A few months ago, I was invited to be part of a panel of rabbis to submit answers to questions posed by the editor of the Jewish Press. The column appears bi-weekly, and I take this opportunity to present my take on some of the questions raised. Each question is fascinating in its own right, as are the variety of answers proffered. All the answers can be viewed at Jewishpress.com.
Here is the first selection with my take on these issues – RSP
Is it appropriate for men and women to call each other by their first names at work?
Rebbi Akiva noted that “levity and light-headedness facilitate immorality” (Avot 3:13), to which Rabbenu Yonah deduced the converse: “seriousness and reverence are barriers to lascivious conduct.” Both premises are true and undeniable, and both are challenged in modern society where informality – including calling strangers, elders and co-workers by their first names – is rampant, being perceived, partly, as a great social equalizer.
But informality also breeds frivolity, and that can lower our guard and even lead to the diminution of our moral aspirations. We have to know ourselves, our temptations and our triggers. We also have to delineate proper boundaries in the workplace to avoid the pitfalls of work relationships that expand into improper realms.
Of course, in a workplace where first names are always used – and no one thinks twice about it – it would appear stilted, pretentious and even pompous to refer to others as Mrs. Jones or Mr. Smith. (Consider also the vast variety of honorifics that people might choose to use that would give offense if they weren’t used; the use of first names protect against falling into that snare.) And illicit relationships abounded in earlier times when people addressed each other quite formally; “there is no absolute guardian against decadence” (Masechet Ketubot 13b).
The ultimate guidance, therefore, is contextual. In workplaces where such informality is part of the culture, it is not necessarily a manifestation of excessive intimacy. Indeed, it would reflect poorly on religious Jews if we appeared aloof and addressed others so formally. But certainly Jews should not be the ones to introduce such informality into the workplace; indeed, all would benefit from keeping professional relationships completely professional.
Is the desire to be more machmir than one’s father good, bad, or neutral?
The inclination to embrace Halachic stringencies should not be based on one’s relationship with other people, including one’s father, but rather on our inner commitment to Torah and recognition of our spiritual level. The merit of embracing chumrot is ultimately rooted in motivation and not simply performance. Stringencies are laudable when they reflect an awareness of personal deficiencies that require strengthening or safeguards, as well as the maintenance of a level of religiosity in all spheres that warrants special behavior in just a few.
As a general rule, it is better to be machmir in our interpersonal dealings than in mitzvot between man and G-d. The latter can often be employed to mask utter depravity and thievery in other areas, while the former is a better indicator of one’s true religious life.
Furthermore, chumrot in one area often lead to kulot in others, the simplest example being stringencies in dress or kashrut that nurture arrogance and the pleasures of the ego. That is not a good trade-off as it tends to degrade the life of the soul rather than enrich it.
That being said, our fidelity to the Mesorah generally demands that we adhere to the customs of our ancestors. We don’t create the Jewish world anew simply by being born. Of course, if what some perceive as chumrot are actually the simple halacha that for some reason was disregarded by the parents, then we are permitted to observe the essential halacha. But where halacha is not violated and it is a matter of minhag or hanhaga, then one-upmanship within the family unit is even more unsettling that it is outside the family.
Should a person avoid the company of someone who constantly swears but is otherwise a decent fellow?
To constantly use vulgarity but otherwise be a decent person is a contradiction in terms, sort of like shoplifting daily but otherwise being scrupulously honest or eating a cheeseburger every day for lunch but otherwise keeping kosher. No “decent” person can habitually perform acts that are definitively indecent.
Chazal frequently noted the concept of “lashon nekiya,” literally “clean speech” and employed euphemisms when discussing intimate matters, activities or parts of the body. Indeed, Rambam stated (Moreh Nevuchim III:8) that one reason Hebrew is referred to as “the holy tongue” is because it has no original scatological terms. And despite the tawdriness that is drowning modern society – one can hardly walk on the street today without overhearing shameless and voluble profanity, with some words creatively featured in the same sentence as a noun, verb and adjective – Jewish society must be characterized by high standards of personal morality and purity of speech.
Lowly individuals, those who lack self-control in many areas of thought and deed, often cannot help but verbalize their unconscious fixation on lecherous matters by recurrent references to it. But we are adherents to a faith that demands discipline in thought, deed and speech.
The writer Edna Buchanan once said that “friends are the family we choose for ourselves.” Friends should reflect our deepest values and encourage our better natures. While no one is perfect, and true friends will inform each other of offensive conduct rather than indulge or ignore it, socializing with those whose values are antithetical to ours can only lead to the dilution of our own moral aspirations. If rebuking doesn’t work, then it behooves us to eschew the coarse companion and find another, more exemplary, social outlet.