October 15, 2019

A promise for Rosh Hashanah: Remembering the value of dignity

After all the political speechmaking of the past few weeks, in the wake of all the claims  and fact-checking, name-calling and back-slapping, one simple word has stuck in my mind and my heart. It was spoken at the beginning of Barack Obama’s short tribute film that was shown just before the president made his speech to accept the nomination for re-election.

“We all understand work as something more than just a paycheck,” the president said as images of autoworkers building parts on a factory line flashed across the screen. Recognizing the economic hardship many have suffered over his term of office, Obama spoke of how work is “what gives you dignity. What gives you a sense of purpose.”

Dignity. More essential than a paycheck.  More vital than money. 

The value of dignity reverberates as we approach this High Holy Days season, perhaps because its importance so often gets lost in our love for consumerism, our culture of us-against-them and winner-takes-all. I have spent the last year listening to men — priests, politicians and talk-show hosts — disparage a woman’s right to have governance over her own birth control. I have heard both men and women talk about rape and violence against women and use the term “legitimate.” And I’ve encountered the fear of the redefinition of marriage — other people’s marriages — as if we should have the right to choose whom someone should love, or want to spend their life with, to share their finances and every dream and hope. Where, I have wondered, is the dignity of others in such discussions?

In Judaism, we are taught not to put stumbling blocks in front of the blind, to never withhold wages from workers and to see all men — and women — as created in God’s divine image. We are told to do unto others as we would have them do to us, which is to say, to offer dignity to everyone, as we would wish it be offered to us.

Perhaps, following those fundamental Jewish guidelines, we could do better in respect to judging how others should live and love.

In 2005, Hershey H. Friedman wrote an extensive academic treatise that explores “Human Dignity and Jewish Law.” In it, this professor of business and marketing at Brooklyn College whose recent writings include “The Talmud as a Business Guide,” describes the various ways that kavod habriot — Hebrew for dignity for all living beings — is fundamental to Judaism, Jewish law and Jewish life. So significant, he argues, that the rules surrounding it should be applied to the dead as well as to the living. Friedman’s detailed and footnoted essay explores how respect for our own dignity and our regard for others ought to govern our lives, not only in our day-to-day interactions, but also in some very contemporary issues: from allowing abortion under certain circumstances, to how to protect the dignity of a marriage. 

He also writes about business transactions, and, among his many modern and biblical citations, he tells of how one Israeli business has come up with a way to dignify the needy:

“A wonderful example of kavod habriot is the Carmei Ha’Ir soup kitchen in Jerusalem, where the people who enter receive honor as well as food. It was designed to look like any other restaurant, only with no bill to pay at the end of the meal. The restaurant serves 500 portions a day, and there is a large wooden box near the exit so patrons can leave anything they wish. Many leave a napkin with a scribbled thank you.”

In the United States, a similar effort has been launched by the Panera Bread restaurants, which, in an attempt to serve the hungry, has launched a 501(c)(3) organization, Panera Cares, to operate community cafes — each one transformed from one of their ubiquitous Panera salad, sandwich and bread shops. At the Panera Cares cafes, however, all menu items are sold on a “pay what you want” system, with a suggested list price. Recently, a National Public Radio reporter visited the newest of these community cafes, in the mixed-income Lake-
view neighborhood of Chicago. The restaurant looked almost like any other Panera, but in place of a cash register, there was a donation box.

“Panera does not track the numbers exactly,” the NPR reporter, Niala Boodhoo, told her “Morning Edition” audience, “but it says roughly 20 percent of Panera Cares customers give more than they’re asked. An additional 60 percent donate the suggested amount. The rest pay less or nothing.” 

Affording dignity should, of course, be a matter of every aspect of our lives, no less in our workplaces than in our synagogues and homes. In our working world, where jobs are often scarce and salaries aren’t rising as quickly as people might hope, we can always afford to give our colleagues dignity. My research on this began long before I listened to the president’s words, but I’ve found, searching through one management-advice Web site after another, that the message is very like his: “We all understand work as something more than a paycheck.” Treating employees with dignity, openness and caring is as vital to a worker’s success as any financial incentive, because, at the end of the day, dignity can remain within us even when the money is gone.

So, here’s my resolution for the new year: to keep my office door open, to listen well, to communicate with others, to show caring and to always offer appreciation. To avoid conflict, gossip and to live by the example I would like others to set for me.

A smile in a hallway can improve a day, even a dark one. The gift of dignity is priceless.

May the year ahead be a sweet, good year for all. 

Susan Freudenheim is executive editor of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. She can be reached at editor@jewishjournal.com. You can follow her on Twitter at