Can political campaigns be ethical?

Can political campaigns be ethical?

Classical Jewish texts offer an answer, says Harman Grossman

Exploring the Jewish perspective on ethical behavior is always important, says Teaneck resident Harman Grossman. Today, however, when the ongoing presidential campaign throws some of those ethical concerns into sharp focus, that study is more relevant than ever.

“It’s important to teach [Jewish ethics] anytime,” said Grossman, who has addressed that topic for four years as an instructor for the community’s Florence Melton Adult Mini-School. “But today’s headlines make it top of mind.”

On May 16, Grossman – an attorney for Johnson & Johnson – will look more closely at “The Jewish Perspective on Campaign Ethics” as guest speaker for the Melton Alumni Association Evening of Learning.

“I’ll ask whether there is a way to conduct a political campaign ethically and, if so, what Jewish tradition has to say about that,” he said, offering the caveat that our classical texts did not quite anticipate the kind of electoral campaigns we have today.

Attorney Harman Grossman, a popular instructor in northern New Jersey’s Florence Melton Adult Mini-School, will provide “a Jewish perspective to ethical campaigning” to Melton alumni on May 16. Courtesy Harman Grossman

Still, “as is often the case when we have a modern problem that is not spoken to directly, we try to distill from the classical text some principles that apply. You see that in the Melton curriculum all the time,” he said, citing, for example, the topic of organ transplants.

As it happens, “Tradition does have a lot to say about the importance of those in power having the consent of the governed, the appropriate limits on speech, and limits on financial contributions to government officials,” he noted. “These [teachings] can be brought to bear on campaign finance reform, negative campaigning, and even the Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case,” which threw out federal campaign financing regulations.

“In Anglo-American legal tradition, there’s nothing wrong with derogatory speech, as long as it’s true,” he continued. “So you can have negative campaigning as long as it’s truthful. But in Jewish tradition, speech that’s true but derogatory is forbidden as lashon harah, except in cases where there is a legitimate purpose (toelet). So one thing to explore is what the legitimate exceptions are and apply them to [such politicians as] Karl Rove and David Axelrod.”

Grossman’s interest in ethics was sparked, at least in part, by work done at Johnson & Johnson for several years, “when I was asked to step out of my ordinary career path and go around the world teaching business executives what they needed to know to stay out of legal and ethical trouble.” From this experience grew what the attorney calls a “worldwide program of legal and ethical education.”

Invited for several years by past Melton coordinator Rena Rabinowitz to share his knowledge with Melton students, Grossman said the timing was not right until he completed his two-year stint as president of Teaneck’s Congregation Beth Sholom.

“She said they wanted an educated layperson on the faculty,” he said. “I’m not a rabbi, and not a professional Jewish educator. The Melton program, particularly in this area, is blessed with an astonishingly good faculty of rabbis and Jewish educators. As an educated layperson, I’m honored that they consider me a colleague.”

He said Rabinowitz thought it would be particularly appropriate “to have someone like me in the mix. It sends the message that Jewish tradition belongs to everyone, not just the professionals and yeshivah students.”

“I love it,” he said, speaking of Melton, which is sponsored by a consortium including the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey and local congregations.

“Many American Jews who are well educated in their fields and well read on all sorts of topics for one reason or another don’t have a strong Jewish education,” Grossman said. “For many, their Jewish education stops at age 13, and they’re left with a 13-year-old’s understanding. Melton gives adults access to classical Jewish texts and lets them apply those texts to their lives.”

He said he admires students who take on the two-year commitment, spending one evening a week “without Netflix or Facebook.”

“For me, one of the real joys of teaching in the Melton program is that the students have real-life experience in the topics we’re talking about,” he said. For example, when teaching about ethics and divorce, his class included two women who had been agunot and could talk firsthand about the impact of the texts on their lives.

As regards his upcoming talk, “I look forward to [teaching] political junkies…who bring their perspectives and experiences and passion” to the discussion. “I’m hoping I can provide access to Jewish tradition, but I’m looking to the students to add something.”

Grossman has some additional passions of his own. Having discovered in recent years a strong desire for biking, he has now completed three long bike rides in Israel, two on behalf of Alyn’s hospital for disabled children and one for the special needs program at Camp Ramah.

Noting that other local riders, such as Dr. David Arbit, a rheumatologist in Fair Lawn, “are much stronger riders than me,” he said that participating in these rides has been hugely gratifying.

“The really positive thing is that they enable me to combine three passions: a late-in-life passion for biking; seeing Israel in a different way – covering more ground than simply hiking, but with the same intimate connection; and supporting great causes. I’ve also learned that I have to be terrified that a ride is coming up so that I don’t gain 60 pounds,” he joked.

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