I work in a fast-paced, fairly "cutthroat" world. Is there a Jewish perspective on balancing personal ambitions, and needing to be aggressive to achieve those, with building and maintaining positive relationships with colleagues and co-workers?
The twentieth century rabbi and educator, Rabbi Yitzhak Hutner, author of a innovative and popular collection of essays titled “Pachad Yitzchak” once wrote to one of his students (Iggerot 94) who was struggling to reconcile his identity as a religious Jew and his professional aspirations. Rabbi Hutner encouraged his student to pursue his chosen profession, but to do so as a religious Jew. Rabbi Hutner did this by introducing a helpful metaphor. Most of us live in homes with more than one room and we reserve certain rooms for certain functions. We cook in the kitchen, eat in a dining room, sleep in a bedroom etc. Yet, despite engaging in different activities in different rooms of our homes, we would not describe those of us who live in this way as living a “double-life” because the same individuals engage in each of those activities in each room of our home. In contrast someone who maintains two households can rightfully be criticized for living a double life. That individual has divided his or her life in a way that lacks coherence and integrity.
The challenge that Rav Hutner presents for us, and the opportunity, is to embrace the possibility of living in a home with many rooms, while avoiding the risk of living in two homes and living a double life. Successfully living in a home of many rooms means that we maintain the same personality, operate guided by the same values, and maintain our personal integrity in all of the spheres and in all of the contexts in which we live and work. Someone who sits next to us in shul on Shabbat should experience us in the same way as someone who works with us, who should recognize our personality in the same way as someone who works for a competitor or for a contractor. Our employers and our employees should experience us in the same way, notwithstanding the different relationships we will develop with different people in diverse roles.
Cultivating this degree of integrity is challenging but crucial to living as a faithful Jew in the workplace as well as in the home or the synagogue. The noted scholar and author Dr. Erica Brown has just published a book called Taking Your Soul to Work: 365 Meditations on Every Day Leadership. I have not had the pleasure of reading the book but I did hear it discussed on the radio and think it would be very helpful to you as you struggle to live as a Jew in a work environment that is not conducive to your values and ethical commitments.
Jews were undoubtedly involved in some business over the course of the centuries that one could describe as "cutthroat," but I frankly doubt that they were as cutthroat as the ones that we encounter today, with instant communications and knowlege of what competitors are doing and with similarly instantaneous ability to counter-offer. Moreover, we no longer conduct business in the small communities in which our ancestors lived and earned their living, where everyone knew each other and thus had a stake in making sure that their reputations were not sullied. After all, they had to live with the people who were their clients and competitors. Thus I do not know of anything directly on point in answer to your question.
Still, as you probably guessed in posing the question as you did, the Jewish tradition places great emphasis on personal integrity, on fair dealing, and on fair competition. One Rabbinic law (hasagat g'vul) prohibits businesspeople from setting up the same kind of business that already exists in a particular location. The presumption of this law is that both businesses are owned by Jews, and this is one way in which the Jewish community tried to protect all of its members. This clearly would not work today, but the idea was that we need to look out not only for our own ability to earn a living, but also for other Jews' ability to do so. More broadly, we are supposed to be "a kingdom of priests and a holy people" (Exodus 19:6), which certainly does not mean that we must abandon business altogether as a way to earn a living, but it does mean that we need to keep our tradition's aspirations for our character in mind in deciding how we conduct our business. The Talmud (Shabbat 31a) goes so far as to say that the very first question one will be asked by God after one's death is this: Did you conduct your business in a trustworthy manner (be-emunah)? So as you suspected, Judaism would say that you need to worry about your own integrity in conducting your business affairs even if others are behaving in a cutthroat manner.
The first century sage Hillel said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?But if I am only for myself, what am I?”Jewish tradition does not equate poverty with saintliness, but it also does not subscribe to Gordon Gekko’s “greed is good” approach to life.Competition is part of the business world, but competition must be legitimate.It goes without saying that there is no justification whatsoever for any sort of dishonesty or underhandedness in your dealings with your co-workers.The bottom line of your relationship with them must be one of honesty.You may not, for example, act like the pre-med students I used to hear about in the pre-internet days, who would cut articles out of reserve books at the library to gain an advantage on an exam by making it impossible for their classmates to access the material.
Then there was my friend the pre-med student who missed class because of illness and then found that she had to ask a number of classmates to share the notes of the lectures she missed before she found one who was willing to do so.The others wanted to hold on to the slight advantage they had gained by virtue of attending class when my friend could not.And indeed, they broke no rules by their refusal, nor were they under any legal obligation to help my friend.Sharing the lecture notes with her was middat hasidut, “the quality of kindness.”The Talmud uses this phrase in contexts where the laws that govern the marketplace do not require a certain action, but middat hasidut – what we would call “common decency” – does.
You are not required to forgo opportunities for advancement in your work, as long as they are achieved through honest means.Medieval Jewish communities limited the legal right of other Jews to settle there and do business, because economic avenues for Jews were severely limited, and they knew that if too many householders resided in a community, there would be too much competition and all would suffer.On the other hand, you are expected to temper your competitive action with common decency.Medieval Jews balanced their legal right to exclude newcomers with the knowledge that a Jewish family turned away from their community had limited opportunities elsewhere, and so the right was applied carefully.
In short, there is no absolute rule for where to place the balance between your personal ambition and your relations with co-workers.Rather, the expectation is that you will temper personal advancement with common decency:Be a mensh.The fact that you're asking this question shows that you want to be a mensh. So go ahead and be one. You won't regret it.
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