Friday, August 24, 2012

Shofetim 5772: Justice, Democracy, and The Observant Life

The Republican National Convention meets this week in Tampa, to be followed a week later by the Democratic convention in Charlotte.  The scent of politics is in the air, and the well-oiled wheels of democracy are turning.

These conventions, I must admit, seem like something of a dinosaur in today’s media climate, with the instant sharing of information and the curve of the 24-hour news cycle.  The presidential candidates have been established for months, and while the recent addition of Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin to the Romney ticket added a boost of excitement to an otherwise foregone conclusion, I can’t say that I really have any great interest in watching either of these conventions on television.  If somebody gives a truly wonderful speech, I am certain that it will be available on YouTube before the speaker steps off the podium.

This election season, and in particular the acrimony that has been festering between right and left and lately manifested itself in the barbs that are already being traded by the presidential campaigns, have me thinking quite a bit right now about democracy.  And, as it turns out, Parashat Shofetim gives us some good fodder for discussion on this very topic.

As such, I was quite pleased when an essay on Judaism and democracy was brought to my attention this week.  It appears in the new guide to the Conservative movement’s approach to Jewish law and thought entitled The Observant Life.  The publication of this book represents a sort of watershed moment for the Conservative movement.  It was written and edited by a gaggle of Conservative rabbis, led by Rabbi Martin Cohen of the nearby Shelter Rock Jewish Center.  I would like to point out that I don’t get any commission for pushing it, but nonetheless I think it’s something that we all should own and read.
Why is this a watershed?  Because a consistent historical weakness in the Conservative movement’s approach to Judaism has been its general unwillingness to commit to one particular position on many issues.  Throughout the golden years of the middle of the 20th century, Conservative Judaism was a big tent, offering space for those who grew up in Orthodoxy and those who were moving towards secularism.  What is striking about this new volume is that it is a kind of unified coalition, a halakhic and meta-halakhic statement on where we stand.

Although meant in some ways to replace the classic Conservative guide to halakhah / Jewish law by Rabbi Isaac Klein, A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice, The Observant Life is much more than Rabbi Klein’s book.  I might make the case that while Conservative Judaism is still a big tent in some respects, there are some basic things upon which we all agree.  This book reads something like a current dictionary for the movement, and I think it is a reference that no home dedicated to this movement should be without.

So the essay on Judaism and democracy from The Observant Life that caught my eye is called, “Citizenship,” and it was written by Rabbi Jane Kanarek, with whom I worked for a couple of summers at Camp Ramah in New England.  It opens with the observation that there are voices in the Jewish world that suggest that Judaism and democracy are incompatible (a statement that is, I think, most often made when discussing Israeli politics).  Rabbi Kanarek asserts that there is in fact a Jewish democratic current that runs through our history and literature, although it may differ somewhat from Western democracy.  Not surprisingly, the Jewish take on democracy begins with the line that we read this morning right at the beginning of Parashat Shofetim (Deut. 16:20, p. 1088 in Etz Hayim)
צֶדֶק צֶדֶק, תִּרְדֹּף
Tzedeq, tzedeq tirdof.
Justice, justice shall you pursue.
The Torah requires us to live in a just society.  And not just to live there; many commentators have addressed the curious repetition of the word tzedeq; after all, would it not have been enough to say, “Tzedeq tirdof” / “You shall pursue justice”?  The Torah must mean something much stronger: to actively, physically pursue justice, or to pursue justice justly, or perhaps that we should pursue justice and only justice.

Rabbi Kanarek suggests that this verse suggests not only justice in “interpersonal behavior among individuals, but also with the ethical construction of the larger society in which those individuals live.”  The two tzedeqs, therefore, imply two types of justice: the more immediate, daily justice between you and me, between individuals, and the larger picture of justice, that is, between us and them, between governments and peoples or rich and poor and so forth.

Rabbinic tradition also upholds the principle of dina demalkhuta dina, or “the law of the land is the law.”  As such, our obligation to pursue justice is tied to the wider community in which we live.  We cannot merely follow Jewish law and the law of the land, but we must also strive to make sure that the law of the land is just.  Maimonides tells us (Mishneh Torah Hilkhot De’ot 6:1) that if you live in a place where the norms of behavior are evil, you should pick up and move somewhere else.  

Perhaps you have heard about the legal battle over circumcision in Germany.  In June, a regional court in Cologne ruled that circumcision should be prohibited in that city, and just this past week, a German doctor filed charges against a Bavarian rabbi for performing circumcisions; the court has not yet decided to hear the case.  The June ruling, however, has provoked a fresh round of xenophobic anti-circumcision rhetoric in Western Europe, and coupled with recent attempts to ban kosher slaughter reveals a quite troubling trend regarding the free exercise of religion on the continent.  Modern European states are not the kinds of places from which Maimonides would argue that the Jews should flee; they are mostly just societies.  Jews and Muslims in Germany are fighting this decision, of course; from our perspective this situation has put the principles of Tzedeq tzedeq tirdof and dina demalkhuta dina in direct conflict, and we of course should all be arguing for tzedeq in the dina demalkhuta, the law of the land.

Back on this side of the Atlantic, a representative to Congress from Missouri, Todd Akin, made a remark about rape for which he was roundly criticized (there is no need for me to repeat it here).  Thank God, our free press quickly set the record straight that there was no scientific basis upon which to base his remark.  But what I think that this incident brought to the fore, and particularly in the context of some of the other statements that are being made on each side of the presidential campaign, is that political speech has limits.  Nobody is entitled to his or her own facts.  When we consider the current debate over Medicare that the presidential candidates have raised, it is clear to me that each side is spinning the numbers to their own advantage, making it quite difficult for the average citizen to puzzle out who is telling the truth, or if there even can be an objective truth here.

I noticed this week, by the way, that there are multiple ostensibly non-partisan websites dedicated to “fact-checking” politicians.  Some of the best-known are and  This is an age in which trust of big institutions, particularly government, is frightfully low, and I suppose that it is a credit to the strength of our democracy that such sites are there to help us sort out fact from fiction in political speech.  

However, doesn’t the very existence of these sites suggest a problem?  Call me naive if you will, but shouldn’t truth be the same regardless of which side of the aisle you are seated, and not molded to some politically-expedient variant on reality? Once again, thank God for our free press.  

Returning to Rabbi Kanarek and democracy, she points to an argument in the Mishnah for free speech.  We also read this morning that the Torah mandates the death sentence for one who does not follow the ruling of kohanic judges (Deut. 17:12-13, p. 1092).  The Mishnah (Sanhedrin 11:2-4) follows this by stating that a zaken mamre, a rebellious elder, should be executed ONLY if he teaches people to act contrary to the court’s rulings.  However, if the zaken mamre makes it clear that he is only stating personal opinion in opposition to the court, and does not encourage others to violate the law, then he is not punished.

Hence we can understand the Mishnah as implying that free speech is permitted as long as it does not lead to illegal action, and so while I shudder to think that politicians such as Mr. Akin can say grossly incorrect statements in public, we must defend his right to do so, and take him to task as necessary, and this is precisely what took place this week.

I have brought these items to your attention not only because we need to know about them, but because we need to be vigilant; as Jews, our tradition mandates that we uphold the principles of democracy.  Rabbi Kanarek’s chapter also addresses issues surrounding separation of church and state, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, and equal protection under law, all of which can be construed from the Jewish bookshelf.  Democracy, which may be seen as flowing from the principles of justice, requires continual pursuit on multiple levels, and as such we must work hard to protect these principles with zeal.

President George Washington, in his thank-you letter to the Jewish community in Newport, Rhode Island following his visit there in 1790, spoke not only of the freedom and tolerance engendered by American democracy, but perhaps gave a knowing wink at the Jewish role in helping to shape democracy.  He wrote:
“The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”

Let us hope that such tolerance, as supported by the other principles of democracy and justice indicated by Rabbi Kanarek in her chapter in The Observant Life, continues to flourish here and abroad.  Meanwhile, enjoy the political spectacle of the coming weeks, and buy the book.

Shabbat shalom.

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Shabbat morning, August 25, 2012.)

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