Rabbi’s Weekly Message

Rabbi’s Message, June 10, 2024


Illustration: Impartial Justice.  Credit: University of Texas at El Paso, “Where can a BA in Criminal Justice Take You?”
            America today reminds me of Humpty Dumpty.  He has had a great fall.  Can he be put back together again?
            The “great fall” that I allude to has numerous components, and to discuss them all would take longer than these messages ask you to devote.  But I will focus on one aspect of this decline that particularly troubles me: the partisan divide over whether to respect the judicial process.
            We are in the midst of an unfolding near-civil war over how to evaluate the conviction of Donald Trump on 34 counts of falsifying business records to hide the hush money payments he made to silence an account that would attest to his moral turpitude. I find it striking that at this juncture, our country has failed to live up to the respect for the law that the other democracy I love, the State of Israel, has exhibited in a parallel situation.
            A former prime minister of Israel, Ehud Olmert, was found guilty of corruption in 2014. After the conclusion of the appeals process, he served a prison sentence, 2016-2017.  Olmert insisted on his innocence. But listen to his own words about the result:
            “Well, the bottom line—you may be president and prime minister or an ordinary citizen. When the court decides that you’re guilty, you’re guilty. And you have to bow your head and accept the judgment and behave according, which I did.” (Olmert, interview by Daniel Estrin, NPR, April 19, 2022.)
            Now, two caveats are in order. First, American courts are not infallible. Growing up in Paterson, NJ, I had a ring-side seat to an investigation of the local courts in the aftermath of the wrongful conviction of the boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter and John Artis. And second, the current Israeli Prime Minister has not thus far demonstrated the respect for the Israeli legal system that his predecessor, Olmert, did.
            That said, the partisan division in America over the recent conviction of a former president signals to me the destruction of yet another guardrail of our democracy.
            What can we turn to, from our Jewish tradition, for guidance at this juncture?


Illustration: The Ordeal of the Bitter Water. Credit: Getty Stock Images
            As it happens, the Rabbis knew a lot about the decline of standards.  Consider their remarks on one of the Biblical laws found in this week’s Torah portion, the “ordeal of the bitter waters.”  This was a priestly procedure used to resolve a case of a husband suspecting his wife of adultery.  The procedure was reserved for cases where there was not sufficient evidence to resolve the case judicially. The Bible provides a ritual in the hopes that it would restore domestic tranquility. The accused woman drank a beverage.  It seems that the beverage was bitter but harmless.  If she did not have a psychosomatic reaction that would reveal her guilt, then the process was designed to remove her husband’s suspicions.
            The Rabbis said this ritual was eventually discontinued:
“Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai says…When adulterers proliferated, they [the Jewish authorities] abolished [the ritual of] the bitter waters, for there is no need for the bitter waters except in a case of doubt. Nowadays, there is already an increase in those who are seen [engaging in sexual relations] out in the open.” (Tosefta, Tractate Sotah, ch. 14)
            The implication of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai’s statement is sobering: The ritual presupposed a generally high the moral standing of Jewish men. In later days, that standard being regretfully lower than in former years, the ritual could no longer be used without it becoming an instrument of corruption. The Jewish response, therefore, was to discontinue the ritual.
            This is a remarkable statement. As the Rabbis put it, “The text says, “Explain me!”
            Rabbis were all about “creating a fence for the Torah.” This meant adding to the realm of daily actions sanctified by Oral Tradition as part of God’s instructions for our conduct.  For the chief rabbi of the day, a Founding Father of Rabbinic Judaism, to speak about discontinuing a biblical institution, is no small thing.
            Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai’s brief statement contains a world of sober judgment. The Torah was given to people, not angels, but conversely, it was given to people, not roosters. The recipients of Torah at Sinai were credited with having maintained certain minimal standards despite generations of enslavement.  The Rabbis said that one of the reasons why the Jews of the Exodus generation merited their deliverance is that they did not compromise on the high moral standards of their family life. What if those standards were lost? Then the Torah needs to recalibrate its demands, to reach deeper down the ladder whose top rests in Heaven but that goes all the way down to earth. The extended outreach is to catch and hold its recipients at their lower level, so that they do not fall lower still. According to the Rabbis, another corollary of the moral decline of the generations is that a few of the rituals of Torah-- those that were predicated upon a higher standard-- no longer could be applied. They could not still be practiced without producing evil results.
            What was the overall Rabbinic response to this decline of standards? Flexibility in certain religious rituals, as we see, but overall, a commitment to character education.  The goal of Rabbinic Judaism is to refine the human character, to restore us to the level of being God’s partners in making the world an arena where God’s Kingdom may be perceived. At the end of the rabbinic tractate dealing with the punishments administered to criminals, the Mishnah inserts a most hopeful note:

רַבִּי חֲנַנְיָא בֶּן עֲקַשְׁיָא אוֹמֵר, רָצָה הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא לְזַכּוֹת אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל, לְפִיכָךְ הִרְבָּה לָהֶם תּוֹרָה וּמִצְוֹת, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (ישעיה מב) יְיָ חָפֵץ לְמַעַן צִדְקוֹ יַגְדִּיל תּוֹרָה וְיַאְדִּיר:
Rabbi Ḥananya ben Akashya says: The Holy One, Blessed be He, sought to confer merit upon the Jewish people; therefore, He increased for them Torah and mitzvot, as each mitzva increases merit, as it is stated: “It pleased the Lord for the sake of His righteousness to make the Torah great and glorious” (Isaiah 42:21). God sought to make the Torah great and glorious by means of the proliferation of mitzvot.
            Some specific institutions had to be shelved, but the project of restoring the moral level of humanity remained an enduring goal.
            And so must it be with our American life.  We need to be clear-sighted about the decline of our taking as our pathfinders the better angels of our nature. Not in all ways—but sadly, it is true that in some ways, we are worse as a nation than we were in generations past.
            From this realization, we need to chart our return. Our religion teaches that we are better people when the powerful, not only the disenfranchised, are held to account by the law. When a King David sins, a Prophet Nathan is needed to confront him. That begins the healing of the nation. May we find our Nathans, our true prophets, and may we heed them when they teach and guide us. Amen.