Let the Spirit of Bill Gates Be Brought to the Pews


By Eric Yoffie

Published February 06, 2008, issue of February 08, 2008.
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As one of about two dozen religious leaders invited to attend the World Economic Forum last month in Davos, Switzerland, I spent four of the most fascinating days of my life engaged in high-level interfaith dialogue with representatives of the Muslim and Christian world. Where else could I sit with a member of the Saudi royal family to inquire about his views on interfaith relations?

Still, there was something intensely frustrating about being a religious leader in Davos. Our deliberations, which dealt primarily with the theological realm, seemed to be, at best, marginally connected to the topics and concerns of Davos’s main program.

The World Economic Forum was dominated by the spirit of Bill Gates. His address was the highlight of the conference, and his call for a “creative capitalism” that would address the problems of the world’s poorest countries and people set the tone for the forum. His presence and message were important, but more important still was the example that he set through the work of his foundation, especially in the area of improving health services among the world’s poor.

True, the idea of “corporate social responsibility” is not without controversy. Some dismiss it as a do-gooding sideshow, including some of the Davos delegates for whom the forum was primarily a networking opportunity. But these voices were few. Indeed, the central premise of the forum — and the reason it was so inspiring — was that it sent a simple message: Companies can and must do good.

And this is why I and others among the religious delegation were so frustrated at the role we played; there was simply no bridge between the religious discussions and the corporate responsibility discussions. I am not, to be sure, dismissing the importance to religious leaders of considering topics of metaphysical concern. We care deeply about God, divine justice and inter-religious connections.

But the Abrahamic faiths also believe in human justice; in the short term and not just the long term; in this world, and not just the next. While God creates divine justice, we know that only human beings can create human justice. And we believe that religious people, inspired by sacred texts and ancient religious traditions, can be especially helpful in bringing human justice into being.

Yet few of the business leaders seemed interested in creating a partnership with the religious community to pursue our common goals.

This point was made most eloquently by Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church. In a dazzling presentation, Warren noted that the only comprehensive delivery mechanism that exists in Africa for health and other human services is the network of thousands of Protestant and Catholic churches, most of which are already involved in social service work.

Why, wondered Warren, couldn’t the business and religious communities join forces to provide the needy with the help they required? My hope, as he asked the question, was that some in the business world were listening, and were ready to think about a grand coalition that would draw on business know-how and religious commitment.

And what, it ought to be asked, is the place of American Jews in this coalition? In Africa, the Jewish community obviously cannot provide direct service in the way that Christian churches can.

However, we can provide funding and do educational work and advocacy on behalf of Africa’s poor. In fact, in conversations with a variety of businesses and foundations concerned with these issues, the question that kept coming up, gently but insistently, was: Where are the Jews on these matters?

It was a good question, and one to which I had no ready response.

The Jewish community does reasonably well in responding to humanitarian disasters around the world. But there is little that we do proactively to help the neediest human beings on the planet.

To be fair, the Jews are a small people and our burdens are many. And as it is, we give too little to strengthen Jewish education and to meet Israel’s needs.

Still, witnessing in Davos the devotion of business and religious groups — working enthusiastically, if not yet in tandem — to these causes, left me unsettled. We Jews need to do this work because others expect it of us and it is embarrassing for us not to do so. We need to do it because selfish religions, like selfish people, wither and die; helping only ourselves — no matter how worthy the cause — is still selfishness, and we have the resources and the skills to help both ourselves and others.

We need to do it also because only in this way will we retain the loyalty of our own young people. If the Judaism we offer our young does not speak to the great moral issues of the world, it will fail to capture their imagination or their hearts.

But the most important reason for such involvement has nothing to do with being practical, or advancing our institutional interests, or saving face. It is because the Hebrew prophets reminded us that the world will not get better of its own accord, and that we cannot leave it to others to bring redemption on our behalf.

The message of Davos came originally from us, and we are mandated by our tradition to accept God’s call to human responsibility.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie is president of the Union for Reform Judaism.

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