Posted by Aryeh Cohen
The practice of democracy, the practice by which we may form a more perfect union, is not that different from the practice by which we try to move in deliberate but halting steps toward a more just world that embraces the presence of God. The practice of democracy does not begin at the ballot box, though the ballot is a necessary part of the practice. The actual democratic practice begins in the face to face conversation of two residents. The growth of this conversation outwards, in concentric circles, is the growth of a democratic movement. The essential moment is a moment of respect and response. It is a moment in which I hear your word as someone who is not me, someone who is outside me and not subject to my whims and wishes, yet someone who can and does challenge me to move toward the right and the just. By listening and responding, by arguing and parrying, by sharing essential concerns of community, we create a bond that can only be called political. The move beyond the dyadic conversation toward a third person and then on, is a move that differs in degree but not in kind. There is a challenge, as we move outward, to retain the essential core gesture of response, of recognizing the individuality of the voice as, in the move from one concentric circle to the next, the conversation grows to form a community and then a constituency. However, if grounded in that initial moment of face to face response, the constituency and even, ultimately, the country retains the aura of persons in a polity rather than the faceless mass of a "crowd" or a "mob". This is what is threatened when the political conversation is controlled by Super Pacs and their mega-donors—the space and the ability to practice democracy.
The power of that initial engagement between citizens reflects the belief that every person is created in the image of the Divine, as a reflection of the Holy. The Holiness is the power of speech. The world, as the Rabbis teach us, was created with speech. It is in this power of speech that the Divine resides in every person.
In one of the most intriguing stories of the Torah, Moses' father-in-law Jethro, a Midianite priest, rebukes Moses for taking on the role of sole legislator, of being the channel of oracular Justice. Jethro tells Moses that both he and the Israelites will be worn out if he takes this role upon himself as sole arbiter and medium of the Divine word. Jethro convinces Moses to appoint others, qualified, respected others to also sit in judgment and deliver justice. God apparently supports this suggestion, which Moses immediately follows. In the next chapter, at the time of Moses' ascent to the top of Mount Sinai, God declares that Israel as a whole is "a nation of priests and a holy people." It is not necessary for there to be one single person who acts as a conduit for the word of God. There are many, many people who can fulfill that function.
Revelation itself, according to one prominent strain of Rabbinic tradition, was not a monolithic imposition of one divine voice upon a multitude. Rather, the sixth century collection Mekhilta deRabbi Ishmael (BaHodesh 9) commenting on Exodus 20:16 pictures the revelation as multiform and plural: "And all the people heard the thunderings and the lightnings": "But how many thunderings were there and how many lightnings were there? It is simply this: They were heard by each man according to his capacity, as it is said: 'The voice of The Lord was heard according to the strength.' Rabbis say: This is to proclaim the excellence of the Israelites. For when they all stood before mount Sinai to receive the Torah they interpreted the divine word as soon as they heard it."
There are two vitally important ideas here. Each person heard the revelation in a unique way, and upon hearing the revelation each person immediately interpreted it in a unique way. In other words, six hundred thousand Torahs were received at Sinai. Without any one of them the Torah would be deficient. Each voice and each interpretation is a unique contribution to God's revelation. According to a Hassidic tradition, the revelation was intentionally mediated and obscured so that there would be room for interpretation and midrash.
In Deuteronomy, God commands Moses to appoint "judges" and "overseers" in all of Israel's gates. They will judge the people justly. It is not a system with one high point from which justice flows, rather it is a horizontal system that disperses the word through many words that brings everybody closer to justice. The command to appoint justices is followed immediately by the prohibition against bribery, and the command to pursue justice.
When the Rabbis imagined the Great Sanhedrin, the high court and the great judicial deliberative body, they regulated the court’s deliberation such that the most junior members are given the right to speak first so that they would not be intimidated by the more senior members.
The rabbinic study hall itself, the place of the give and take that is of the essence of Torah study—and is itself Torah—is grounded in and dependent upon individual and unique voices clashing and cooperating to close in on some multivocal truth of Torah. When Rabban Gamliel, one of the great Sages of Israel attempted to short-circuit the free flowing conversation by embarrassing another Sage, Rabbi Yehoshua, Rabban Gamliel himself was deposed. His autocratic style did not serve Torah well. After he was removed from the patriarchal seat, the guards were removed from the doors to the study hall, and the benches—previously empty—were filled. Torah study, the primary act of worship and of imitating God, was rooted in a nascent democratic practice.
This is not to argue that Rabbinic Judaism foreshadowed or envisioned a democratic polity. The opposite might actually be the truth—in their minds the ideal society would have king and high priest, and yet the authority, by some force of will, would rest in the hands of the Sages. Women were to a large extent (with fascinating exceptions) excluded from this picture. However, I would suggest that with the move from the medieval world to the modern world, a move that was ultimately bound up in the move toward democracy, Rabbinic culture had enough proto-democratic tools in its theological and practical pouch that the embrace of democracy was not necessarily a stretch.
In the fifteenth century Don Isaac Abravanel, philosopher, Bible exegete, and treasurer to Queen Isabella of Spain, was a harsh critic of monarchy. He understood all monarchy (both the ancient Jewish monarchy of David and Solomon, and the contemporary monarchy of the “nations”) as ultimately interested only in its own power. Abravanel argued that the more limited the power of a ruler the better. If a ruler only had a short tenure, he could only cause so much harm. If a ruler had to fear the courts like any other man he would proceed with caution, and not rule capriciously.
Abravanel saw a glimpse of the ideal in the republican government of medieval Venice, which he described as the exemplar of a rule based on the actions of deliberative bodies. Abravanel interpreted the command to appoint judges and overseers of Exodus 24 with the help of Deuteronomy 1:13: “Get you wise and understanding and knowing men according to your tribes, and I shall set them at your head.” “Get you,” he explained, is the result of an electoral process, such that the wise and understanding and knowing men are chosen by the people and then set at their head. He also argues that the scope of their deliberations is not limited to civil or criminal disputes, but, rather, they were tasked with deciding affairs of state, of war and peace.
Don Isaac’s younger contemporary, Niccolò Machiavelli, (in the Discourses on Livy) came to a position similar to Abravanel’s concerning democracy. He argues “that the republic governed by words and persuasion—in sum, ruled by public speech—is almost sure to realize the common good of its citizens; and even should it err, recourse is always open to further discourse. Non-republican regimes, because they exclude or limit discursive practices, ultimately rest upon coercive domination and can only be corrected by violent means.”
Abravanel and Machiavelli, both raise up the power of deliberation, discourse and dialogue amongst people as the preferable form of rule. These ingredients of democratic practice are given a theological frame with the idea, quoted by Machiavelli and inherent in the Rabbinic understanding of revelation cited above, that vox populi vox Dei, the voice of the people is the voice of God. This represents a radical move in which the locus of authority shifts from the authority of the one monarch, or even from the one representative of the Divine, to the words, the voice of the people—that in people which is, at core, Divine. Jacob Taubes, a mid-twentieth century Jewish intellectual, ordained as an Orthodox Rabbi, who was born in Vienna and died in Berlin (but spent a good deal of the fifties, and sixties in the United States) articulated this idea very well.
[T]he fundamental difference between the symbolic structure of a democratic order and the royal symbolism of theistic liturgy concerns the sanction of authority. In the symbolic structure of the democratic order, the consent of the people establishes law and order: democracy implies that the people are the only sovereign, the ultimate authority. The will of the people is always right—or at least more often right than any individual will—and represents the highest law of the state. The government functions in the name of the people and has no authority of its own. In Lincoln's statement on "government of the people, by the people, for the people" the anti-hierarchical symbolic structure of the democratic order finds powerful expression. The authority of the government is not derived or ordained from "above" but guaranteed in a mystical equation of the vox populi with the vox Dei. (emphasis added) (Jacob Taubes, “On the Symbolic Order of Democracy,” in Confluence: An International Forum, 1953.)
It is then, the free exchange of ideas between people on which the whole democratic project, the project of creating a more perfect union, rests. Rabbi Chayim Hirschensohn (a prominent Palestinian-born scholar who moved to the United States in early twentieth century and served as the Rabbi of Hoboken, New Jersey) stresses the fact that immediately following the commandment to set up “judges” and “overseers” is the commandment: “You shall not skew judgement. You shall recognize no face and no bribe shall you take, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and perverts the words of the innocent.” (Deut. 16:19)
The “you” in this verse, as Hirschensohn understands it, is not limited to specific judges dealing with matters of civil or criminal law. The object of this command is, rather, the people as a whole who must deliberate and then choose their representatives who will then further deliberate in order to legislate, to rule. This interaction that is grounded in the exchange of ideas between citizens face to face is the guarantor of democratic process and outcome.
Injecting unlimited amounts of money and the distorting power of media into the mix deliberately undermines this deliberative process. The decision reached by the United State Supreme Court in the Citizens United case, attacks the fundamentals of a democratic practice. Attaching personhood to a faceless corporation does nothing to increase speech. The opposite is true. By dint of unlimited donations, anonymous donors to political action groups (which have to pose as social welfare groups) stymie the possibility of dialogue.
The effect of massive infusions of cash into the democratic process, transforms citizens from practitioners to spectators, from participants to observers. The public discourse moves off the issues themselves, the give and take of ideas and values, and rests upon the impact and the power of the few mega-donors and their SuperPacs. It is to the detriment of democracy when we are all conversant with the “horse race” side of electoral politics but not fluent in the language of policy, nor knowledgeable of the outcomes of the race itself.
These massive infusions of cash (in the form of various types of media) work to intimidate opposition to any issue. Even the threat of that type of massive deployment of money is itself a threat, which can stop deliberation in its tracks.
Finally, the atmosphere that is created by a politics of the plutocracy, is one in which citizens are left in cynical silence believing that an individual opinion or even an individual vote does not matter. The Court’s argument that “The appearance of influence or access, furthermore, will not cause the electorate to lose faith in our democracy,” seems on its face absurd when one looks at levels of participation in elections. It is perhaps this, which is most dangerous of all. If ultimately the SuperPacs and the mega-donors succeed in convincing the citizenry that elections are bought and paid for, it is the practice of democracy that will suffer and be irreparably damaged. A community and a polity so damaged will not long endure.
This post was commissioned by Auburn Seminary as part of a set of theological white papers on the topic of Money in Politics that will be published in March 2013.
6.12.13 at 4:21 pm | In the wake of the Lebanon War (which started 31. . .
6.2.13 at 5:59 pm | For some reason I don’t think that any of the. . .
5.29.13 at 6:09 am | These are the thoughts with which I find myself. . .
5.13.13 at 8:40 am | And yet, we return each year with Sisyphean. . .
5.7.13 at 7:16 pm | The Rabbinic tradition transvalued the warriors. . .
4.23.13 at 5:22 pm |
5.13.13 at 8:40 am | And yet, we return each year with Sisyphean. . . (5)
10.30.12 at 9:23 pm | For argument's sake let us agree that we all. . . (3)
4.18.13 at 5:34 pm | (3)
February 8, 2013 | 5:52 am
Posted by Aryeh Cohen
What is it that the Jewish community brings to the discussion of immigration? What learned wisdom do we have to share?
It is true that the Jewish people is a people born and nurtured in the Diaspora, as immigrants, as strangers and sojourners on the way to or from somewhere else, making temporary or permanent homes in foreign lands. As the French Jewish Bible scholar and thinker Andre Neher points out, beginning with Abraham, the Israelites spent more time wandering and living outside of Canaan and the Land of Israel than residing in it. As soon as Abraham follows the Divine directive and leaves Haran and arrives in the Land of Canaan, there is a famine and he and Sarah and the whole household hit the road again. This story repeats itself until three generations later the Israelites settle as sojourners in Egypt for four hundred years.
The Torah itself ends with the Israelites camped in the desert across from the Land of Israel, not having crossed over the Jordan yet. The Jewish canonical Bible ends just as Cyrus authorizes the Jews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple and resettle the land, but before they actually return. This is an important point since the final book of the Jewish Bible (the TaNaKh—Torah, Nevi’im/Prophets, Ketuvim/Writings) is not historically the last book. Chronicles ends the canon, but the books of Ezra and Nehemiah recount the return to Jerusalem and the rebuilding of the walls and the rededication of the Temple. The canonical choice then is making a point—a point about the importance of the Diasporic experience.
Further, the vast majority of the Jewish textual tradition was produced in Babylonia, Kairouan, Fez, Toledo, Barcelona, Burgos, Troyes, Dampierre, Medzhybizh, Vilna, Warsaw and on. The library of Jewish knowledge is a Diasporic library written by a diglossic people, the second learned language was always the rabbinic Hebrew of the sacred tradition. (In truth, the Jews were usually triglossic, speaking also a Jewish language in addition to the language of the place they lived and the holy language in which they studied and composed.) And so, there are those who say that what we bring to the table is the memory and experience, the truth and the travails of having lived in many, many lands as foreigners, sojourners, immigrants and refugees, documented and undocumented. This is true, of course, but there is more.
It is true that the foundational tale of the Jewish people is the Biblical story of the Exodus, in which we are narrated as having toiled for four hundred years as slaves, and so, the Torah reminds us: “you know the soul of the stranger.” The wisdom gained from this servitude is that the lesson of oppression is compassion. We who understand slavery, being marginal laborers, are mandated to be compassionate to those who know toil at the margins and under the radar.
There is something to this narrative, however I think that what we bring to the table is neither the history of our sojourns and tribulations—though that too. Nor is it the story of slavery in Egypt. There is no one alive who remembers what it was like to be a slave. Vicarious suffering does not create empathy, nor is it, to my mind, a solid ground for good politics.
What we bring to the table is a different part of the story—the part where the Israelites stand on the other side of sea, the side of freedom and liberation, and exult. What we bring to the table is the possibility of being liberated, of knowing that the tables do turn and that political structures of hierarchy and oppression are not eternal. They change.
We bring this and one other thing. Leviticus 19:2.
“You shall be holy for I, the Lord your God, am holy.”
Generations and centuries of scholars and scholarship have tried to understand how to fulfill the command: ‘You shall be holy.’ How is one to be holy? What is a practice of holiness? What is it that one does in order to become holy? In the twelfth century in Spain, Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman (known as Nachmanides) explained that this command is saying: Do not be “a scoundrel within the bounds of the Torah.” There are many things that are permitted and forbidden according to Jewish law. According to Nachmanides this extra prohibition comes to warn that one could follow the letter of the law and still be a scoundrel.
It is this frame which we can bring to the discussion of undocumented immigrants. We must warn against being a scoundrel within the bounds of the law. We can bring to the conversation the idea that citizenship is not only about a piece of paper. As Jeffrey stout writes:
An individual counts as a citizen in the formal sense only if he or she is recognized as such under law. The legal system confers the official status of a citizen on particular individuals. But when the legal category is applied in an arbitrarily narrow way, it can come into conflict with an informal process of mutual recognition among the people. In a broader sense, then, citizens are individuals who treat one another as bearers of the relevant kind of responsibility. To be a citizen, in this sense, is to be recognized by others as such, or more strongly, to be worthy of being recognized. (Blessed are the Organized, pp 10-11)
We must bring to the table the forceful idea that a large population of undocumented people have been working and contributing to this country, creating communities, raising families, more and more being involved in weighty political conversations that effect everybody in the country—in short have been behaving like citizens—for many years.
While not using the notion of holiness, the Israeli philosopher Avishai Margalit articulates a similar point.
Since a decent society involves respect for humans, and humiliating any human being is wrong, no distinction should be made in this regard between members of the society and people in its orbit who are not members. It is for this reason that I do not define the decent society as one that does not humiliate its members, but extend the concept to include anyone under its jurisdiction. (The Decent Society, p. 150)
What we must bring to the table is the idea that if we are to become a holy society, a more perfect union, we cannot systematically humiliate and discriminate against fourteen million people. We must finally recognize them as being, for the most part, the citizens that they already are, and make that official.
My book Justice in the City: An Argument from the Sources of Rabbinic Judaism is available here.
January 11, 2013 | 10:34 am
Posted by Aryeh Cohen
There are two different forces arrayed against gun control in the current debate—the forces of opposition and the forces of obfuscation. The forces of opposition are those whose allegiance to gun ownership brooks neither compromise nor debate. The forces of obfuscation are a more challenging opponent. Their stance is not a fealty to gun ownership per se, nor a mindless chanting of the fantastical slogans of opposition to government tyranny, neither are they simple supporters of easy and universal access to guns. They think gun owners should be trained, perhaps even licensed. Guns should be regulated. However, they stand on the peak of an Olympus of their own making from where they can discern that the territory is far more complicated than you know (you on the right, you on the left) and therefore none of your solutions are really helpful. Most mass killings were not carried out by people with rifles. Most of the gun violence in this country does not involve the types of weapons that the current and proposed laws would regulate or ban.
More importantly, nobody who is writing in support of gun control actually knows of what they speak. The editorial writers and pundits make rookie mistakes when speaking of weapons and ammunition. It’s enough to make you laugh out loud. Then, there is the fact that in the midst of a violent assault by a man armed with a gun it is better to be armed than unarmed; teaching people to defend themselves with furniture or their laptops is tragically absurd. Finally, those on the gun control side of the aisle need to admit that there are actually bad and violent people in this country and a person should defend themselves and their family. Ultimately, the obfuscator’s final argument (and Sam Harris has written one of the more eloquent of these) is that he has a gun, and he is trained to use it, and therefore he knows more about both the problem, and the problems with all the solutions, than you do.
The obfuscators, to their credit, point to the depth of the problem. There are about two hundred seventy million guns of various kinds in private hands already. Banning certain categories of firearms will not do anything about crimes committed with firearms that do not fit those criteria—and the gun lobbyists spend a lot of time applying pressure to massage those definitions. There are bad people, and in the middle of a violent situation many people might think that it would be better if they had a gun—if not, the odds are that the stronger bad people would always win. There is no solution, and therefore in the current situation as we find it (having created it) we should abandon all attempts at flimsy regulations and perhaps just try to train people on the weapons that they already have. With the density of gun ownership as it is, disarming is reckless. There is then no solution, so we should, reluctantly perhaps abandon the fight to control gun violence.
This approach, however, inadvertently points to the beginning of the solution—a solution that Harris, for one, does not want, nor does he think is possible.
First, taking care of business. It seems to be a necessary part of the rhetoric nowadays to have to claim knowledge of and use of guns to gain some sort of credibility. Here goes. I have carried and fired, at various points in my life, an M1, an M14, an Uzi, an M16 (both fixed stock and collapsible stock), and a 9mm Beretta pistol that I actually owned. As long as we are on the subject, I was also a tank gunner pulling the trigger on a 105mm gun. For what its worth, I was a pretty good marksman with both the M16 and the 105mm. It is, actually, not worth very much.
The problem of gun violence (which is a subset of a larger problem of violence) in our country is not dependent on knowing the arcane details of weaponry. It matters not a whit whether you know the difference between the AR15 and the M16 if you are really trying to solve the problem. It matters a lot if you are trying to keep as many guns as possible in play. If you want to evade any and all gun laws it is important to be able to argue about the number of rounds a semi-automatic gun can shoot in a minute. If you are trying to clamp down on guns, control the number of weapons that are in the hands of people this does not really matter.
The only solution, as Harris knows, is to ban all guns. This might even require the repeal of the second amendment to the constitution. And so, in the interest of full disclosure, I should say that I do want to take your guns away. All of them. Every last one.
At the same time, I do not think this will be accomplished this year or perhaps even this decade. We must however, start treating gun violence as the public epidemic that it is. Attacking a public health challenge on this scale is not just about laws. Fifty years ago doctors were appearing in advertisements for cigarettes. The cigarette lobby appeared to be implacable. (See Mad Men.) Now my kids think that smoking a cigarette is a sign of possessing an evil character. It is forbidden to smoke in public buildings, airports and most of the State of California. This shift was not simply a result of enacting many laws. There needed to be a multi-pronged campaign that was educational and cultural as much as it was legal.
If we are ever going to get rid of guns we will have to change the culture to the point that almost all people feel wrong owning and carrying guns. This is a cultural shift that will take a long time even if we start tomorrow. And people like Harris are telling us not to start.
So to coin a phrase we have to act in the present and think in the future. Yes, we need the tightest gun control laws that we can possibly pass right now. Registration, background checks, ten round or seven round clips, a hard ban on certain types of weapons that we can successfully demonize right now. However, we also—and perhaps more importantly—have to start shifting cultural perceptions. This is not the superficial argument that violent art causes violence. It probably doesn't. What is incumbent upon us is to start the really hard conversation about what the gun means in American culture and whether the picture that is drawn is a picture that we are happy with. There is an urgent need to raise up or reemphasize the democratic values of this country—the values of dialogue and discourse, mutual aid, creating spaces of intellectual freedom and moral responsibility. We have to start defending the first amendment as fiercely, though perhaps somewhat less fantastically, as the gun lobby defends the second amendment. The first amendment does not only protect free speech and the right to publicly assemble for redress of grievances. The first amendment authorizes a culture of dialogue and dispute, of free and open debate. The society which prizes the ability to carry a concealed weapon or a high powered rifle is not the society which privileges the democratic practice of the free exchange of ideas. The latter is grounded in a culture of at least moderate humility, the former grounds a culture of suspicious politesse.
The way forward is neither easy nor obvious. However, if our ultimate objective is to create a society in which there is no gun violence, we will not get there by multiplying or even moderately decreasing the number of weapons in the hands of citizens. Our goal should not be the ability to stop a “bad guy with a gun” in the midst of a rampage, or even of a robbery, or a crime of passion. Our goal should be creating a society where the bad guy doesn’t have a gun, where nobody has a gun, where the gun option does not exist. This will open the possibility to other options. Options that will move us closer to the day when justice will roll down like water, righteousness like a mighty stream.
I will be speaking at Beth Chayim Chadashim on Thursday January 17th at 7:30pm. Details here.
My book Justice in the City: An Argument from the Sources of Rabbinic Judaism is available here.
October 30, 2012 | 9:23 pm
Posted by Aryeh Cohen
How do we translate our common moral commitments into action?
For argument's sake let us agree that we all believe in the dignity of every human being. That is, we believe that a person's dignity is an inalienable part of their being, to borrow a phrase from the founders. In religious terms one would say that every person was created in the image of God. This is perhaps the most forceful way of saying that each and every person's value as a person is not contingent upon anything external to that person, and that no one has a right to act in such a way as to harm that dignity, that image of God, that tzelem elohim. It is as if when one damages another's dignity one does harm to God.
Okay, let us assume that we all agree with this. How do we translate this into practice? How do we move the rhetorical statement to action—moral and legislative at once—which incorporates this understanding into the fabric of our polities, city, state and country?
The only way to get from here to there is to get into the high grass of public policy—and the highest grass of public policy is budgeting. I am not arguing, nor would I, that the budget should direct our moral choices, that the economic bottom line should be the deciding factor in whether or not a policy is good or bad. The exact opposite is what I would argue. The choices we make in our budgeting process must reflect the values which we hold most high.
Since here in California we have over the years decided that our elected representatives should have us do their work for them in the ballot process; and since in that process important questions of budget and taxation are decided, we are forced every election to weigh our votes on budget propositions on the basis of whether or not they reflect our most important values.
The bottom line is that a budget must be an ethical document. The choices of what to fund and what to cut cannot be just a matter of arithmetic, but must first of all be a matter of moral choice.
So how do we create a budget which reflects the respect of every person's being created in the Divine image?
I would suggest that we start by articulating the interlocking web of necessities which a person needs in order to be able to live with dignity in our cities. A non-exhaustive list would include, for example, a job with a living wage, decent education, housing, and health care. These needs are interlocking in that if one is missing, the whole web can fall apart. If one does not have a decent job with a living wage, then one cannot get decent housing or healthcare which impacts one's ability to get an education. If one does not have access to education, one cannot get a decent job which impacts one's ability to get access to housing or health care. And so on. (The more robust argument, for another time, would include the claim that all of these necessities enable a person not only to survive, but to flourish as a person, which is to actualize the Divine image.)
When the budget that is created does not allow for people to live in dignity, let alone flourish we have failed as a society.
It is then incumbent upon us as a society, through our government—which is the mechanism by which we handle our ability to live together—to redirect our resources such that everybody can live in dignity. To that end I would argue, we must support a robust school system and a system of higher education. We must ensure that everybody has access to health care. We must provide shelter and housing to the homeless.
In this election, one action which can bring us one step further along this path is voting for Proposition 30: The Schools and Local Public Safety Protection Act. The temporary (seven year) increase in income taxes for those who earn more than $250,000 a year, and 1/4 cent increase in sales tax for four years would garner the resources necessary for to continue funding our education system. The dire cuts that would ensue if Prop 30 fails—5.4 billion dollars from the Los Angeles school system and community college system; 250 million dollars from the UC and Cal State systems; 50 million dollars from mental health services and more—would cripple us morally, doom many to lives of poverty and pain, and almost certainly guarantee that California will not thrive economically in the future.
For these reasons I urge every California voter to support Proposition 30.
October 19, 2012 | 11:45 am
Posted by Aryeh Cohen
It seems that every third line in any debate or speech by any candidate or advocate of public policy is about money. About the so-called bottom line. Who can and who cannot balance a budget? Who should and who should not pay taxes and how much taxes? What can we as a State, as a Nation, as a society afford to spend money on? Defense? Education? Poverty relief? How do we make these decisions? The overwhelming talk about the bottom line has been crowding out the conversation we should be having—a conversation about values and about justice.
Its not that the economic strictures of budgets or revenues are not important. We all live in a world in which the government cannot supply services—from defense to preschool—without paying for them. However, the economic voice should be neither the first nor the loudest voice in the conversation.
It seems that spokespeople (and just people) advocating for any cause are more and more frequently framing their advocacy in economic terms. “If everybody has access to preventive care the state saves money on emergency room visits.” “Preschool programs are a big factor in keeping kids off the street and out of jail—which ends up saving the country a bucketload of money.” “The death penalty costs way more than Life Without the Possibility of Parole.” We have monetized our morals.
It is not that any of these arguments are wrong per se. It is that the economic bottom line should not be the trump card in any debate over values and issues of justice. The issue should be: what is right and what is just.
This is not a new idea.
There is a law in the third century text the Mishnah (Baba Bathra 1:5) which obligates all residents of a city to pay a levy towards the building of a wall around the city. The question is asked in the discussion of this Mishnah in the sixth century Babylonian Talmud (Baba Bathra 7b): “How is this levy assessed?” Three different possibilities are offered: 1. Per capita. Each person is obligated to pay exactly the same amount. The bill is meted out evenly amongst the whole city. The claim here is that the obligations of the city should be distributed evenly amongst the residents of the city regardless of abiblity to pay. 2. According to the amount of money that each person has. In this argument, a richer person has more benefit from the wall than a poorer person since he has more to protect—therefore the wealthier person is assessed at a higher level. 3. According to the proximity of a given house to the wall. The closer one is to the wall, the more protection one needs and therefore assumedly one gets. Hence the closer one is to the wall, the more one pays. The Talmud, as is it’s way, does not provide us with a decision (or, more accurately, provides us with two decisions: either the second, based on the amount of money a person has, or the third based on proximity to the wall).
In the twelfth century in northern France, in the city of Dampierre, Rabbenu Tam, one of the greatest minds of the middle ages, questioned the justice of this arrangement. It would be okay if poor people who lived in closer proximity to the wall paid more than poor people who lived farther away from the wall. It would also be okay if rich people close to the wall paid more than rich people far from the wall. It would not be okay, Rabbenu Tam said, if a poor person would pay more than a rich person because the poor person lived in closer proximity to the wall.
Rabbenu Tam was not questioning the logic of the closer-farther algorithm. He was questioning the extent of its explanatory power. He was saying, in essence, that it cannot be that a poor person would have to contribute more to the city than a wealthy person. This type of regressive tax was unjust. While a rich person could afford to pay for the tax and also to buy food and obtain shelter and other necessities, it is not clear that the same is true for the poor person.
The underlying sentiment of this decision is that choices in the public realm, decisions of law and policy have to be based on a foundation of doing the right and the just. A society, to consider itself righteous, has to ground its decisions about allocations—and about sentencing, and about business practices, and about education and a myriad of other things—in the principles of: “And you shall do that which is right and good” (Deuteronomy 6:18), “So you may walk in the way of goodness, and keep to the paths of righteousness” (Proverbs 2:20), “Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due” (Proverbs 3:27). These are all principles which the rabbinic tradition applies in the course of discussions on economic justice issues. We would be well served in our discussions to follow in their paths.
If you read a budget closely and do not see that it follows in the ways of goodness and the paths of righteousness, but rather balances the budget without care for the suffering of the poor and marginal, the excuse of political accounting will not cover the shame of our decisions.
My new book Justice in the City: An Argument from the Sources of Rabbinic Judaism is available for purchase here.
The introduction to the book can be downloaded as a free pdf here.
September 30, 2012 | 12:33 pm
Posted by Aryeh Cohen
September 25, 2012 | 11:28 am
Posted by Aryeh Cohen
So what else is there to say about Mitt Romney's tax returns? I would suggest that we could learn at least two things from them. First, on a personal level, it seems that Mitt and Ann Romney are very generous people. They donated $4.02 million in charity in 2011 (out of $13.7 million of income) and $3 million in 2010 (out of $21.7 million in income). If these figures are accurate (and there is no reason to doubt them) the Romneys donated almost 30 percent of their 2011 income to charity, and 14 percent of their income in 2010. That is a sizeable chunk of their income donated to charity.
A large percentage of that money went to the Mormon church, which supports political activities that I think are appalling, however, giving that large a percentage of one’s income to charities is still a laudable thing.
The second thing that we can learn is that this display of personal largesse and philanthropy reinforces the wisdom of the Rabbinic tradition which demands that poverty relief should be a function also of municipal institutions. Whereas Biblically mandated poverty relief is an individual affair—you give your charity to whichever poor person you desire—the Rabbis recognized that this was both inefficient and unfair. A poor person who lived in an agricultural area might find a very favorable ratio of poor people to assistance being distributed (tithes, gleanings, charity). However, if a poor person lived in an urban area they would probably find a less favorable ratio. If you are one of the thousands of poor people in an urban area attempting to scavenge gleanings at one of the few nearby farms—good luck.
The Rabbis' solution was the establishment of a minimum amount of food and other resources that the city had to give to every poor person who passed through its precincts (Mishnah Pe’ah 8:7). This also meant that the cities had to assess residents to contribute to the soup kitchen and the community chest to insure that enough resources were on hand to support the poor (Bavli Baba Bathra 8a-b). The Rabbis of Late Antiquity, therefore, constructed a system of taxes in order to be able to support the poor of their cities—or poor folks who happened to be travelling through their cities. This system was developed and refined over the years.
The personal philanthropy approach to poverty relief succeeds only in supporting poor people who happen to live next door to the Romneys (or the institutions that distribute their funds). By definition, the super-rich of the Romney variety, do not live next door to many of the people who need their largesse. In a recently published video recording of a speech he made at a fund raiser, Romney dismissed Americans who needed support from the government as those who believed they were “victims” and that “the government has a responsibility to take care of them” and that they believe that they are entitled to things like health care and food, etc. Finally, Romney said that these 47% of the American people will never learn to take responsibility for themselves.
The Rabbinic tradition teaches the exact opposite. The government does have an obligation to make sure people have enough food and clothing and health care and other basics. Romney’s remarks point up the fact that the obligation of society to support those who work hard but cannot feed themselves or their families, or live in situations where they cannot work to support themselves, will never be fulfilled by relying only on the generosities of the mega-rich such as the Romneys. The reason is twofold. First is the “I built it” syndrome, or in the language of Torah (Deuteronomy 8): “Take care lest you forget the LORD your God … lest, when you have eaten and are full and have built good houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks multiply and your silver and gold is multiplied …, and you forget the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, …who fed you in the wilderness with manna that your fathers did not know, that he might humble you and test you, to do you good in the end. Beware lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.’” Present wealth tends to obscure the memory of what it actually took to get there.
The second reason that we cannot rely on individual benefaction is that even with the most generous of benefactors large numbers of people will fall through the cracks by dint of geography or circumstance. The government has the reach and the bureaucracy (for good and ill) to distribute money to where it is needed. The redistribution of resources to create a more fair and just society is the raison d’etre of government.
And so we enter into this Yom Kippur, acknowledging that there are very wealthy people who are very generous. However, justice need not and cannot depend on generosity, the redistribution of resources by the government is the only guarantor of an economically just society.
I wish everybody a happy and sweet new year of peace and justice, and to those who are fasting an easy and meaningful fast.
July 2, 2012 | 4:55 pm
Posted by Aryeh Cohen
Justice Roberts surprised everybody by joining and writing the opinion for the majority in the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold most of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). I want to suggest that his decision is to be appreciated by the progressive community not only for upholding the act but also for shifting the legal conversation.
The decision was a major step forward toward creating a more perfect union, toward helping to forge a society in which we all share obligations toward those who cannot fend for themselves, toward a vision of a just society which honors each and every person as being created in the tzelem elohim/the image of God. This experiment in democracy—in which we have given our trust and loyalty, and by way of which we have pledged to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor—has taken a major stride forward in affording tens of millions of people the ability to have health insurance and thereby health care. At bottom, upholding the constitutionality of the ACA saved lives. People who otherwise might have died, will not die because they will have access to doctors, medicines and life saving treatments.
However, the Roberts decision in my opinion also set the legal conversation about civil and human rights on a firmer moral ground. Roberts sided with the conservative wing of the court to say that the ACA was not constitutional under the commerce clause. The commerce clause, is the clause in “the Constitution [which] authorizes Congress to ‘regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes.’ (Article I, sec. 8, cl. 3)” Further, and more importantly “[o]ur precedents read that to mean that Congress may regulate ‘the channels of interstate commerce,’ ‘persons or things in interstate commerce,’ and ‘those activities that substantially affect interstate commerce.’” (quoting from Justice Roberts’ opinion p. 4) Roberts upheld the ACA based on Congress’s power to “lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States.” (U. S. Const., Art. I, sect. 8, cl. 1) Roberts interprets this straightforwardly that: “Put simply, Congress may tax and spend.” (Roberts’ opinion p. 5)
Roberts’ basic argument was that Congress may only regulate actual commerce and not force one to engage in commerce. Justice Ginsburg forcefully disputed that interpretation in her opinion. I am not a scholar of Constitutional Law and therefore cannot with any expertise weigh in on this dispute. Instead I want to suggest that Justice Roberts’ opinion can work to move the conversation around society’s obligations (as mediated through the State) to provide shelter, healthcare, education, adequate wages and so on, to a more appropriate legal space.
The commerce clause has served as the constitutional lever by which civil rights and environmental protections have been upheld. All these laws have assisted in perfecting our union and widening the scope of people who the law recognizes as the subjects of justice. However, this has come at a price. Each step forward must be grounded in an economic argument, (“Segregation is bad because it interferes with interstate commerce.”) as opposed to an argument grounded in principles of justice. (“Segregation is evil because it does not recognize that all people are equally created in the image of God, and all have equal worth.”) This monetization of our morals has a long history, perhaps, but my concern is the present and the way forward. As a result of this monetization of our morals we are not able to actually articulate the positions that we hold. All people should have access to health care not because it will end up saving the country money (which it apparently will) but because a basic necessity of being human is being healthy and therefore it is an obligation of the society to provide health care to the extent possible to every member of society.
Justice Roberts’ opinion firmly establishes Congress’ power to lay and collect taxes as the appropriate and legitimate mechanism to redistribute wealth in order to fulfill society’s obligations. The debate is no longer whether the Congressional authority to gather and distribute the necessary resources to live out our values is Constitutional. The debate is now only about what those values are and whether we have the political will to act on our values.
For now let us celebrate. Tomorrow we continue the struggle.
The full decision is available here.