In this time of danger and uncertainty, we look to Jewish values for guidance. But when it comes to making complicated decisions, Jewish teachings on their own can’t tell us what to do. Often, two deeply held values are in conflict and we need to prioritize one over the other. At other times, we face the challenge of bringing traditional Jewish teachings into conversation with unprecedented circumstances or new scientific knowledge.
A hallmark of Reconstructionist Jewish life is a commitment to collaborative decision making guided by the wisdom of Jewish tradition. Rabbi David A. Teutsch, Ph.D., developed a procedure to bring order to the complicated task of making Jewish ethical decisions.
The Values-Based Decision Making (VBDM) process is crystallized into eight steps, but really each step is iterative, and the process moves in circles rather than in a straight line. This procedure can serve as a guide either for individual decisions or for communal decisions. If a decision is to be shared, a first step is to make sure that all the decision makers are prepared to work through the process together.
The steps of VBDM
- Determine facts, alternative actions and their outcomes.
- Examine relevant scientific and social scientific approaches to understanding these.
- Consider the historical and contemporary context, including the history and rationales of Jewish practice.
- Look for norms that might exclude some actions.
- Assemble and weigh relevant attitudes, beliefs and values.
- Formulate decision alternatives.
- Seek consensus (if a group is deciding).
- Make the decision.
VBDM is just one example of how Jewish teachings shape and inform decision making. In the various streams of Jewish life, decision-making about communal norms is centered in different places. In traditional Jewish communities, some religious decisions are reserved for rabbinic authorities alone. Liberal Jews value the role of the individual in making religious choices.
Whatever your relationship to Jewish community or Jewish tradition, we hope the sources gathered here will help orient you to Jewish ethical wisdom and show how it speaks to the challenges of this time.
Values-Based Decision Making
by Rabbi David A. Teutsch, Ph.D.
The Torah Process: How Jews Make Decisions
by Rabbi Jeremy Schwartz
Applying Jewish values during the pandemic
From the Reconstructionist movement:
Reopening Our Institutions - May 1, 2020
From a Conservative point of view:
Jewish Values Regarding Physical Reopening of Our Institutions - May 4, 2020
From an Orthodox perspective:
In the letter from May 5, 2020, the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County (RCBC) identifies the Jewish principles that guide their decision. Click here to access the RCBC letters.
From the Reform movement:
CCAR/URJ Guidelines on Values-Based Decision Making: Returning to In-Person Gatherings During The COVID-19 Pandemic - May 12, 2020
Science and VBDM
An important part of values-based decision making is studying how scientists and social scientists understand the problem and the implications of possible solutions. COVID Explained offers a helpful guide to the science of COVID-19, its prevention and its treatment. It offers a helpful resource because values-based decision making is also science-based.
“COVID-19 is confusing. We are here with facts about the virus. How does it spread? How is it treated? Who does it affect most? Unbiased information to help you make good decisions.”
Grandparents and daycare
by Emily Oster — May 18, 2020
Economist Emily Oster lays out a framework for decision making that offers a helpful complement to a values-based approach. She explains that making good decisions begins with a precise consideration of alternative courses of action. Despite the title, this post is about a lot more than grandparents and child care.
“You will notice that this starts not with risks and benefits, but with framing your question. That is: you must start by figuring out what, precisely, you are considering doing and, just as important, asking what is the alternative? Many questions are in the space of: Should my kid return to day care when it opens next week? It’s very hard to answer this without knowing what the choice is. Is the alternative returning in two weeks? In September? Never? Getting a nanny? Quitting your job? You will have a much easier time making the choice if you are making a choice of A versus B (or A or B or C) rather than evaluating infinite possibilities.”