Let the Spirit of Bill Gates Be Brought to the Pews

Opinion

By Eric Yoffie

Published February 06, 2008, issue of February 08, 2008.
  • Print
  • Share Share

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.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "What I didn’t realize before my trip was that I would leave Uganda with a powerful mandate on my shoulders — almost as if I had personally left Egypt."
  • Is it better to have a young, fresh rabbi, or a rabbi who stays with the same congregation for a long time? What do you think?
  • Why does the leader of Israel's social protest movement now work in a beauty parlor instead of the Knesset?
  • What's it like to be Chagall's granddaughter?
  • Is pot kosher for Passover. The rabbis say no, especially for Ashkenazi Jews. And it doesn't matter if its the unofficial Pot Day of April 20.
  • A Ukrainian rabbi says he thinks the leaflets ordering Jews in restive Donetsk to 'register' were a hoax. But the disturbing story still won't die.
  • Some snacks to help you get through the second half of Passover.
  • You wouldn't think that a Soviet-Jewish immigrant would find much in common with Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But the famed novelist once helped one man find his first love. http://jd.fo/f3JiS
  • Can you relate?
  • The Forverts' "Bintel Brief" advice column ran for more than 65 years. Now it's getting a second life — as a cartoon.
  • Half of this Hillel's members believe Jesus was the Messiah.
  • Vinyl isn't just for hipsters and hippies. Israeli photographer Eilan Paz documents the most astonishing record collections from around the world:http://jd.fo/g3IyM
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • "It’s the smell that hits me first — musty, almost sweet, emanating from the green felt that cradles each piece of silver cutlery in its own place." Only one week left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.