Friday, July 24, 2015

Power, Powerlessness, and Justice: Complicated Lessons from Parashat Dvarim

       "There shall be one Torah for the citizen and the stranger who dwells among you." (Exodus 12:49)  At the center of the Torah's conception of justice is that there is one law for all individuals within the physical borders of Israel and among the Jewish people.  In order to create a just and orderly society, you need to have one legal system applied equally to all individuals.  On the face of it, this demand, and the values that support it, seem simple and fair.  We cannot make up laws on the spot depending on context or convenience, nor should be tip the scales of justice in favor of the rich, strong, or influential.
         However, the Torah does not just warn us against favoring the strong against the weak, but also against favoring the weak against the strong.  And when Rashi delves deeper into the Torah's warning, he forces us to see how justice can be perverted even with the best of intentions.  In Deuteronomy 1:17, we are instructed:

17You shall not favor persons in judgment; [rather] you shall hear the small just as the great; you shall not fear any man, for the judgment is upon the Lord, and the case that is too difficult for you, bring to me, and I will hear it."

What does it mean to hear the "small just as the great?"   According to Rashi, there can be many meanings:
יזלֹא תַכִּירוּ פָנִים בַּמִּשְׁפָּט כַּקָּטֹן כַּגָּדֹל תִּשְׁמָעוּן לֹא תָגוּרוּ מִפְּנֵי אִישׁ כִּי הַמִּשְׁפָּט לֵאלֹהִים הוּא וְהַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר יִקְשֶׁה מִכֶּם תַּקְרִבוּן אֵלַי וּשְׁמַעְתִּיו:
You shall hear the small just as the great: A case regarding a perutah [small coin] should be as important to you as [a case] regarding a hundred maneh [a large sum], so that if it [the former] is presented before you first, do not postpone it for last (San. 8a). Another explanation of “You shall hear the words of the small as you do those of the great,” as per the Targum [The words of the small you shall hear like the words of the great]: You shall not say: “This is a poor man, and his friend [opponent] is rich, and it is a mitzvah to support him [the poor man]. I will favor the poor man, and he will thus be supported respectably.” Another explanation: You shall not say,“How can I affront the honor of this rich man because of one dinar ? I will favor him now and when he goes outside [leaves the court] I will tell him, 'Give it to him [to the poor man], for you really owe it to him!’” (Sifrei)כקטן כגדול תשמעון: שיהא חביב עליך דין של פרוטה כדין של מאה מנה, שאם קדם ובא לפניך לא תסלקנו לאחרון. דבר אחר כקטן כגדול תשמעון, כתרגומו, שלא תאמר, זה עני הוא וחבירו עשיר ומצוה לפרנסו אזכה את העני ונמצא מתפרנס בנקיות. דבר אחר שלא תאמר היאך אני פוגם כבודו של עשיר זה בשביל דינר, אזכנו עכשיו, וכשיצא לחוץ אומר אני לו, תן לו שאתה חייב לו:

One reading of this verse teaches us that we should view all transgressions
 with equal weight, whether the amount of money is small or large.  From a Torah perspective, we should not let small transgressions slide and only take large ones seriously.  When trying to create a holy society worthy of God's presence, every mitzvah (commandment) and every averah (sin) need to be taken seriously.  Many small averot can culminate into a profoundly crooked society.
     However, beyond the issue of small crimes verses large crimes lay the issue of linking judgment to actual or perceived power, wealth, and status.  This singular ethical standard is quite controversial, especially in contemporary academic circles.  And to a certain extent this makes sense.  Should someone poor receive the same fine as a rich person if the fine affects them in deeply unequal ways?  If one nation has a strong and wealthy army, shouldn't they be held to a higher ethical standard than a nation without an army that uses terrorism as a form of resistance?  
     These challenges to the Torah's standard are not new, and many of them were addressed by the rabbis in Talmud, specifically in the tractates that deal with financial damages and criminal codes.  Jewish law becomes far more nuanced and sophisticated over time, in large part because the blunt tools provided by Scripture often failed to address the complex contours of real life.   
     At the same time, however, the Torah also teaches us an important lesson about justice, and highlights some of the problems with distributing justice based on perceived power, status, or wealth.  For one thing, our perceptions can often be flawed.  Power is complicated, rarely stable, and can express itself in unexpected ways.  If one people has the power to kill 20 people by blowing up a bus, and another people has power to drop a missile that kills 20 people on a beach, who is more powerful?  What if someone used to be rich and lost all of their money, but the judges on the court don't know his current financial status, and judge him according to his former wealth?  What if someone is wealthy, but friendless and held in contempt by most of her community?  What if someone is a police officer and respected in the community, but barely makes enough to sustain their family?  Who is powerful and who is powerless?
      Beyond the problem of evaluating the power of another individual or group of people, if we link perceived or actual power to judgment, our deliberation centers on evaluating privilege and not on the nature of the crime or its victims.  This type of deliberation not only moves the focus away from crime and punishment, but it also poisons discourse.  In circles where being oppressed has cache and power, parties compete for the position of greatest victim.  Neither party is encouraged to own up to their power and assume responsibility for their sins.  Neither party is encouraged to empower themselves.  Rather, we create a society of ressentiment,  justifying powerlessness and glorifying the licking of wounds instead of accountability, self-determination, and a mutual submission to the common good.  One does not need to look particularly far to see how this trend has polluted contemporary political discourse in our country (from both the political right and left), and made a mockery out of current political culture on college campuses. 
     The Torah cannot always provide the final or perfect ethical or legal standard for a just society.  If it could, there would be no need for a Mishnah, Talmud, Midrashim, or later legal codes and Responsa.  Over the generations, our scholars have had to challenge and refine the wisdom posited by the Torah in order to make it relevant and more fair.  At the same time, there are deep lessons to be learned from this foundational text, even if they are difficult to hear and accept.  Even though maintaining a single legal standard may be difficult and unpalatable at times, I believe it still is the best of all the available options. We've seen the alternative, and it seems to lead to a world that is no more just or holy as a result.  Sometimes, the older wisdom still holds the key to the most timeless and valuable truths.

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, July 17, 2015

On Solidarity, Selfishness, and Respecting the Journey: Parashat Matot Massei

       Moses' life was one of constant pain and frustration.  He expected that in return for the blessings that the the Israelites received, they would submit to the will of God and actualize the lessons of Torah.  For most of his life, he was deeply disappointed.  In this week's portion, parashat Matot-Massei, Moses is yet again disappointed in the Jewish people acting in a way inconsistent with the lessons of their history and Torah.  In particular, the tribes of Reuben and Gad ask for portions of the Land of Israel separate from the rest of the Israelites, and seem to be more concerned with locating quality pasture land for their livestock than with building cities for their children or standing in solidarity with the rest of the nation.  Both Moses and God were furious that they could be so selfish and materialistic.  Moses' anger isn't quelled until they promise that they will not take these lands until they have fought and made sure that every Israelite can inherit their portion.
          Obviously, it would have been better if those two tribes made evident their solidarity with the rest of the nation before making their request.  At the same time, it was clear that they learned from their leaders' anger.  In order to live in a way that truly shows an appreciation for the blessings and teachings they have received, they must make sure that everyone has their portion before taking possession of their own.  Someone who lives in a way consonant with Jewish values does not take for herself before making sure there is enough for everyone in her community, and that all have access to take what is theirs.  A Jew who exhibits understanding of Torah is not a hazer (a pig), taking the best for himself without regard for the needs of others.  A Jew who is committed to a Torah lifestyle does not put the "I" before the "we."  If there are two core Jewish texts that have inspired me in my work as a rabbi, they are, "You shall not separate yourself from the community," and "Each Jew is responsible for one another."  These two statements -- one from Hillel the Elder and the other from the Gemara -- affirm that communal responsibility is at the core of Jewish life, not individual fulfillment.  When we put God and community at the center of our decisions, we show respect for Torah, its Author, and those who received this holy text with us.
         That said, we are not always perfect.  Some of us (I am often guilty of this) are the first ones on the kiddush line, filling our plates without regard for how many other folks are in the room or how much is available. And we would often rather forget our past sins, where we were when we committed them, and the folks who rebuked us effectively so that we could become better versions of ourselves.  In the same way, the Israelites would have preferred to forget their years of forced wandering, the trials they faced, and all of the impediments that stood in between them and the Promised Land.  Rashi writes that the Torah reminds them of their wanderings in the Book of Numbers, not in order to shame them, but in order to encourage and comfort them.  Drawing upon the Midrash, he explains, "... R. Tanchuma expounds it in another way. It is analogous to a king whose son became sick, so he took him to a far away place to have him healed. On the way back, the father began citing all the stages of their journey, saying to him, “This is where we sat, here we were cold, here you had a headache etc.” - [Mid. Tanchuma Massei 3, Num. Rabbah 23:3]   God and Torah remind us of our journeys, even our most difficult ones, not in order to dredge up painful memories, but in order to remind us how far we've come, and how we've been cleansed and improved by the hardships we have faced.
          We are all on journeys to be better people, and to improve as a Jewish nation.  Let us remember our responsibility to put the community first, even when better pastures lay elsewhere, and even when we'd prefer to run away from the difficulties and messiness of living in community.  And let us also not bury our most painful memories (personal or communal.)  Without our trials and mistakes, we never learn nor do we grow.  Rather, let us ritualize the telling, and recall the pain with pride as proof of how much we've grown and how far we have come.

Shabbat Shalom.