Looking Religious At Work
What is Now Acceptable
Rav Samson Roephel Hirsch wrote in the 1800s in Germany that, if necessary, a Jew could shake the hands of the person of the opposite sex in a business setting. He reasoned that this is not a type of affectionate touch, which is prohibited in Judaism, unless it’s a close relative or your spouse. (See the article on resetting desires, for more on this.) The ruling tells you something of the times, a time when no Jew could expect to wear a yarmulke in public in professional business, and worse, had little chance of observing Shabbos. This continued, often unchanged, in the United States until fairly recently.
Today, in first meetings with female clients, many already know not to reach out their hands to me, an outwardly looking Jew. While sometimes if a woman reaches her hand out to me and I’m not yet ready with a business card in hand or it’s going to be really awkward to explain why I’m not shaking her hand, I just do it. When given the opportunity to explain that I don’t touch women out of religious practice, it’s never been a problem. I don’t expect every person to know every nuance of different cultural norms, but that being said, I always wear a yarmulke. Work is no exception.
The previous generation didn’t or couldn’t do this. So much so that I once went to a law school professor after the first class and said, “Oh, you work at company X doing patents. Do you know person Y, in that department?” I was stunned when the response was, “Yes, he gives lots of shiurim,” as he used the Hebrew word for a class on Torah. He recognized, by my yarmulke, that I’d know what he was saying, but I had no idea that this professor actually had a much greater knowledge of Torah than me, and every one of his children learned Torah full time. He was apparently used to not showing his Jewishness in the workplace, whereas I resolved to wear a yarmulke on my head, wherever I am, to remind myself of fear of heaven wherever I go.
This practice turns out to actually be beneficial in the workplace today.
I looked at about 10 Attorney websites, and then when I saw your picture, I invited my wife over, and she confirmed that’s a capa on your head. It’s hard to find someone in America in business who fears G_d, so I decided to hire you. I’m a Muslim, but I respect your prophets and your religion, so here I am. – A client at an initial consultation.
The above quote is as accurate as I remember it to be. This sort of thing always strikes me as odd because I was raised not to outwardly show your beliefs. In fact, I have heard in many places, such as England, to this day, few working people show any outward signs of their religious beliefs. Even more so, it’s pretty clear if you look at my yarmulke that I’m an observant Jew. Yet, despite what one reads in the media about Jewish / Muslim relations these days, I have, at least a handful of Muslim clients, including those from or in Egypt, Lebanon, Pakistan, and Turkey.
In the above case, the deal was sealed when the client told me about his friend who let an idea get away from him, because he didn’t have the money. Being in one of those blue states, I doubt I would have responded to this in a “religious” way to just anyone, but I responded that perhaps his friend wasn’t meant to be rich and that it was G_d who decided who was rich and who was poor. He repeated it, seemingly half in astonishment, and said, “This is what you believe?” I said yes, and then I was hired.
The same has held true of my Catholic clients, whom it turned out really didn’t go to church or do anything of that sort so much. Still, on his way out one day, he said, “You know, I really don’t know anything about Judaism, but I’m happy to work with a religious person. If you don’t believe in G_d, then you can do anything!” He meant this in the negative, of course, that an atheist has no moral dilemma with coming to believe anything and carrying it out, whether right or wrong.
Whenever you go out there and let people know you believe something, they may be less inclined to hire you. Once, I had some lesbian club in Manhattan call me about a trademark, and truth be told, I doubt they would have called be back anyway, but I’m not so sure I’d be their first pick to hire, if they knew my views. Similarly, I’m pretty sure an Arab client who I had spoken with on the phone decided not to hire me after our first meeting, based on my obvious religious beliefs. Everyone believes their way of life is right or okay, or rationalizes it until they believe so, or they would be doing something different.
That being said, while Americans still often choose to hire and associate with people just like them, commerce tends to trump personal belief, and people seem to more respect those who believe in G_d and believe in consequence, as they will more likely be honest in business. I’ve found this sentiment from both religious and non-religious clients, though perhaps my sample is not objective, being that I am more likely to attract those who want to do business with a person such as myself.
Still, it’s a lot to live up to. The separation between religious observance and business dealings can make for a larger desecration of G_d’s name. All too often, those dishonest in business are in the news, and when they have a yarmulke on their head, I cringe. It’s too painful. I know I was in for a shock the first time a religious Jew treated me very badly in business, and it’s no guarantee that the person will be honest.
Finding the Right Balance In Society
What’s worse than an individual who is corrupt, is a collective which is corrupt. Those seeking power, in any setting, generally want the power for themselves. The founders of the United States geniusly setup a system whereby the natural inclination to be selfish is spread out over lots of people who rise and fall in elections. The patent system is an even better example where, unlike the rest of the world, patents are always granted to individuals, not companies, and secure a limited duration monopoly for any person who wants one, until it goes out to the public. The government uses it’s power to enforce, and then the government makes it a free for all. Where intellectual property is not enforced, which is much of the world, it becomes so corrupt that even major brands are knocked off all over, and quality suffers for everyone. On the flip side, where there is tight government control, it’s also pretty dismal. North Korea and Iran aren’t known for their variety of goods available to consumers, and note that one is anti-religious while the other is theocratic. Whether basing ideology in extreme atheism or extreme religiousism, the individual gets lost for the ideological collective and torture and murder is be found everywhere.
Being a person who believes in G_d and a Torah from G_d, I very much want man to live up to the ideals we were created to do, and there is a promise that we’ll get there. In the interim, history seems to demonstrate that the key for a society, seems to be in maintaining and encouraging the expression of the individual and being somewhere between religion-based and atheism based. (Actually, many totalitarian regimes lasted much longer – look at the ancient Egyptians who were fairly unchanged for 3,000 years!) Finding the right balance of the two is problematic, because there must be some underlying framework of which we can all agree, but this seems to be a moving target because whatever rule anyone sets up, there will always be someone who will say it’s not fair to them, and work to break it down.
Working Towards the Ideal
The ideal, in Jewish belief, would be for the world to accept the seven basic categories of laws given to all of man. This includes not only “religious” laws, but also setting up a court system to punish offenders. It’s a guide for how to live, but does not require specific ritual, going to a certain place once a week, or anything of that nature. The more I look at society, the more I see the logic of this, within the system that is humanity. Be tolerant of others, don’t steal, don’t murder, fear a consequence for improper actions, and setup courts to deal with those who would violate the precepts. This lives wide leeway for the function of society, and in the meanwhile, i’ll continue to try the best I can to show the world this through my own actions and will continue to wear the yarmulke proudly on my head while I work. In my ideal, there’s no separation between personal belief and conduct at work.
Nice article. I’m curious about one thing. You mention that you would shake a woman’s hand if you didn’t have a business card handy (and didn’t want to embarrass her). How do you normally avoid shaking hands by using a business card? Do you preempt the handshake by introducing yourself with a business card?
Thank you for your comment. To avoid shaking a woman’s hands, yes, I try to have a business card ready. Sometimes, she’ll just accept the business card and maybe hand me one of her own, and that’s it. If she beats me to it with an outstretched hand, if it’s feasible, I’ll stick a business card in her hand still. However, some women will be very intent on the handshake even after, and so you’re either stuck explaining that you don’t touch people of the opposite sex for religious reasons, or using the heter to shake hands. Then, there’s the woman who doesn’t shake at the beginning when one exchanges business cards, but wants to shake hands at the end, after you conclude the meeting …