Does God Belong in the Workplace?

Sermon given December 3, 2004, by Rabbi Barry H. Block


Several months ago, we closed our Temple offices for a full morning, and our entire staff — Rabbis, Jewish professionals, clerical and custodial staff, everybody who works here all week long – went to the Ecumenical Center, to participate in a seminar on spirituality in the work place. That may sound odd. Our work place is Temple Beth-El. That religious life flows through the work of all who labor here might seem to be obvious.

On the other hand, the challenges to any shared spirituality among our Temple staff may be equally clear. Not everybody who joins us in our sacred work all week long is Jewish. Our full-time employees include Jews, Catholics, Protestants, and people of no particular faith. One of our staff members describes himself as a “Jew by occupation,” affirming the deeply religious quality of his work in the House of Worship of a faith that is not exactly his.

Only recently have I begun to pray with Temple staff members who are not Jewish. Perhaps I began to understand how I can been inspired myself, by prayers uttered by Christians and Muslims and Sikhs at meetings of Methodist Healthcare Ministries, or the Rotary Club, or other community gatherings. If the prayer isn’t sectarian, and especially if it is not uttered in Jesus’ name, I can feel included and uplifted. Working together in a religious environment, our staff, perhaps haltingly, can pray together, in English, in a non-coercive environment, where everybody understands that nobody is trying to convert our non-Jewish staff members to Judaism, or even to urge our non-religious co-workers to adopt a faith. Rather, since we work at a Temple, we are comfortable acknowledging a shared spirituality that properly supports our common labors.

The situation is doubtless more complicated in workplaces that are not religious institutions. I suspect that most Jews are strongly opposed to prayer in the workplace. We have a very hard time imagining that such spiritual activity would be anything other than coercive. We assume that prayer in the workplace would usually be Christian prayer, and we would feel excluded or even proselytized. Even if the prayer were broad enough to include all Jews and Christians, we would be concerned about the feelings of co-workers of other faiths or no faith. We would probably be right on all accounts.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion, in matters of hiring, firing, promotion and the like. One wonders, though, whether a non-Christian would truly get a fair shake in a work environment where co-workers regularly gather for Christian prayer.

Not surprisingly, such activity is increasing in America today. A recent cover story in the New York Times Magazine, reported on two different kinds of religious life in the workplace.

One model described by reporter Russell Shorto is found at the Riverview Community Bank, in Otsego, Minnesota, founded by evangelical Christians who are proud that, at their bank, “employees pray with customers and proselytize.” Though the owners quote the Civil Rights Act of 1964, chapter and verse, as though it were the Bible, claiming that they never discriminate in any employment decisions, employees are all evangelical Christians of one kind or another. The reporter wonders whether a Jew or Muslim, for example, would feel comfortable in such an environment, and he suspects that people who don’t share the religious convictions of the bank’s leaders would “self-select” away from employment there.

Most of us are probably very uncomfortable with this model. We would not be at home in this bank. And yet, the idea behind it would not be so foreign to us. As reporter Shorto explains: “The idea is that Christians have for too long practiced their faith on Sundays and left it behind during the workweek, that there is a moral vacuum in the modern workplace, which leads to backstabbing careerism, empty routines for employees and C.E.O.s who push for profits at the expense of society, the environment and their fellow human beings.”

This critique of the secular workplace rings true. We live in a decade of unspeakable corporate scandals, including instances of top managers who made away like bandits while their workers and retirees lost their life savings. We work in a world in which corporate executives make hundreds of times over the wages of their regular employees. We raise families in a society that consistently and correctly questions whether we are properly balancing our home and family time with our drive to get ahead. We watch reality television programming, in which the relationship among co-workers is better described as manipulation and competition, rather than cooperation and friendship.

We should not be surprised, nor should we be so quick to criticize, if some of our Christian neighbors redress these very real blights on the workplace by creating Christian workplaces. Utilizing their own religion, which is the spiritual home of a majority of Americans, they seek to bring moral order to what can truly be a place of meaninglessness and misery for men and women of every faith and of no faith.

Even if we understand, though, and pause before we pass judgment on such efforts, we are leery of the overt activities of a single religion in an ostensibly secular workplace like a bank. I must admit my own discomfort with local businesses in our own community, which sport Christian symbols on their signs and stationery. These business people are surely within their right to the free expression of religion, which all Americans ought to cherish. And yet, we rightly ask whether the proliferation of secular business identification with Christianity will increase the incorrect perception that America is a Christian nation, a land where non-Christians are less than entirely welcome.

We are much more comfortable with a second model, described in Shorto’s article. At Intel, a computer company in Oregon, different religious groups hold sanctioned meetings at the office, as do other interest groups. Each group is offered space and a modest budget. Like the Jewish group, the Muslims at Intel do not proselytize, even though Islam doesn’t generally prohibit proselytizing, as our faith does. On the other hand, the Intel Christian group does seek new adherents, though they are only permitted to do so among folks who turn up at their gatherings.

Our own religion offers a very clear answer to whether Judaism belongs in the workplace. The answer is a resounding “yes.” Tractate after tractate of the Talmud describes Jewish law with regard to buying and selling, employer-employee relations, and other topics secular Americans do not generally consider to be religious. Indeed, I would venture to say that most American Jewish business people are not aware that our faith offers them guidance in these arenas.

Jewish law in areas of business ethics is quite reasonable. Comfort may be found by labor unionists and by management. Both landlords and tenants will find their arguments bolstered in our Jewish texts. Fairness is paramount. The bottom line is that God does care how we conduct our lives, not just in overtly religious spheres, but in every aspect of our lives, including at work.

Let us pray that the very real need for increasing spirituality in the American workplace will be inclusive, not exclusionary. Let us embrace the call to do the will of God in all of our various walks of life. May we find blessing in our work, and may our work be blessed.

Amen.