mensch: a person of integrity and honor
integrity: having strong moral principles
honor: virtuous, ethical conduct
I feel for my new immigrant friend as he contemplates the recent examples of corruption in his Altneuland.
He is shocked and saddened by the dismal fact of a former president sitting in jail and a former premier on his way there, and only partially soothed by the court’s spirited demonstration of equality for all before the law.
Coming from North America, he has been thrown off-balance by the way business is done here in the Middle East, where “fixed price” almost never means that and virtually everything seems negotiable if you have the talent and energy to negotiate it. This fluidity of practice unsettles my friend and feeds his impression that it enables “a climate of corruption” in which financial shenanigans flourish.
I can sympathize with his sense of standing on shifting sands. After 42 years of living here, I was taken aback to discover on a recent visit to my bank that even that hallowed institution is not above engaging in shuklike haggling over the interest it pays on shekel deposits.
And when I protested the size of the fee I was being charged for another service, a whispered exchange between two bank employees resulted in the offer of a discount; then, when I demurred further, a second reduction.
While this saving pleased me, I found the casual, ad-hoc approach by the bank’s minions astonishing, leading me to wonder whether it had any rules at all that couldn’t be bent by shrewd customers in an environment of survival of the savviest.
Still, there’s nothing criminal about being shrewd or savvy – nor about a culture that most often resembles the market-place, even if it does unnerve western olim used to a more clearcut way of conducting business. It is still light-years away from the sordid depths and grasping tentacles of the Holyland affair.
I PART company with my friend over his feeling that everyone will flout the law given a chance because I think that most people possess an honest streak, or at least a sense of shame over the possibility of being found out. Warren Buffett, arguably the world’s greatest investor, known for his personal integrity, says he learned from his father not to do anything he wouldn’t like to see reported on the front page of the newspaper the next morning.
But even supposing my friend’s cynical impression to be correct, I reject the conclusion that when the highest and mightiest of us are indicted for corruption and made to face the music, their real crime lies only in having been caught doing what everybody does, albeit on a larger scale. After all, they’re human beings, subject to the same temptations, aren’t they? Yes; but no. Our presidents, prime ministers, chief rabbis and other high office-holders are undoubtedly human beings, and as such subject to temptations of all kinds, especially sexual and financial ones. Yet nobody forced those in positions of leadership and authority to take on roles where they might be expected, as well as enjoying the perks and privileges of office, to act as exemplars of ethical behavior to us ordinary citizens.
Nobody strong-armed Moshe Katzav into the presidency, or Ehud Olmert into becoming prime minister; nobody threatened Uri Lupolianski with dire consequences if he didn’t occupy the Jerusalem mayor’s seat, or blackmailed Yona Metzger into the position of Ashkenazi chief rabbi. They all accepted gladly.
If they knew, as they had to know, that they had a weakness for women or were avid for wealth, or for power, or both, and didn’t care too much how they acquired it, or how they behaved once they had it, they could have refused those lofty positions and chosen other channels via which to make their mark, ones where their moral and ethical failings did not impact their country and people as the recent scandals have done.
I STILL remember the episode back in the Seventies that divided us Jewish students at a British university into opposing camps, arguing late into the chilly evenings.
The scandal of the year in that provincial city with a large Jewish population occurred when the (Reform) rabbi ran off with the (kosher) butcher’s wife.
There was the resigned “he’s only human, after all” camp, facing off against those students, including myself, who held that no one had forced the absconder to become a rabbi, with everything that role implied.
He could have opened a shoe store – OK, say a bookshop – and seduced half the females of the neighborhood without raising more than a few eyebrows.
But I believed then, as I believe now, that when an individual assumes a leadership role that carries moral authority – minister, rabbi, yeshiva head, teacher – a sine qua non of that role is ethical behavior. And if you’re not up to it on that level, well, simply refuse the job.
ONE OF our great challenges is the ever-present tension that is part of a meaningful Jewish existence. Perhaps, seduced by modern culture and living lives that are immeasurably easier and more materially comfortable than those of previous generations, we have forgotten that a Jew living a true Jewish life should never allow himself to get too comfortable. He should always be aware of that inner conflict between doing what is expedient, what will bring him immediate gain or personal benefit, and the obligation to be a mensch (see definition above).
In the Mishna, Hillel famously urges: “In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man.”
Understanding how difficult this can be, Maimonides (the Rambam) comments: The word “strive” – in Hebrew, hishtadel – means “wrestle with oneself.” It’s not surprising that people in high places, surrounded by underlings eager to please and inducements of every conceivable kind, might have to engage in a fair amount of “autowrestling” in order to live an upright, ethical life.
REGRETTABLY, what seemed to be missing in those former high office-holders thrust so unwillingly into the kind of headlines they most feared and detested was a measure of self-knowledge and a sense of shame. An attitude of arrogance and of entitlement, the conviction that they were above the law by virtue of their elevated positions is probably the two-edged sword that cut these lords of creation down to size.
Isn’t that over-arching sense of entitlement, without much accompanying humility, the very worst kind of message to transmit to the much-excoriated “me generation”? A friend told me that her son, listening to a TV panel talking about the indecent scrambling and intrigue prior to the presidential election, lamented: “How could we have fallen so far?” This friend, a teacher, said she had been shocked to hear a five-year-old declare that “rules are made to be broken.” Where did she get that? my friend asked.
THOUGH ETHICS – mussar in Hebrew – urgently needs to be discussed and drilled at all levels in every school and yeshiva, it must above all be taught by personal example; which is why the damage wreaked by those convicted former leaders is so great.
They are indeed human beings, like the rest of us, but the moral responsibility they carry is far heavier. Their ethical failures spread out through society like ripples in a pond when a stone is thrown in.
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