Ethical lessons from ‘Fiddler on the Roof’

Ethical lessons from ‘Fiddler on the Roof’

Jewish Law Symposium enlightens New Jersey legal community

Rabbi Shalom Lubin speaks to the symposium. (Miryam Z. Wahrman)
Rabbi Shalom Lubin speaks to the symposium. (Miryam Z. Wahrman)

Nearly 800 people gathered at the Birchwood Manor in Whippany on September 25 to hear how the beloved musical “Fiddler on the Roof” can teach us lessons about ethics.

The 13th Annual Jewish Law Symposium, moderated by Chabad of Morris County’s Rabbi Shalom Lubin, addressed such issues as religious tolerance, immigration, defending so-called indefensible clients, and the “obligation to provide pro-bono legal services to the less fortunate.”

The symposium is aimed at attorneys across the state who are interested in exploring the ethical and moral dilemmas they might face today, as lawyers, through the lens of both civil and talmudic law.

Kenneth Rosen, a partner at the Roseland-based law firm Lowenstein Sandler PC, who chaired the symposium, opened it by welcoming the participants, and then Rabbi Lubin offered a pre-Rosh Hashanah shofar blast, setting the stage for what is now, in its 13th year, a tradition-filled evening. Each year Rabbi Lubin and an advisory board of attorneys from prominent New Jersey firms develop a theme and program, and then legal experts provide their colleagues across the legal profession an opportunity to network, enjoy a kosher dinner, and earn continuing legal education credits in ethics.

Retired chief justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court James Zazzali introduced the featured presenter, New Jersey Supreme Court Associate Justice Barry T. Albin. “He’s the ultimate people person,” Mr. Zazzali said about Mr. Albin. “One of the great qualities is friendship. The public could not have a better friend… In Italian we call him simpatico. In the language of some of you, we call him a mentsch. We’re lucky to have a simpatico mentsch.”

Mr. Albin, who was nominated to the state Supreme Court in 2002, warmly acknowledged the man who nominated him, former Governor James McGreevey, who was in the audience. Mr. Albin evoked the evening’s theme, speaking, and even singing, about “Fiddler on the Roof’s” fictional town, Anatevka, in 1905. “Jews in Anatevka live in an uneasy peace where there is state sponsored violence,” he said. “Tevye pours out his complaints in an ongoing and unrequited dialogue with God. There is a tradition of arranged marriages. How did these traditions start? Without these traditions our lives would be as shaky as a fiddler on the roof.”

Next, Mr. Albin asked, “What can we learn from ‘Fiddler’ about tradition? We have traditions in law. Tradition brings predictability and conformity. But it can also oppress.” He recalled how at the time of the Constitutional Congress women could not participate in the democratic process. “African Americans were enslaved,” he said. “Many odious traditions had been codified into law.

“To alter a tradition codified into law takes time,” he continued, explaining how it took more than a century to change some of the “traditions” that oppressed people. In 1954, the Supreme Court struck down Brown v. Board of Education, leading to racial integration of schools in the south. In 1967, laws banning interracial marriages finally were challenged. And it took until 2015 to pass the guaranteed right to same sex-marriage. “They needed a critical mass of public support” to change entrenched traditions, Mr. Albin said.

He noted that there were 100 years between the passage of the 14th Amendment and the civil rights movement. “Equality should not take generations to achieve,” he said. “Constitutional guarantees may not be guaranteed unless there’s a critical mass of public support.”

Mr. Albin concluded that “the promise of our constitution depends on an enlightened public.”

Rabbi Lubin introduced the panel of legal experts and unveiled each issue by showing a relevant scene from the 1971 movie version of “Fiddler on the Roof.”

After playing a clip of Tevye the milkman singing “Tradition”, Rabbi Lubin asked, “What are the ethical challenges relating to tradition?”

“Our traditions have been shaky,” said Lawrence Lustberg, a criminal litigation attorney for Gibbons’ commercial and criminal litigation department. “We love what we do, but is it right that we work until 9 o’clock at night? Or is it better to balance work life with family?

“Tradition is important — but it is also important to welcome change.”

Christopher Porrino, chair of the litigation department at Lowenstein Sandler, noted, “Today we had a program to talk about why people leave the law firms. It’s not something lawyers like to talk about. We’re trying to break that tradition.”

Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, the director of interfaith affairs for the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said, “We’re sharing the largesse of Rabbi Lubin and Chabad worldwide. There is no question that Jews around the world stand in awe of Chabad. We have faith in some things that are held immutable. Not everything can change.” He explained that there is more to faith than tradition. “Tevye was wrong. We would have survived without tradition. There are things that go beyond tradition. Jewish law deals not only with law, but going beyond the letter of the law.”

From a scene in “Fiddler” where the rabbi blesses the tzar — “May God bless and keep the tzar — far away from us,” Rabbi Lubin challenged the panel to consider “How do we defend someone we find to be repugnant?”

“If we didn’t represent people who were unpopular we’d be out of business,” Mr. Porrino said. “I try very hard not to make judgments about people based on their beliefs.” He said that he would take any case “unless it is someone who would cause the law firm true harm.”

Mr. Lustberg reported that he has represented sex offenders and defendants in death penalty cases. “We have an obligation to represent the most despised among us,” he said, acknowledging that those types of cases make him unpopular. “There are limits on who we have to represent,” he said. “Before I take a case the partners decide if it’s good or bad for the firm. When I started taking LGBT cases they were very unpopular.”

Judge Barbara Byrd Wecker, a retired New Jersey Superior Court judge who now is of counsel to the law firm Greenberg Dauber Epstein Tucker, reminisced; “I’m struck by the fact that when you’re a judge you don’t have to worry about what clients come to you,” she said. “Sometimes cases come to you involving people of whom you personally might disapprove. All of us have an obligation to recognize we are subject to inherent bias. We must recognize those biases exist and must compensate for them.”

Philip Gross of Bergenfield, a corporate bankruptcy and restructuring attorney at Lowenstein Sandler, works with Mr. Rosen and Mr. Porrino. The symposium attracts “prominent speakers from the New Jersey bar, so it gets a good cross section of people who come,” he said. Its leaders have “done a very good job bringing in the broader legal community. For lawyers, we need to get our CLE credits, and they always have interesting topics.”

Mr. Porrino “filed the Mahwah eruv lawsuit,” Mr. Gross said. “He’s got an interesting perspective on things. He’s done a lot of public service over the years.”

The audience also is varied and interesting, he added. “Lowenstein sponsors a table or two and recruits attorneys to go. There’s a mix of observant Jewish attorneys and non-Jewish attorneys who come, who like the program — and like the food.”

“The program showed how ethical principles which can be derived from ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ have applicability to the practice of law as well as to problems encountered in our day-to-day lives,” said Dr. Israel Wahrman of Teaneck, who works as an administrative law judge for special education cases in New York (and is this writer’s husband).

“Like all lawyers, I need Continuing Legal Education credits in ethics,” Mr. Wahrman said. “This program provided such credits, in a very entertaining program.”

Dr. Miryam Z. Wahrman of Teaneck is a professor of biology at William Paterson University and has been the Jewish Standard’s science correspondent since 1997.

read more: