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Values-Based Decision Making

This article is excerpted from The Guide to Jewish Practice, Volume 1. The full Guide may be ordered from the Reconstructionist Press.

Values-based decision making (VBDM) has become a catch phrase in Reconstructionist circles, reflecting a desire to develop an orderly and valid process for individuals and groups to decide upon their policies, procedures and behavior. The need for a system as self-consciously considered as VBDM grows out of several realities. Most Jews no longer consider themselves to be bound by halakha, and will not simply accept the opinion of a rabbi. Indeed, most liberal rabbis do not consider themselves bound by the decisions of the rabbis’ rabbi.

Furthermore, most Jews know they are living in a society that does not reflect an ethical orientation with which they fully agree. The two most obvious ideologies in America today are those of the Christian Right and the materialistic hedonism purveyed by the media and advertising. Most Jews are seeking an approach closer to their own moral outlook, an outlook partly shaped by their Jewish backgrounds. VBDM provides a way of thinking through and expressing our commitments, allowing us to create ground to stand on somewhere between the halakha and The New York Times. It has been used within the Reconstructionist movement for 20 years and is most recently embodied in A Guide to Jewish Practice.

Decision-Making Process

Many of those who talk about VBDM, however, do not recognize that it involves the application of many other criteria besides values alone. In fact, employing values occurs nearly at the end of the VBDM process. A typical VBDM process contains the following steps:

  1. Determine facts, alternative actions and their outcomes.
  2. Examine relevant scientific and social scientific approaches to understanding these.
  3. Consider the historical and contemporary context, including the history and rationales of Jewish practice.
  4. Look for norms that might exclude some actions.
  5. Assemble and weigh relevant attitudes, beliefs and values.
  6. Formulate decision alternatives.
  7. Seek consensus (if a group is deciding).
  8. Make the decision.

VBDM has its roots in the British-American tradition of moral philosophy that sees our lives as subject to a complex series of facts and concerns that cannot be reduced to a few very broad principles from which everything else can be deduced. One example of the broad-principle approach is the work of Immanuel Kant and such successors as John Rawls. The Kantian school attempts to derive all conduct from such principles as the categorical imperative, which states that we should only do things that would benefit people if everyone did them. Other people use the Golden Rule (“Do unto others”) as a broad principle.

One problem with moral philosophies that derive ethical systems from just a few core principles is that they do not capture the richness and complexity of most people’s moral concerns. How do I apply the Golden Rule, for example, to the question of euthanasia for someone whose beliefs and values are totally different from my own? For a decision-making system to work in real life, it must work in a cultural context that reflects the thicket of our moral experience, which is a tangle of beliefs and attitudes, rights and norms, obligations, values and practices.

First Principles

Systems that start from a few basic principles (sometimes called “first principles”) are difficult to interpret and apply—fatal flaws if non-philosophers are to use them. When we apply the Golden Rule to end-of-life issues, we need to explore what we want for ourselves, and why, and how the other person differs in what that person would want and why. Then we would need criteria for exploring the legitimacy of these distinctions in values, attitudes and practices. We would also need to weigh how all this should affect the application of the Golden Rule.

For example, a Catholic believes that only God should take a life. If I disagree, how does that affect the decision I need to make regarding that person? Clearly the outcomes in different cases will vary person to person because considerations far beyond the Golden Rule would have to be brought to bear.

As for euthanasia, applying the Golden Rule usually involves many other moral considerations which shape the decision maker’s thinking whether or not that person is conscious of them. Unless these moral considerations are examined in their full complexity, the legitimacy of the conclusion is undermined.

Understanding the Context

VBDM takes for granted that good decisions reflect consideration of the context in which they are made. That context is made up of political, economic, social and techno-scientific factors over which individuals and small groups often have little control. The context is also cultur- al in the broad sense (e.g., American, Jewish, Reconstructionist) and in the narrow sense (the culture of a congregation, family, or organization; the web of such cultures within which an individual lives).

Sometimes people divide decisions into moral ones and ritual ones. But virtually all decisions have a moral component. For example, the decision about whether to keep kosher, and if so, where and how, raises issues that touch on ecology, kindness to animals, and the centrality of Jewish community. So while issues and decisions may also have aesthetic and prudential components that are not moral, they virtually always have a moral component as well. The decision-making method can stay largely the same.

Thus the best approach to food distribution in a drought-stricken African nation with poor transportation and communication systems will differ considerably from the best method in an American city. This illustrates that the moral dimension to decisions exists alongside an array of prudential concerns. These prudential concerns need to be clarified at the first stage of VBDM because they provide the required context for decision making. Determining the facts, possible courses of action, and their costs and consequences provides knowledge needed to make ethical decisions. Skipping this step often creates acrimony and confusion.

Universal and Particular

Once the facts and consequences underlying a major decision have been established, it is helpful to employ the insights of relevant academic disciplines. Depending on the decision, this might entail considering the issues from the perspectives of anthropology, medicine, psychology, the sciences and other fields. This process is likely not only to shape the understanding of the decision maker. It will often help in the discovery of unselfconsciously held beliefs and assumptions that shape decision making. Those beliefs and assumptions might be about human nature, or expected community conduct, or the reliability of information or commitment-based action, or dozens of other areas.

All of this information must be placed in its cultural context. We don’t make decisions that are valid for all people in all places. We make decisions that are sensible for a certain time, place and group of people. But aren’t there some rules that are universal? It may be true that under some circumstances one can legitimately kill—for example, in self-defense—but isn’t it the case that one should never murder? Jewish tradition accepts this as a universal rule, which is what a norm is. Such norms require some actions and forbid others, and they guide us at the extremes of conduct. The Ten Commandments contain many norms. VBDM only operates away from these extremes because our conduct at the extremes is regulated by norms. In other words, VBDM operates within the areas not determined by norms.

These norms operate in consonance with our underlying attitudes. For example, one fundamental Jewish teaching is that human beings are created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God. That supports the belief that each of us has infinite worth. This belief supports the norm that forbids murder. The attitudes and beliefs we have also support our values.

Moral Building Blocks

When our attitudes, beliefs, norms, values and practices are in harmony with each other, they are mutually reinforcing. Since we often absorb these moral building blocks unselfconsciously, absorbing one of these elements does not always precede the others in time. While we might understand some of them as being more fundamental than others, each of them depends on the others for creating moral lives of substance. Even our understanding of virtues is interactive with the other moral elements.

Menschlichkeit, for example, is a peculiarly Jewish virtue that reflects many of our values and beliefs. It includes such other virtues as honesty, courage, and compassion, which in turn tie to our vision of a just and caring society. The Reconstructionist understanding of our civilization as evolving and of our sacred texts as emerging from their historical contexts contributes to the possibility of linking our contemporary moral sensibilities with our encounters with Jewish texts and traditions. This helps us integrate our theological language, experience and morality. This is critical if we as a minority group are to sustain our moral practice.

The very idea of values, of “value,” comes from our consciousness that the world is God’s (I would prefer to say that the world is infused with the divine); that the world has worth is one corollary of that attitude. What we recognize as having worth is at best consistent with our attitudes, but our attitudes cannot fully predict our values. Our values grow out of our experiences and cultures. The attitude Ladonay ha’aretz um’lo’o (“The world and all that is in it belongs to God”—Psalm 24) means that everything in the world has the capacity for good, but this insight has to be fleshed out by values before we can easily act on it.

Beliefs and Assumptions

We cannot make decisions wisely unless we are aware of what shapes those decisions. Our beliefs about the right balance between community responsibility and individual autonomy are so powerful in shaping decisions that they need careful examination to ensure that the balance between those beliefs is the one we consciously mean to apply. Often decision making goes awry because people are not aware of how their beliefs and assumptions drive their conclusions. When beliefs and assumptions are not articulated, dialogue often generates more heat than light, and individual decision making becomes erratic and confused. Once made explicit, beliefs and assumptions can be tested against knowledge and experience, creating a more rational and orderly universe of discourse.

Assuming we have clarified the facts and scholarship relevant to a decision and that the decision is not completely determined by norms, we next will need to understand its context in past history and practice as well as in contemporary culture. Understanding our predecessors’ practices and what motivated them helps us to explore our own attitudes, beliefs, norms, and values. Empathetic consideration of our heritage gives Judaism a vote. Having done this, we can turn to exploring the rest of the values relevant to a decision.

Each decision that we make has a moral component to which values can be applied, but each decision is also affected by different values. Even when two decisions are shaped by similar values, some values will be more central to one decision than the other. Once we are at the values stage, it is time to consider which values are more important and, in light of all the previous steps in the decision-making process, why. Some values have a more direct connection to a particular issue, and some are felt more strongly. The history of values and their origin affects the weighting of values as well. The value of community is far more central to deciding whether to attend a shiva minyan than it is to how expensive a cut of meat to buy.

Applying that emerging hierarchy of values to the decision and its consequences prepares the decision maker to select the best—or sometimes the least bad—choice. Thus in VBDM, exploring values is the last step in the process before actually making the decision.

Who Decides?

When groups need to make a decision, they should begin by seeking agreement about who ought to make it. Decisions can most efficiently be made by the smallest group with sufficient authority and competence to make them. Sometimes a series of groups needs to be involved; in a synagogue, a membership or ritual committee decision of importance might require board approval. If the issue is fundamental enough, the board might seek ratification by the congregation’s members. Critical to the legitimation of the decision is the broad affirmation in advance of the legitimacy of the process and the decision making group. Groups’ decision making therefore needs to be carefully planned. If the process is affirmed in advance (in part because those who care will have sufficient input to satisfy them) the outcome of the process will usually be accepted by those who disagree with it.

At the group level where the recommendation is formulated, the group should go through the same decision- making steps outlined above. Once the group reaches a conclusion, it needs to work on leading other decision makers through the process in a shortened form so that they can affirm the group’s conclusions.

This model of decision making requires both an educational process and access to a variety of information. While a sophisticated and dedicated group of volunteers can use it, a professional often aids in facilitating the process and assembling expert input. When a rabbi does this in a congregational setting, the rabbi can often play a crit6ical role in successful decision making. This requires differentiating among three functions:

  • facilitation that creates safety for open inquiry and exchanges of views;
  • teaching about Jewish sources and providing other insights;
  • stating personal values, reasoning and conclusions.

When these functions are suitably differentiated and labeled, the rabbi can successfully play a central role in an effective process. When the rabbi does not differentiate among the factors, this can fuel interpersonal conflict, disrupt decision making, and prevent the emergence of a decision that the group will accept. The rabbi’s expertise is very much needed. Its exercise requires reflection, self-discipline, and commitment to the VBDM process.

Negotiating Priorities

Group conflict often peaks at the stage when members negotiate value priorities. At this stage it is possible to look ahead and see which priorities will lead to which conclusions. This is a time when active listening and facilitation can help build consensus, which is not the same as unanimity. For a consensus to emerge, points of commonality must be discovered and emphasized so that people are willing to move forward despite their differences.

Which decisions should a group make? It first ought to make the decisions needed to mount its core programs and provide for their administration. As it adds to its program, new decisions will have to be made. When congregations start, they typically begin making ideological and ritual decisions and then quickly move on to dealing with financial and structural decisions as well. Before long, decisions relating to employment and social action are added to the mix. All of these decisions have moral components.

Communities inevitably need policies and procedures, necessitating frequent decisions. In the open society of the United States, group decisions limiting the freedom of individuals (“Who are you to tell me what to do?”) are usually accepted only to the extent that they are needed for aspects of group life that the individuals seek. Thus we make decisions about whether the synagogue will have a kosher kitchen or avoid styrofoam products, but those decisions are not binding on synagogue members when they go home.

Shaping Conduct

One of the major benefits of VBDM can be consensus-building and establishing shared group behavior. This in turn shapes the moral conduct of the members of the group. Research shows that most people conform to the attitudes and behaviors of the groups they are in. Thus groups using VBDM both provide a model for personal decision making and reinforce the moral conduct of their members.

If a Reconstructionist congregation has as one of its goals shaping the personal conduct of its members, it will use a broadly inclusive process to produce guidelines for personal conduct—but will not enforce them as rules unless the rules are needed for the welfare of the congregation. This situation results from the fact that today congregations are voluntaristic communities that require the consent of their members. Their health and legitimacy requires that they validate their activities through the consent of their members and act no more coercively than needed to fulfill their agreed-upon purposes.

In our postmodern world, we know that no one group has the sole claim on justice or ethics. But creating a way of living that we share with our community, a way of living shaped by our attitudes and beliefs, norms and values, allows us to live morally coherent, meaningful lives. When our lives are lived in harmony with the rhythms of our Jewish community, we are reinforced in our morality. If that morality includes attention to improving our world, as authentic Jewish morality must, then it has value that extends beyond our own lives. It brings us to living lives of transcendent meaning.

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