I heard once about an executive who explained in an interview: we debate a lot behind the scenes, but when we present our opinion or policy, it is a united front. We expect all employees to avoid saying or writing anything that would contradict this in public, they continued. Further, it’s spelled out in the work contract what you can and cannot say, and employees must stand behind the policy decisions of the organization.
If you find this kind of approach unsettling, you wouldn’t be alone. Yet, it’s not an uncommon requirement of employees. I wondered, after hearing this, how much money employees have to earn to make it worthwhile to give up their opinions or their right to free speech. Also, what happens if, during the debate behind the scenes, a younger or less powerful employee has a viewpoint that is starkly different than the party line? How does that go? Must an employee then give up her income or change jobs in order to have freedom of expression on those topics? If mainstream, moderate opinions and moderate disagreements are swept under the rug, what else isn’t allowed?
After hearing of this model, which shuts down dissent or situations that might conflict with the policy, I felt nervous. I ended up joking around. This felt like the Mafia. Disagree with the boss? What happens if nobody likes what you have to say? You too could end up in the river wearing some concrete overshoes!
These issues around employment and freedom of expression loom large in democracies and rightly so. If we look back to Judaism’s most foundational texts, written and oral Torah, we see that, consistently, Judaism values hearing all the opinions. Minority voices or rejected outcasts also have their views included and written down. We’re still reading and hearing about rabbis and even outsiders to the community who expressed minority opinions 2,000 years ago that didn’t go forward. In other words, their views did not become “policy.”
For instance, in the Talmud, we learn about Hillel versus Shammai, but mostly Hillel, who is more lenient. The rabbis and, therefore, Jewish law, tend to follow Hillel’s lead. That said, nobody got rid of Shammai’s point of view. He didn’t get fired from the rabbis’ club for having an unpopular opinion.
I recently had a couple of informational interviews. Well, they were really just Zoom chats, which came about because a friend reposted something from a small advocacy group on Instagram. Beware of social media if you are a novice like me. I prodded my friend with an off-the-cuff comment, saying, “So, don’t you think this is just a PR scam?!” Oops … I wasn’t just writing my online friend.
To my surprise, both the chief executive officer and the education and programming lead of the group got in touch with me. They wanted to tell me all about their efforts to make positive change – it wasn’t a publicity stunt. They explained what they hoped to achieve. I was pretty embarrassed by my post. By the end of the first chat, I was impressed with the information they had offered me and how they had engaged. They welcomed all opinions. They asked me if I wanted to contribute in an open and friendly way.
Our second meeting resulted in them recruiting me to serve on a volunteer advisory panel because of what they saw as my expertise. I agreed willingly because our exchange had been such a positive experience.
There’s a meme offered this time of year, that, while how we behave between Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah matters, it’s how we behave the rest of the year that counts.
Choosing to be open to differing opinions and innovation keeps us learning and growing. It also aligns us with the model of the rabbis, who discussed and debated and recorded it all in plain view, with minority views counting, too. Also, admitting one’s mistakes – wow, how embarrassing was I on social media? – helps us grow and become better people.
The least Jewish model, I think, is the example with which I led off this article, where everyone is allowed to debate, in theory, but all opinions aside from the official party line are discarded or silenced. We’re speaking here of relatively mainstream opinions, not radical ones. Want the kicker? From what I understood, this is a model used by some nonprofit Jewish organizations.
The smaller advocacy group isn’t a Jewish organization, but one of their employees is. Part of our chat involved a bit of Canadian Jewish geography regarding their Winnipeg relatives. Also, they suggested that I perhaps write up a Jewish topic for their group one day. They were open and excited about diverse voices.
Work life and individual identity can sometimes be entirely separate things. Yet, in others’ lives, Jewish identity, values and models and careers go hand in hand. I want to address my Jewish identity through making the world a better place, including at work. Watching these two different models emerge on my radar recently reminded me that, in fact, non-Jewish organizations can model Jewish ways of questioning and validating ideas, while some Jewish groups choose not to do so.
In a perfect world, we’d all do meaningful, life-changing work. In real life, we know that compromises and the bottom line matter. Sometimes, work isn’t that place of deep meaning or free expression, and we can’t always say everything we think in the workplace, either. However, perhaps there’s a way to avoid stifling creativity – having multiple voices valued in the workplace, while still communicating the basic mission of the organization. Perhaps we can all learn and grow better this way, making educated debate matter, just as the rabbis did 2,000 years ago.
Joanne Seiff has written regularly for CBC Manitoba and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. Check her out on Instagram @yrnspinner or at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.