The Dilemmas and Perils of Enlightenment

May 1, 2007
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Elihu D. Stone

Every Shabbat, shul-goers pray that God will recompense all those who are engaged with the needs of the community. Stewards of the public good are called upon to faithfully discharge their responsibilities mindful of the broader communal good, to the exclusion of narrow personal interest. Easy to say; hard to do.

After all, the relationship between personal and communal interests is itself complex. On one hand, objectivity — as a value — would seem to trump subjectivity. Many claim that choices should be made on objective bases and that subjectivity taints decisions. Praiseworthy are they who perform an action for its own sake (lish’ma), and suspect is the motivation of those with vested interest (nogea b’davar). On the other hand, utter objectivity entails a detachment or disinterest that might itself be problematic. Indeed, empathy with those requiring one’s help may well be a quintessential element of Jewish leadership. (See: Exodus Rabbah 1:32)

Serving on communal boards brings the complexities of realizing such foundational principles into sharp relief. At a recent meeting concerning communal educational funding, every participant listed the schools with which they were affiliated. After naming the three different schools my children attend and my alma mater, I mentioned another school for which I serve as a trustee. Someone wryly ventured: “I guess this is what passes for objectivity in the Jewish world.”

In almost any arena where available resources are outweighed by need, vested interests smolder and ethical conflicts abound. While some of these conflicts are avoidable, many are not. I arbitrarily categorize the areas of tension into two broad categories: internal and external. By internal, I mean those characterized by board obligations that compete with private obligations, such as family commitments or vested financial and professional interests. External conflicts pit communal values or board obligations against one another. While we might theorize about setting priorities and values clarification, neat hierarchies of values remain the stuff of fantasy. All the standard methodologies for engaging with competing interests (synthesis, competition, resolution, pluralism, checks and balances, multiculturalism, paradigm shifts) may be brought to bear and still come up wanting.

While the tension between family and community time is legendary, the external conflicts commonly addressing lay leaders are every bit as challenging. For instance: How does one balance honoring respectful consensus-building processes and the need for decisive, immediate action? How do those tasked with nurturing and supporting an institutional leader, who is struggling with an expanding job description, address the obligation to coolly evaluate that employee’s performance and take unilateral action if necessary? How does one balance stewardship for a community school’s financial viability and a pledge to the community that the school’s admissions policy will be truly “needs-blind”? How does one balance obligations of confidentiality with an institution’s need for intimate financial information during the financial aid process?

Two vectors might provide a map, but not a singular route, to navigating such decisions. In my better moments, I ask myself two questions: First, how would I feel if I were the one being personally affected by the decision? And second, if my decision-making process were to be made public, how would I feel? These queries often help clarify a process that is iterative and reflective, rather than linear.

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Elihu Stone, JD and CLTC, has been privileged as a lay leader to serve on boards of schools, synagogues, and Jewish social service and communal organizations.

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