In My Dear Rabbi Column in the The Jewish Standard for April I Give Talmudic Advice about Anti Semitism on TV and Shady Appliance Repairmen!
My friend complains all the time about anti-Semitism on TV and in other media. Most recently she objected to an episode of “Family Guy” that depicted Jews as money grubbers running after pennies and showed other negative behaviors as stereotypically Jewish. She says that the show’s creator is an anti-Semite and the show is pernicious. I disagree and think the show is funny. Who is right?
Laughing Jew in Lodi
It is true that anti-Semitism should be an urgent concern to all Jews. Soon we shall recall, as we are told prominently in the Passover Haggadah, “In every generation they rise up against us to destroy us. And the holy one blessed be he saves us from them.”
You should carefully parse that short prayer for thanksgiving for God’s protection. It conveys a valuable understanding of what constitutes essential anti-Semitism, and what does not.
It is anti-Semitism when others rise up to destroy us as a people with actions that target our well-being. Real anti-Semitism is where someone hates all Jews as part of his systematic world view or discriminates against Jews by policies or laws.
In his show “Family Guy,” Seth MacFarlane does not do that when he makes jokes about Jews loving money, or shows other truly tasteless and yet, as he sees it, humorous portrayals of Jews. MacFarlane surely does not want to destroy the Jewish people. He just wants to make a living producing cartoons. Such entertainment on TV will not annihilate us, no matter what its content.
The context of the content does matter. “Family Guy” is a satirical TV cartoon. It is a brilliantly funny show. It mocks just about everything in our culture, from family values, to relationships, to religions in general and in specific — all religions, values, and relationships — without prejudice for one over another. Of course, stereotyping in jokes is a low form of humor. It’s usually cheap and crass and obnoxious, it’s bigoted, but it’s not anti-Semitic, in my view, to make a joke about Jews loving money.
Some folks are more vigilant and have a lower threshold for applying this label. They may say it’s anti-Semitism every time someone anywhere says “dirty Jew” or “He Jewed me down” out loud
Especially during our holidays, we are reminded to think clearly about our history and destiny as a people. We need to reflect on the real dangers that we face as a nation. And we need to be properly on our guard, and always to be thankful that God continues to save us from the hands of our true enemies.
I recently faced a dilemma. An appliance company I contacted sent a repairman to my house to repair one of my major appliances. After diagnosing the problem, the repairman told me that the repair work would cost $1,000. But, he said, “Listen — I do this work on the side myself. I can do it for you privately for $500.” I decided to have him do the work on the side. Now I wonder if I did the right thing, if I acted ethically. I realize there is no Jewish content to my question, but I need advice because a situation like this may come up again in the future.
Needs Repair in Teaneck
A situation where there appears to be a contradiction among value systems can be clarified when it is approached talmudically. Let’s look at what we have here.
First, I’ll say a bit glibly that the issue is Jewish. The idea of tikkun olam — repair of the world — is a prominent Jewish concept in kabbalah and in Jewish ethical thinking. And isn’t it a stereotypical Jewish value to save 50 percent on an expenditure?
Now seriously, some additional background to your inquiry would help me give you better advice. For instance I’d like to know more about which big company would profit from the repair, and how long the product lasted before needing that repair. I’d caution you that there is a risk in taking what you seem to consider to be the low road. If the repair does not last, you have less chance of getting an independent repair person back to remedy it. You have a better chance of getting satisfaction from a big company.
Certainly there are other issues to consider. But I’m willing to speculate that most people nowadays will go with the low bid and let the repairman live with his conscience and the consequences that he may face if his employer discovers his sideline.
When you think about this in the future, you are right to consider that we all should aspire to high ethical standards. In your view, it is wrong to deceive a corporation. But that makes me ask you to consider the equity of such thinking. By and large, and for good reasons, corporations do not place high value on ethical principles. A company is responsible to make a profit. Bottom-line thinking dominates in the corporate world over all other values.
Realizing that, you need to be evenhanded. Perhaps you ought to conceive of your family unit as if it were a corporation too. A decision that will cost or save your family $500 effects your bottom line. You will have less or more cash available for maintaining your household.
If you accept that a family is a corporate unit, the preponderance of the weight then would be to take the cheaper alternative, regardless of other issues.
If you maintain that this situation is an ethical quandary facing you as an individual, then you may allow concerns such as these to enter your thinking: (1) the repairman is being unethical – he is detracting from the profits of his own company; (2) by extension, I would be taking away profits from his company by agreeing to use his services on the side; (3) I’d be wary of doing business with a person who is showing me upfront how devious he is, and (4) I’d be better served to find a third party to do the work.
If you are completely analytical, you might add one more thing to consider. The repairman’s estimate for the work to be done through the company was $1000. His price was $500. It could be argued that $1000 was an artificially inflated number, and $500 is a reasonable market price for such a repair.
We are confronted often with repair issues and decisions – for appliances, automobiles, and you even could include such health “repairs” as new hips and knees, dental crowns and fillings. The list is extensive.
The decisions you make in all instances are increasingly difficult in our world. They are not black and white. I hope some of this Talmudic advice helps you to develop principles and clear thinking so you can patch up your ship when needed and continue to navigate through the choppy waters of our complex society.
Rabbi Dr. Tzvee Zahavy was ordained at Yeshiva University and earned his Ph.D. in religious studies at Brown University.