Sunday, December 04, 2022

Reviewing: “Making It Work: A Practical Guide to Halachah in the Workplace,” by Rabbi Ari Wasserman, Feldheim, Hardcover: 538 pages; ISBN: 


Too often, rabbis don’t get it. Having spent their entire lives enveloped in a welcoming Jewish environment, they do not fully grasp the challenges facing their congregants in university and the workplace. We sometimes hear platitudes that were only barely true when coined but now lack any connection to reality. For example, it may once have been true as a general rule that gentile employers are more respectful of Orthodox Jews’ religious needs than non-religious Jewish employers, but generations have passed since this cliche represented a general truth. However, a rabbi who hears this from his rebbe in yeshiva will faithfully trust his teacher. How is he to know any differently?

Many rabbis recognize this limitation and toil to overcome it. Just as with any halachic issue, they ask careful questions and speak to different people to ascertain the facts. After years of serving the public, sensitive rabbis learn a great deal about the personal challenges that contemporary Jews face. There is another avenue for this information.

Rabbi Ari Wasserman is a successful LA lawyer and a talmid chacham who has published multiple sefarim. For decades, he has been teaching classes for college students and professionals in addition to his legal work. His latest book, “Making It Work: A Practical Guide to Halachah in the Workplace,” builds on his own experiences and those of his friends, colleagues and students. To explain the context of his halachic discussions and to liven the book, he includes many stories about actual religious challenges in the workplace. Rabbi Wasserman does not decide halachic questions on his own but instead explains the issues and presents the opinions of leading scholars. The net result is a book that combines, as the cover says, “Halachah, Mussar, Hashkafah [and] True Stories.”

Rabbi Wasserman gets it. He has been there. He understands that you build social capital and respect by acting consistently religious but that your religious obligations sometimes appear to others as mere lifestyle choices. The decision whether to wear a yarmulke at work is difficult and Rav Moshe Feinstein famously ruled leniently. One way wearing a yarmulke helps is by placing religious obligations on display. Rabbi Wasserman, who recently published a two-volume encyclopedic work on the subject of yarmulkes (Otzar Ha-Kipah), explains the different issues discussed in the halachic literature. Additionally, he is aware that times have changed, and in many fields wearing a yarmulke is not a problem at all. When I entered the corporate world in the mid-’90s, I found that the yarmulke helped me in my job search because the previous openly Orthodox Jews in the field had created an excellent reputation that (unfairly) rubbed off on me. Of course, this varies by geography and occupation.

“Making It Work” covers much more than yarmulke wearing. The details of having food delivered to the workplace are complicated and not ordinarily taught in yeshiva. How do you handle giving holiday gifts to your employees or, perhaps more difficult, receiving a bottle of wine as a gift from a client? I found this section quite interesting, both the practical advice based on a ruling of Rav Gershon Bess and the detailed responses on holiday greetings from Rav Yitzchok Breitowitz, who aside from his greatness in Torah used to be a law professor.

Perhaps most important for the young worker is the section on socializing with coworkers. While networking is crucial for a successful career, socializing poses many spiritual dangers. This is true for two reasons. First, any normal human being will feel temptation in those situations, particularly when alcohol is involved. Because this type of socializing (and coupling) is so much a part of corporate culture, the Orthodox Jew has to take precautions to avoid these pitfalls. As Rabbi Wasserman makes clear, this is not a rabbinic overreaction based on an ancient fear of intermarriage. Orthodox Jews from the finest homes and yeshivas have failed these personal tests, scarring their lives and destroying their families. The rabbis who arrange gittin know very well how quickly socializing can cross the line. For an unmarried Jew, the personal religious consequences are even greater, potentially leading to abandonment of religious practice and intermarriage.

The second danger socializing poses is more subtle. Orthodox Jews are raised to value Torah, to see fulfillment of the commandments and study of Torah as our true goals in this world. We are meant to utilize our talents to their fullest and contribute to society, but from a religious perspective, as a fulfillment of the Divine will. Our lives are meant to revolve around God in everything we do. This is no small challenge. Our secular colleagues, by and large, do not see the world that way. They are focused on enjoying life, earning and spending money, living a life of material success. This enticing attitude can easily seduce the Orthodox worker. Even without changing his behavior, even while attending daily minyan and Daf Yomi, the yeshiva graduate can change his life goals and attitudes dramatically.

Judaism is a protest against materialism, the pursuit of money and things for the sake of having them. We do not object to wealth but we object to the pursuit of wealth. Our souls were not placed in this world to earn more money. The spiritually corrosive attitudes of acquisition and consumption are among the biggest challenges of the workplace.

Without explicitly naming this challenge, Rabbi Wasserman devotes his entire book to combating it. Taking great care with company property and with expense billing reflects the care for other people’s money, rather than our own comfort, that Judaism requires. The book’s last two chapters explore the obligation to follow local laws, particularly when they cost you money. This is where actions show your true thoughts about honesty and faith. Cheating the government and failing to pay taxes betray a lack of faith in God. Rabbi Wasserman tells the story of a high-powered lawyer who earned $183,000 a month but ended up losing his license and spending 28 months in jail for failing to pay taxes. The attitude behind these actions is familiar on a much smaller scale but the impact on our eternal souls is much greater. It is an attitude we must fight every day as we focus on the good we can do in the world—for others, for our families and for ourselves.

As we enter the challenging workplace every day, we need to be on guard constantly to retain our Torah values. Following both the letter and the spirit of workplace halacha directs us to choose eternal life over our physical desires, spiritual over financial health, the next world over this one.

By Rabbi Gil Student


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