So…What do you do?

Rabbi Justin Goldstein
November 7, 2012
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what do you do

One of my favorite things about the Jewish is that the lines between ritual, ethical, and mundane life becomes blurred, such that many (most?) Jews do not consider it first and foremost a religion; yet to observant Jews Judaism does not necessary seem “religious” because every aspect of our life becomes influenced by our religion.  Traditional observance entails a shift in consciousness toward allowing Torah (written, oral, ancient, modern – i.e., the mesorah, ‘The Tradition”) to envelop every breath, every step, every thought, every act of our lives.

Part of the struggle of living in a labor-based society is that “work” and “life” become blurred – it becomes very easy to identify oneself by their job (or lack thereof).  While some are blessed with the ability to get paid to do what we love, this is obviously not the case for everyone.  What we do very much determines “who we are,” however where we work may not and certainly does not have to.

To my mind, there is really no such thing, necessarily, as  a “Jewish workplace.”  There are Jewish people who work, and there are Jewish institutions where people (some of them Jews) work; yet a place where Jewish individuals work or a Jewish institution where individuals who may or may not be Jewish work is not really a “Jewish workplace” simply by virtue of either of the qualifications mentioned above.  Traditional observance suggests (requires?) that a Jewish individual make the world their “workplace.”  That’s not to say that we get paid to be Jewish, but it is to say that we make a distinction between “what do you do for money,” and what do you do for the world?”

It is no mistake that one of the pillars on which the world stands is, according to Shimon HaTzadik (Pirkei Avot 1:2), avodah, service, which also means “labor.”  In all likelihood, the Mishnah intends avodah to refer to the sacrificial service in the Temple; however that gets to the point I mentioned above that the Jewish religion does not distinguish between different aspects of our life.  Avodah means service to God, and in a life of traditional observance there is really no distinction as to whether that service is sacrificing an animal on the altar, supporting the poor of one’s community, lighting candles or erecting an eruv for Shabbat, as examples.

In a life of traditional Jewish observance the world becomes ones workplace and one’s work becomes a “life of Torah.”  It is then possible for a Jewish individual to make any place of employment a “Jewish workplace,” by living the values inherent in living a Jewish life (kindness, tzedakah, abstaining from gossip, et al.).  Likewise, a Jewish institution with employees can provide a place of employment for both Jewish and non-Jewish workers by institutionally enforcing Jewish values (living wage, fair treatment, respectful environment, honest business dealings, et al.)  Ultimately, the task of creating a “Jewish workplace” goes beyond the places where we make our money.  Work, in a Jewish context, is something much larger – such that we must ask ourselves the question, is our “work,” as Jews, limited by what we get paid for?

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Rabbi Justin Goldstein Ordained in 2011 by the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles, CA, Justin serves as rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel in Asheville, NC. Rabbi Goldstein was selected as a 2012-2013 Fellow with Rabbis Without Borders. His writings can be found in various books, at the Jew and the Carrot - Hazon's blog at the Forward and at . Find Justin at, on Twitter @RabbiJDG and at

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