Unethical moral leaders

Q. I recently started work at a non-profit public interest organization. Surprisingly enough, some of the people who work in this establishment are not necessarily ethical. Although the head of our organization is a prominent crusader for public morality and social conscience, I have caught him in several outright lies during meetings, and I have also been shocked at his blatant, prejudicial statements against blacks and others at dinner parties. It bothered me that a moral leader did not live his morality.

Is there something I should do about this? I don’t want it to appear I am the “moral police” there, but I would think honor and trustworthiness would be the hallmarks of a public interest leader. Do I say anything regarding my boss to the Board, or do I merely find another position where people lie but at least are not trying to lead people to moral perfection? VL, USA

A. The response that Judaism proposes to your situation is clear, but also challenging.

Jewish tradition emphasizes that the Torah was given not to angels but to human beings. God knows that we are imperfect and gave us the Torah to help us improve ourselves. Spiritual leaders, despite their heavy responsibility to be good examples, are no exception; they have the same human impulses as everyone else.

One of the commandments of the Torah is, “Don’t hate your brother in your heart; reprove your fellow man, and don’t bear a grudge towards him”. (Leviticus 19:17.) We are bidden to confront our problems, and not avoid them. This commandment has many beneficial results:

First of all, it gives the suspected person an opportunity to explain himself. Many acts may look improper and unethical, yet there may have been a good reason for them. This aspect is reinforced by another directive of the Torah, “Judge your fellow man righteously” (Leviticus 19:15); according to Jewish tradition, this includes giving him the benefit of the doubt.

Second of all, gentle reproof is an act of human kindness. It helps the person become aware of his shortcomings and may pave the way for him to improve them.

Finally, this habit helps avoid festering bad feelings among people. It enables them to get their problems out in the open and resolve them – as the verse explicitly says.

Keep in mind that your reproof can be effective only if it is sincere – if you genuinely want to hear the other person’s side of the story, and you genuinely want their improvement for their own benefit. This is true of any person, and especially so in the case of a respected person in a position of moral leadership.

Seek a non-threatening way to open the subject, and use neutral language like “I was surprised at what you said about so-and-so in our meeting” or “I know that what you said about black people was only a joke, but I thought you should know that it made me feel very uncomfortable.”

It would be unfair for you to report your boss to the Board without getting his side of the story. Even if you do get his version, through gentle reproof as we discussed, ask yourself if your report will really be constructive.

You have no obligation to open the subject with your boss if you think it will hurt your work situation or your relation with him, or if it is quite uncomfortable for you. But this is the ideal course of action. You may be surprised at how your judgment of him will change once you hear his side of things, or once he has a chance to confront his actions.

Sources: Talmud – Brachot 25b; Shevuot 30a.