The recent corruption convictions of two prominent Orthodox Jewish leaders here — former Assemblyman Sheldon Silver and William Rapfogel, former head of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty — highlight the disconnect between ethics learned in the classroom and that which is practiced in the real world.
“It doesn’t just pertain to Orthodox Jews,” said Rabbi Moshe Sokol, dean of the Lander College for Men in Kew Gardens Hills. “Madoff was hardly an Orthodox Jew and Skelos is not Jewish.”
Bernard Madoff is the former stockbroker and investment counselor who is now serving a 150-year prison sentence for committing the largest financial fraud in U.S. history. Dean Skelos is the former majority leader of the State Senate who was convicted last month of corruption.
“There is a general [ethical] failing in the world at large, and as Orthodox Jews we have to be particularly concerned about the behavior of our own community and how we educate our students,” Rabbi Sokol explained.
As a result, the Lander College for Men has made it a requirement since 2013 that all students take an ethics class before they graduate. Although other colleges may teach ethics courses, Rabbi Sokol said he knows of no other that makes it a graduation requirement.
“It is not just a generic class in ethics but rather one geared to a student’s career,” he stressed. “So those entering the health profession — physicians, dentists physical therapists, nurses, podiatrists — must take a class in ethical and halachic [Jewish law] issues related to the health profession. Students going into law will take a course in business. We also have courses for those going into psychology, and we plan to expand to other areas as well.”
Rabbi Sokol stressed that it was not a particular event that caused the college to require an ethics class “but rather an awareness that there are failings in the community — that people are compartmentalizing their lives. They close the siddur [prayer book] after they have finished davening [praying] and then go into the business world and treat it as an entirely different universe. What we want to do is shatter the walls of those compartments so that they [the students] are taught that the real world of halacha and ethics has a great deal to say about how they live their lives in the real world.”
The chair of the college’s psychology department, Dr. Alan Perry, has said that “not a day goes by in his professional practice that he is not confronted with ethical and halachic issues — such as relating to parental or spousal issues,” Rabbi Sokol pointed out. “Sometimes the recommended therapeutic practice may not adhere to halachic standards. For instance, halacha says you have to honor your parents, but the therapist may feel that honest confrontation may be invaluable. How do you reconcile that?”
Rabbi Aaron Glatt, a physician who teaches the ethics course for those entering the medical field, said he has found that there is “frequently a lack of understanding from people as to the complexity of the issues. I try to give them an overview of the medical and ethical issues they will be facing. I present common, interesting and theoretical subjects for them to learn about. I sometimes use specific cases as a jumping-off point.”
Thus, he said, the course covers complex end-of-life issues such as whether a person should be intubated, or have a feeding tube inserted, the definition of what is considered appropriate medical therapy and what is halachic therapy, and what to do if there are differences between what the secular world advises and what halacha prescribes.”
Rabbi Glatt said that because there are sometimes “divergent opinions among the rabbis about halacha, every person should go to his own Orthodox rabbi. Sometimes the halacha allows a person to make a choice. There are gray areas and differences of opinion. Ethics of the Fathers says make for yourself a rabbi — and a person has to have fidelity to halachic advice.”
Students are also taught that it is important to stay current on medical and halachic issues not because halacha is changing “but because the application of halacha is dependent on the question asked and the technology available.”
“How does halacha deal with technology — such as with the use of computers on Shabbat,” Rabbi Glatt asked rhetorically. “There is never a simple answer. When dealing with life threatening usage it is permissible. When it is non-life threatening, it is more complex. … It is a wonderful course that is very popular with students.”
Rabbi Sokol pointed out that the college faculty consists of rabbinic scholars and practitioners who have worked in their fields of expertise. And there are occasional guest lectures from experts in the field.
“The students need to know the field from the grassroots, and in constructing the curriculum we asked [the professors] to merge it with the real life challenges they confronted in their profession.”
Asked the reason for the emphasis on ethics, Rabbi Sokol said it was believed that by teaching it, the college could “make a difference” in the world.
“It speaks to what we are all about,” he said. “We provide an intensive yeshiva program and a rigorous academic program. We educate young men in Talmud, and our students enter the profession in very large numbers. The problem is that there is a gap between halacha and the theory they get in classical yeshivas — which is profoundly theoretical and very, very important.
“We felt we needed to marry the two in a very practical sense. So after studying the tractate dealing with damages, the student must be taught the implications of applying that teaching in the real world.”
As for the corruption convictions of Silver and Rapfogel, Rabbi Sokol was asked why there was such a big difference between what was studied and what was practiced; he suggested that financial and social pressures are major factors.
“It’s easier to leave behind the high standards of Judaism when you get into the real world. Generally, Orthodox Jews tend to be very careful about halacha. We want them to understand that halacha is not only about kashrut and Shabbat, but that it is also about business and their professional lives and social interactions. … We want our students to model this integration of kodesh and chol — of the sacred and the mundane.”