Telushkin: Ethical laws are not ‘extracurricular’
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Telushkin: Ethical laws are not ‘extracurricular’

Jewish ethical lapses are nothing new, says Rabbi Joseph Telushkin. Milliennia before Bernard Madoff swindled hundreds of hapless investors, the author and ethicist notes, the Talmud taught that the first question people will be asked by the heavenly court is, “Were you honest in your business dealings?”

“There’s a reason why the Talmud says this,” said Telushkin, who will address the community on Sept. 22 at the Moriah School in Englewood.

In a telephone conversation last week with The Jewish Standard, the scholar said, “It’s my tendency when it comes to the flaws of human nature to assume that they’re probably always there – more or less revealed. We have to assume, based on human nature, that these problems have been pretty perennial.”

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Rabbi Joseph Telushkin

The best-selling author of such books as “Jewish Literacy” and “A Code of Jewish Ethics,” Telushkin will speak in Englewood on “The Ten Commandments of Character,” the title of another book and a topic well-suited to the High Holy Days.

“One of the sad things that’s happened is that the word ‘religious’ is associated in people’s minds with ritual observance, laws between people and God,” said the author, who was ordained at Yeshiva University and did graduate studies in Jewish history at Columbia University. He noted that when people discuss a person’s religiosity, they speak mainly of that person’s kashrut or Shabbat observance.

“As if ethical laws are an extracurricular activity,” he said.

Telushkin added that “one of the lessons underlying the recent scandals is that we have to go back to some fundamental biblical and talmudic teachings.”

Learning to act properly toward others is particularly important as we approach the High Holy Days, he said, when we learn that to obtain forgiveness for sins committed against one’s fellow man, we must not only repent but must obtain forgiveness from the person we hurt.

“At a time of year when we’re thinking of being more spiritual and kinder,” he hopes his presentation will motivate attendees to attain these traits. In addition, he said, “I’ll offer some real guidelines on how to raise spiritually sensitive and kind children.”

Telushkin will outline rules for leading “an honorable, ethical, and honest life.” Among these is “know your weaknesses.”

“I put such strength on this because people often don’t know themselves,” he said. “That would account for the phenomenon of being 70 years old and still immature.”

“There’s a reason why at the beginning of AA meetings, people who get up to speak say their names and that they’re an alcoholic,” said Telushkin. “A person who got up and said, ‘I drink a lot but I can control it’ is not likely to get better. If they don’t acknowledge the weaknesses, there won’t be sufficient motivation to work on them,” he added, acknowledging that it is hard to own up to shortcomings.

However, it is “also important to know your strengths, because ultimately those strengths will enable you to overcome your weakness.”

“Don’t become dispirited,” he said, “but know where to focus your efforts.”

Telushkin said this concept ties into the Yom Kippur focus on recognizing the wrongs we’ve done to one another. Important in this process is “having people who can speak honestly to us, whose critiques we can trust.” We need to have friends who can point out our flaws without demoralizing us, he said.

“It is also very important to cultivate gratitude,” said Telushkin. While ingratitude is “an ugly trait,” gratitude, besides being ethically appropriate, “cultivates a feeling of being loved.”

“When you say, ‘Look what so and so did for me,’ you’re saying, ‘They really love me.'”

The ingrate, on the other hand, feels constantly abused, revealing how unloved he feels.

“This is an insight into human nature,” he said. “It underscores that sometimes doing the right thing turns out to be the right thing to do.”

Another ethical commandment is to practice self-control, said Telushkin, citing a study demonstrating that those who practice this trait are ultimately more successful than those who don’t.

“Many years ago there was a famous test at a pre-school where children were told they could have one marshmallow now or two marshmallows in an hour,” he said. “It was found 12 years later that those children who were willing to wait performed significantly higher on their SATs. Self-control is a factor that follows people throughout their lives.”

The author added that people must also “be courageous – a necessary preparation for having self-respect.” At some point, he said, everyone is confronted with a situation where “we should do something.” When we do it, he said, we feel better about ourselves.

He acknowledged, however, that the demands of proper behavior “are relentless.”

“On any given day, challenges confront us and the standards are high,” he said, noting that even a fully Sabbath-observant Jew may slip, for example, by speaking lashon hara, wronging somebody through speech.

Telushkin, senior associate for CLAL-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, also serves as religious leader for the Los Angeles-based Synagogue for the Performing Arts, where he leads High Holy Day services.

Explaining his lifelong fascination with ethical behavior and his literary focus on it, he said, “I was always deeply influenced by and took seriously Hillel’s summary statement, ‘Do unto others as you will have others do unto you.’ If he was willing to say this is the whole Torah, it must be a worthwhile thing to spend one’s life on.”

Telushkin’s presentation will take place at 8 p.m. For further information, call Moriah at (201) 567-0208.

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