It is a tragic reality today that a generation so meticulous in its observance of Shabbat, kashrut and mikveh is so lax in its observance of Choshen Mishpat. It behooves us to understand why such a disproportionate number of our people don’t find a contradiction between going to minyan and cheating on taxes.
We as a community lost our focus during a significant part of the 20th century, when many observant Jews were abandoning Orthodoxy and joining ranks with the Conservative and Reform movements. In response to our dwindling numbers, we stressed the ideas that obviously defined Orthodox Jews from the other denominations (i.e., Shabbat, kashrut, etc.) and placed less emphasis on the more universal religious principles of honesty and integrity.
Unfortunately, this response led to an overemphasis on external forms of religiosity. Nowadays, for example, when inquiring about a shidduch people often will ask where the family davens, or what shechita they eat, but rarely does anyone ask if they engage in honest business practices. People will ask about the length of one’s sleeves and what kind of kippah one wears, but not if one avoids shopping in “cash only” stores.
Back when Orthodoxy was losing droves to the other movements, we needed to define ourselves and make ourselves distinct. In the process, we deemphasized some very important Jewish values. But Judaism cannot be compartmentalized. The system of Torah is one complete entity. How we buy, sell and pay taxes requires as much religiosity as how we dress, daven and eat. The sad reality of today is the fallout of raising a couple of generations without proper zerizut in Choshen Mishpat observance.
I believe, however, that times are changing again. The only positive side of sinking so low is that we can’t help but recognize the need to change and improve. Recently, shuls as well as Jewish schools and communities have begun addressing these fundamental issues; the emphasis on honesty and integrity as prerequisites to spirituality is once again at the forefront. It is the topic of shiurim (on www.ou.org, you can find seventy different shiurim on Choshen Mishpat topics that address various aspects of how sincere Jews conduct business affairs), the theme of retreats, and in the curricula of Jewish day schools.
We have a long way to go; like Avraham we must stem the tide of a generation. But unlike Avraham, we have a road map and a rich and comprehensive system of halacha to follow. And we have Avraham as our patriarch, who began a mission and entrusted us with a legacy to transform humanity with tzedakah umishpat.
This Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, as we stand before the Ribbono Shel Olam and ask for the opportunity to survive and live the year being His partner in the transformation of humanity, we invoke the claim that we are the true heirs of Avraham Avinu’s legacy.
May we work hard and be zocheh to be worthy children of Avraham, and may Hakadosh Baruch Hu bless our efforts with success, and allow us to make a positive impact on all of mankind.
Rabbi Steven Weil is executive vice president of the Orthodox Union. This essay originally appeared in Jewish Action, the quarterly magazine of the Orthodox Union.