Why Jewish Professionals Should Spend Time in a Beit Midrash
By Mordy Labaton
When I tell people I work for the Hadar Institute, they often tease, “So, you study Torah all day?”
Though tongue-in-cheek, the exchange raises a fascinating question about the intent and efficacy of the Jewish Professional world: Who within our community is and/or should be learning Torah?
According to Leading Edge, there are 73,000 professionals in the Jewish nonprofit sector. These professionals transmit values to our children, care for and act on behalf of the underprivileged, and shape our communities’ attitudes and responses to local and global events, to name just a few of their contributions.
The Babylonian Talmud in Tractate Baba Batra 21a relates that “If it were not for [Yehoshua, son of Gamla], the Torah would have been forgotten from Israel, for in the beginning one’s parents would teach them Torah… [but Yehoshua] instituted school teachers in every city and every town.”
Yehoshua, the son of Gamla understood that parents can’t be solely responsible for the transmission of tradition and established a system to ensure that no children would fall through the cracks.
Our world is different. The Jewish Professional sector has blossomed. Consider the colossal influence that Jewish camps, Hillels, Moishe Houses, Jewish think tanks, and learning institutions (in addition to school teachers!) have on the contemporary Jewish community.
In many ways, Jewish Professionals have become the stewards of Jewish tradition, in all its diversity and complexity. Often, this custodianship is understood as transmitting Jewish ideas, ideals, and values. But Jewish texts can also be a source of practical wisdom and guidance.
Picture this: The CEO of your organization has a ground-breaking, innovative idea that will change the face of your work. Before implementation, she convenes a task force to take employee temperature on the idea. Imagine the process parallels the following exchange from the Babylonian Talmud (Tractate Sanhedrin 38b):
At the time that the Holy One sought to create a person, the Holy One created one group of ministering angels. God said to them: If you agree, let us fashion a person in our image. The angels said before God: Master of the Universe, what are the actions of this person You suggest to create? God said to them: Their actions are such and such, according to human nature.
The angels said before God: Master of the Universe: “What is man that You are mindful of him? And the son of man that You think of him?” (Psalms 8:5), (i.e., a creature such as this is not worth creating.) God outstretched God’s small finger among them and burned them with fire. And the same occurred with a second group of angels. The third group of angels that God asked said before God: Master of the Universe, the first two groups who spoke their mind before You, what did they accomplish? The entire world is Yours; whatever You wish to do in Your world, do.
In this narrative, God convenes a committee to deliberate the question of whether to create humanity but when the committee provides an answer, God incinerates them.
Aside from the importance of OSHA regulations, one point is clear: This task force is a complete failure. We recently studied this text with Rabbi Avi Strausberg during our staff day at Hadar, discussing what went wrong in this Talmudic story: A breakdown in communication, an unhealthily hierarchical organizational structure, a lack of clear instruction. Whatever the reason, this text sparked meaningful conversation among our different departments about the ways in which professional relationships thrive and sour.
These types of conversations are the goal of our upcoming Jewish Professionals Institute and Day School Educators Institute: Put Jewish texts in front of Jewish professionals from around the country and watch the ideas take shape and spill over into day-to-day application. Offer professional development that’s rooted in meaningful text learning and listen as the conversations seep into their work. Give people the freedom to learn with and from each other and trust that the connection will emerge.
At Hadar, we believe that Jewish texts are a wellspring for all elements of life, including organizational life. Whether our learning helps guide someone in the accounting department when facing the ethical nuances of a financial decision, informs a grant officer when making a tough call about where to allocate limited funds, or guides a program director around the values they want to impart to their constituents, Jewish texts are a necessary resource for today’s Jewish professionals and should be part of their varied toolkit.
Whether your title reads CEO, fundraiser, event planner, Jewish educator or anything else, take the time this Summer to deepen your connection to your work, to our community, and to the tradition that undergirds them.
You won’t regret it.
Mordy Labaton organizes Immersive learning programs for the Hadar Institute. Learn more about these and other Summer study opportunities here.