Judaism's Response to Workism

Judaism’s Response to “Workism”

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Last week I met with one of my students for an early morning Torah study session. My student, let’s call him Michael, looked utterly exhausted. “You okay?”, I asked. “Late night at the office” was Michael’s reply. When I asked him how late he answered: “3AM.”

Over my twenty years of early morning Torah sessions, I have found these late hours to be quite common amongst my students. This phenomenon was confirmed by Derek Thompson in his recent article in The Atlantic which reported that “elite American men have transformed themselves into the world’s premier workaholics, toiling longer hours than both poorer men in the U.S. and rich men in similarly rich countries.”

What is Judaism’s take on this?

On the one hand, earning a livelihood, which for many urban dwelling millennials includes heavy rent and paying off massive student loans, requires long hours at the office. Depending of course on what you do, some jobs demand late nights at the office. I know this from my own experience back in the day when I practiced law. The large and prestigious New York law firms can afford the significant salaries they pay to their young attorneys only because of the massive billable hours those lawyers are required to put in. In addition, fine-tuning ones’ craft and truly becoming an expert in a field often requires staying late in the office.

On the other hand, the total focus on one’s career leaves little time for working on other vital parts of our lives. Building relationships and spiritual growth are just two areas that get sacrificed when most of our waking hours are spent at the office. Like anything else, becoming a better friend, child, parent and human being, requires time and focus. We don’t just become better people because we age. We get better when we spend time with the right people and when we have mentors in our lives from whom we can learn. We improve our character when we study texts and pursue a spiritual path that provides values and wisdom for living an ethical life. This is precisely why Judaism requires regular study of its ancient texts each day, having spiritual role models and living as part of a community.

The same Torah however demands we earn a living so we can create and support a family, in addition to trying to make the world a better place, another core Jewish value. Although it’s unfair and wrong, men, and particularly men in the Jewish community, are judged based on how much money they make, often the direct result of how much time one spends working.

The answer, as with virtually every other part of life, is balance. We need to pay the rent, pay off our debts and even manage to give some charity. But if we do this at the expense of relationship building, be it dating or spending quality time with one’s spouse or children, we may find ourselves excelling in our careers, but doing it all alone. Our passions for our career and for making money must be balanced with finding purpose and meaning in life, something most people’s jobs cannot alone accomplish. As Thompson wrote:

“…a culture that funnels its dreams of self-actualization into salaried jobs is setting itself up for collective anxiety, mass disappointment, and inevitable burnout.”

Our jobs and careers may certainly be part of what provides us with meaning and satisfaction in life, but relationships, community and a spiritual path are also necessary.

This may help explain the great prominence Shabbat holds in Jewish life. Once a week, no matter what is happening at work, we leave the office and put down the phone so we can focus on our families, our friends and our spiritual path. We light the candles, sit down to a Shabbat meal and come to synagogue to connect with our Creator and with our community. Shabbat is oxygen for the soul and why the Jewish Sages called it the source of all blessing. It’s what has kept us as a people throughout the ages and we ignore it at our own peril. As the poet and author Achad Ha’am famously put it: More than the Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jew.

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