Friday, May 15, 2015

Free to - Parashat Behar - May 15, 2015

Earlier this week, it was reported online
that a technology company has been created to help employers overcome unconscious bias in their hiring of new employees.   Laura Mather, the brainchild of this new software, faced bias in hiring over a decade ago when she applied to work in Google’s Risk Management division.  She had graduated college 12 years before.  She had amassed a wealth of on-the-job training and learning, but Google’s CEO almost didn’t accept her for the position.  The reason: She didn’t graduate from an Ivy League school.  
  Mather’s company, Unitive, will help employers create job descriptions which would put all applicants at the same level.   Her software focuses on an applicant’s personal skills, assuring that other information doesn’t influence the rating of a candidate’s actual abilities and talents.   At the time of an interview,  Mather admits, biases can intervene, such as an inclination to hire someone because of the university which he or she attended as well as other considerations.   Mather notes that it is more difficult to combat bias in hiring today, because much of it is unconscious rather than overt.  She believes that much work still needs to be done.  For example, Mather noted that 40% of those with degrees in technology are women, but women hold just over 25% of the jobs in that field.  In addition, black students make up 4.5 percent of computer science or engineering graduates and Hispanics make up 6.5 percent.  Respectively, they make up just 2 percent and 3 percent of technology employees at Silicon Valley companies. Mather commented: “What I would hate to see happen is that we spend a ton of money and resources and effort on the pipeline…and then when they get to the doors of these organizations, the unconscious bias in the hiring process means that they don’t have the same opportunity.” 
    Mather’s company, Unitive, is interested in contributing to positive change in other ways as well, such as when society fails to create the avenues needed to provide equal opportunity.  The current blog post at Unitive views recent events in Baltimore from a perspective not related to particular instances of violence but based on how people invest in community life.  It stated, “Nationwide, we appear to spend more money on policing minority neighborhoods than on programs that economically empower them. For example, even though crime rates are the lowest they’ve been in over 30 years, the U.S. still spends more than $100 billion on police every year. The Department of Laborcharged with training and investing in a competitive workforce, protecting workers, and assuring income and retirement securityhas a total budget that is about half that.” The post cited programs which have been successful at increasing participation in the work force in a way that can give hope to workers who would otherwise face continuing poverty.
    The Torah reading for this Shabbat reveals the  ancient Israelite approach to equalizing society for reasons of spirit, compassion, and righteousness.  The parashah  Behar begins with the declaration of the Jubilee year every 50 years. During that year, slaves would go free, land would return to previous owners, and debts would be forgiven.    The Eitz Chayim Torah commentary explained the purpose of this practice: “At the heart of this parashah is the visionary concept of returning land to its original owner at the end of a 50-year cycle.  This prevents the polarization of society into two classes: wealthy, powerful landowners on the one hand and permanently impoverished people on the other.  In an agrarian society a farmer who sold all the land to pay debts had no prospect of ever being anything other than a servant.  Nor would a servant’s sons ever rise above that level.  Anticipating the human misery and social instability this would lead to, the Torah provides a plan.  In the 50th year, families would reclaim the land they had held originally and later sold.  Behind this plan are two religious assumptions.  First, because all the earth and all of its inhabitants belong to God, human beings cannot possess either the land or people in perpetuity.  Second, no human being should be condemned to permanent servitude.  Some critics have seen this as a utopian plan that never was put into practice. Archaeologists, however, have found records of deeds from the late biblical period containing references to the number of years remaining until the jubilee year.” It seems that the practice was more than a theory. It was real and, to some extent, observed as a way to deepen compassion and develop positive interpersonal connections within the Israelite community.
    The lesson both from this Torah reading and from Laura Mather’s creation of Unitive is that each of us is more than one particular aspect of our identity.  It suggest a specific type of lens to place before our eyes when viewing others and ourselves. We are more than our economic potential.  We are more than our city and family of origin.  We are more than the university we attended if we went to college.   Each of us is the product of the talents and abilities that we have developed.  Each of us is the result of our life experiences.   Moreover, each of us is a child of God, made in the divine image.  No one can own us, no one has the right to project onto us their own skewed perspective of us based on misunderstanding or prejudice.   It has been taught that the Jubilee Year was intended to restore a sense of unity among the Israelites in a spiritual sense, which sees each of us as unique, with gifts to give others that are all our own.   Our value comes from what we share of our essence, our kindness, and our generosity.   The meaning in our lives comes not from the power we wield and keep but from the love and respect that we show and that we engender in others.   This view of our essence should not just be God’s perspective; it should be ours as well.  So may we continue to give each other strength, comfort, support, and warmth. The text of this Torah reading declares, “Proclaim DROR – a release – or freedom – throughout the land to all the inhabitants.”   In that spirit, may we create a world in which each of us can be free to be who we are and offer our best selves to the human family that so sorely needs our help and our hope. 

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