That Still, Small, Heroic Voice

January 13, 2023Blair C. Marks

כָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל עֲרֵבִים זֶה בָּזֶה   Kol yisrael arevim zeh ba’zeh (Talmud Shevuot 39a)
“All of Israel and the Jewish people are responsible, one for the other.”

Every year, I receive one or two calls from people who want to “run something by me.” They know that I spent many years as an ethics and compliance professional, and they want to get my opinion as to how to handle something they have observed or been asked about. It’s often a concern about a leader abusing the power of their position, generally involving relationships and behaviors between volunteers, congregants, clergy, or staff. Sometimes, it’s within a congregation, and sometimes it’s within one of our movement’s organizations.

From my perspective, every person who makes one of these calls is a hero. They are upstanders, people who have listened or observed and recognized that something seems wrong, and they are not willing to just sit by and do nothing even when they are not personally involved. A still, small voice has spoken to them, and they have been moved to action, recognizing that we are all responsible, one for the other. Many people may be bystanders – people who have observed or become aware of potential wrongdoing – but the upstanders are the ones who take action to address that wrong.

Our tradition lays a clear foundation and expectation for upstanding. 

Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Sacks, z”l, taught that “Judaism is a religion of listening, not seeing….Listening is the sacred task. The most famous command in Judaism is Shema Yisrael, “Listen, Israel.” What made Abraham, Moses, and the prophets different from their contemporaries was that they heard the voice that, to others , was inaudible. In one of the great dramatic scenes of the Bible, God teaches Elijah that He is not in the whirlwind, the earthquake, or the fire, but in the “still, small voice.” Sacks further says: “…(The) ethic of Judaism is not a matter of appearances, of honour, and shame. It is a matter of hearing and heeding the voice of God in the depths of the soul.” 1

Couple this concept with the words of Rabbi Joachim Prinz, z”l, at the March on Washington in 1963:

“When I was the rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime…the most important thing I learned under those tragic circumstances was that … (the) most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful, and the most tragic problem is silence.  A great people which had created a great civilization had become a nation of silent onlookers. They remained silent in the face of hate, in the face of brutality, and in the face of mass murder. America must not become a nation of onlookers. America must not remain silent.” 2

Sacks and Prinz give us this path to upstanding:

  • Listen for the still, small voice
  • Hear and heed the voice of God in the depths of the soul
  • Do not remain silent

My callers have followed this path, and generally, their instincts that there may be a problem seem well-founded…..but they don’t know how to address these concerns.  Frankly, it can be confusing to figure out what to do as there’s not a single approach that works for all situations. For issues within a congregation, some (but not most) congregations have their own documented Codes of Conduct and Ethics processes. The organizations for movement professionals, including the Central Conference of American Rabbis, American Conference of Cantors, Association of Reform Jewish Educators, and National Association for Temple Administration, have their own processes that may be used when the allegation is against one of their members.3  The Union for Reform Judaism has an Ethics Code for Volunteers that includes a reporting and adjudication process, and an Employee Handbook covering members of its staff.4 WRJ has britot for board and volunteer-staff expectations, as well as a recently released Policy on Harassment, which also includes bullying. 

Recognizing they needed to do something but not sure what, my upstanding callers did not remain silent – they reached out for help and a discussion to figure out the relevant ethics process within the appropriate movement partner or entity. 

Unfortunately, many issues which arise in our congregations are not covered by any Code, policy, or process within the movement. Not being aware of a significant incident of ethical concern within one’s congregation does not mean it has not happened. But, just as my callers have not known where to turn, those within the congregation may not have known what to do. And even when an incident is reported, there is likely not an established protocol for handling it, including protection of confidentiality for all parties, adequate investigation, consistent sanctions, etc. 

WRJ has called upon its members to honor our responsibility to one another by helping assure that our congregations have appropriate policies and mechanisms in place and has recommended the use of URJ resources such as the “Guide to Creating a Congregational Ethics Code” and sample congregational policies.5 I would add to this a call for us all to be upstanders, intervening on behalf of others. Listen to the still, small voice, hear and heed the voice of God in the depth of our souls, and do not remain silent.

Blair Marks will facilitate the upcoming “Philanthropy Workshop: Becoming an Engaging Interviewer” at 7:30 pm ET on January 31st. We encourage you to register if you have not done so already!


1 The Art of Listening, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks,  

2 Transcript of a speech by Rabbi Joachim Prinz at the March on Washington, August 28, 1963

3 ● CCAR Code of Ethics

  ● ACC Code of Ethics and Reporting Process

  ● ARJE Code of Ethics

  ● NATA Code of Ethics

4   Union for Reform Judaism Ethics Code for Volunteers

5 WRJ Statement following Reform Movement Investigations For those with access to URJ’s “The Tent,” resources are in the public Congregational Ethics Code group 

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