is deserving of respect as a unique creation of the Divine.

Scenario H — Respect

for Law: There have always been laws such as taxes and permits which we would like to ignore. However, Jewish tradition has always demanded good citizenship, which requires following fair laws and showing regard for the decision -making process of the community in which we live. “The law of the state is the law.” (Talmud, Gitten 10b) However, this does not demand blind obedience to the community’s laws where they are in conflict with other ethical values.

Scenario I — Accountability

One cannot point the finger at others and thereby avoid taking responsibility for inaction. Our tradition holds us answerable to God and to others for our inactions as well as our actions. “Judaism does not say, ‘Thou shall believe’ but ‘Thou shall do.”’ (Moses Mendelssohn) “Thou shalt not stand idly by the blood of thy neighbor.” (Leviticus 19:16)

Scenario J — Taking Responsibility

We do our best teaching through our actions and our associations. The choices we make for the sake of money often speak more about our core values than anything else. Ethical people accept responsibility for their decisions and set an example for others. One is responsible whether the act is intentional or inadvertent. (Mishnah Baba Kamma 1:2)

Scenario K — Tikkun Olam

While we cannot solve all the world’s ills, we are commanded to help those who are less fortunate, including those who labor under conditions of oppression and exploitation. The concept of tikkun olam, literally “repair of the world,” has come to stand for our Jewish commitment to make the world more merciful. Within our communities there are many shattered spirits, broken holy vessels. Our mission is to help repair those spirits and to share whatever God has given us with those less fortunate.

A Suggested Strategy for Ethical Decision Making

A key to aid in ethical decision-making is the use of the decision model. The simplest model is to presume that your decision will be made public on national television and that your parents and your local rabbi will be watching. If you still feel comfortable with your decision, then it probably has ethical validity. For more complex ethical situations, try the following model.

  1. Define the problem carefully. Be certain that all of the pertinent facts have been gathered.
  2. Note all the people who may be affected by the decision (the stakeholders). A decision which does not take into account the way in which it will affect others is not an ethical one, regardless of the actual consequences.
  3. List all the relevant Core Jewish Values involved in the decision — honesty, integrity, brit, loyalty, tzedakah, chesed, respect for human dignity, respect for law, accountability, taking responsibility, tikkun olam.
  4. Outline all the possible alternatives. Often we believe we have a limited number of options when, in reality, there are several other choices which may resolve the situation in a better or less harmful way.
  5. Choose and prioritize
    1. Of all the people you listed above, select the one who you believe is the most important to address in this decision
    2. Of all the core Jewish Values you listed, select the most important one
    3. Of all the options you listed above, select the one which you believe will cause the greatest good or least harm
    4. Make a decision
    5. Devise a strategy that will effectively implement your decision

Arthur Gross Schaefer is a professor of business law and ethics at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles, CA and rabbi of the Ojai Jewish community. He developed the Eleven Core Jewish Values and the Strategy for Ethical Decision Making for the UAHC Ethics Committee, drawing upon sources from the Josephson Institute for the Advancement of Ethics, Effective Decision Making in the Trenches, Case Studies in Business, Society and Ethics (Beauchamp), and Business Ethics, Concepts and Cases (Valasquez).