Thursday, October 27, 2016

Speaking Honestly

A few months ago, I wrote to you all about how odd—and not at all in a good way—it seems to me that we have elevated honesty to the level of desirable asset that draws support to candidates for election rather than treating personal probity as one of the bedrock virtues that we as a nation simply expect of anyone at all who would vie for public office. Thomas Jefferson once famously wrote that honesty was, in his opinion, “the first chapter in the book of wisdom.” But since we also don’t particularly expect our candidates to be wise, only savvy, his point will probably not strike the electorate as all that compelling. This phenomenon is upsetting to acknowledge but not that hard to explain: the reason we are prepared to support candidates specifically because they strike us as honest rather simply rejecting as unworthy anyone proven to lack personal integrity is because we’ve also become strangely inured to the phenomenon of lying in society in general. And given the degree to which political campaigns seem to embody the best and worst of societal attitudes towards most things, it was probably only to be expected that the presidential campaign—the mother of all political campaigns in our country—should again and again prove my point that we no longer demand truthfulness of all office-seekers but instead prefer to admire it when it unexpectedly surfaces in one specific candidate.

All that being the case, I was particularly interested in a study published the other week in a journal intended solely for serious scientists, but which received coverage in the general press and which came to my attention in that way.

The study, published this week by Neil Garrett, Stephanie C. Lazzaro, Dan Ariely, and Tali Sharot in Nature Neuroscience, is entitled “The Brain Adapts to Dishonesty” and describes the results of a fascinating experiment undertaken by the authors of the article in which the brain—and specifically the part of the brain called the amygdala, the area of the brain associated with emotional response to outside stimuli—can be shown to become slowly but verifiably inured to the telling of untruths…and how the diminished response to the telling of self-serving lies paves the way for the individual in question to tell increasingly more brazen lies as the naturally negative response to deceit erodes in the course of time. (I actually found it slightly heartening to learn that the human brain is naturally predisposed—if that’s the right word—to respond negatively to falsehood. Who would have thought that?) Regretfully, the actual article is not all that reader-friendly because it was obviously written by scientists for other scientists, but you can check it out online anyway by clicking here. The re-presentation of the material for “regular” readers without advanced degrees in brain science by Erica Goode that was published in the New York Times just this week, on the other hand, is entirely accessible…and very interesting and provocative. (You can read Erica Goode’s article by clicking here.) I recommend taking a look at both pieces, then focusing on the one that is by far the more accessible.

In a sense, their discovery only confirms what most of us sensed anyway to be the case: the more we misbehave in some specific way—including with respect to the telling of lies—the easier it becomes to repeat the sin without feeling overwhelmed by remorse.  Millennia ago, the editor of the Mishnah recorded the great sage Ben Azzai’s wise comment on human nature to the effect that just as the performance of one good deed (and the satisfaction behaving well brings in its wake) leads naturally to the desire to do more good in the world, so too does one sin often lead to another as sinners becomes inured to their own poor behavior and find it increasingly easier to justify with each subsequent iniquitous misdeed. Ben Azzai’s remark is semi-famous, but my own favorite iteration of that same thought comes from the Talmud, where we find the mordant comment of Rav Huna, the third-century master of the academy of Sura in modern-day Iraq, to the effect that “once an individual commits a sin and then repeats it, it becomes permitted to him.” By that, Rav Huna did not mean to suggest that engaging in forbidden activity somehow makes the deed allowed—which would be a patent absurdity—but rather that, as they are repeated again and again, misdeeds begin no longer to feel wrong or forbidden at all, but rather take on the feel of wholly permitted acts…to the individual doing them if not to the world around.

With that phenomenon, we are all surely familiar. You cross a specific line. You feel briefly regretful, but then, because there is clearly nothing we human beings enjoy more than mimicking ourselves, you find it, not harder, but just that much easier to repeat the offense a second or third time. And then, by the eighth or twentieth time ‘round that particular block, you barely register the concept of wrongdoing at all with respect to the deed in question and just proceed without giving the matter even a second thought. So Rav Huna really was right that the ability to distinguish forbidden from permitted becomes corrupted in the mind of the habitual sinner.

In the Nature Neuroscience study, people lied consistently when they perceived the lie to be to their own advantage and that they stood a good chance of not being caught. Nothing too surprising there! But what was very surprising was the discovery that the negative response in the amygdala decreased as the scope of the lie increased. This suggests that the brain becomes desensitized as the lies keep coming. In other words, the inner mechanism that favors honesty and reacts negatively to deceit becomes degraded when the boundary between falsehood and truth becomes consistently and repeatedly blurred.

To explain that from a spiritual point of view, we really don’t need to go any further than Rav Huna. But I can justify the results of the study without recourse to religious psychology as well: since truths correspond to reality and untruths exist solely in the realm of self-serving fantasy, it is hardly surprising that, when given the choice between interpreting data in a way consistent with what the brain perceives as reality and interpreting it in a fanciful way that the brain perceives as flawed and inconsonant with how things really are in the world, the brain naturally opts to favor reality and shun fantasy. What that says about the human condition is encouraging. But what the fact that we apparently also have the ability to erode that aspect of our human condition through habituation brought on by repetition is part of the equation as well.

Also of interest is that, if I am reading the study correctly, the amygdala only accommodated itself to self-serving lies, not to untrue statements that were merely erroneous because the speaker did not know the correct answer to a question. And that part is key, I think, because it makes this a question of moral decision-making not mere perception.

The specific experiment had to do with two groups of people: one could see a huge jar of pennies and the other couldn’t, but the members of the second group were the ones who had to report how many pennies were in the jar. Since they couldn’t see the jar, they had to depend on the data received by the people in the first group. But by manipulating the instructions—in effect, incentifying lying by the people in the first group in some cases and truth-telling in others, and by varying the likelihood of being caught—the authors of the study could see how the amygdala responds to truth telling and to lying, then see if the response varies with the level of benefit the liar imagines might accrue to him or her if the lie goes undetected. The brain does not respond to honest errors at all because it takes them for truths. (That’s what an error is, after all: a statement that is incorrect but which the speaker thinks to be correct.) But when the brain understands that it is being asked to embrace a lie, it responds negatively. For a while. Eventually, it gets used to it. Eventually, the personal probity of the person in whose head that brain is housed degrades to the point that, as per Rav Huna, the forbidden becomes permitted.

A while back, I wrote to you about the phenomenon of politicians telling what appeared to be pointless lies, which I defined as lies that do not appear to offer any obvious gain to the person telling them. We tend to dismiss such instances as mere misspeaking and I suppose many of those instances really are best demoted to the level of “mere” mistakes. But we are talking about an entirely different phenomenon here: the ability of the brain to adjust to the telling of lies, to lose its outrage and thus also its ability to inspire the kind of shame that naturally discourages future lying, and to accommodate the liar’s propensity to lie by abandoning its natural tendency to wish for the inner self and the outer world to exist in the same context of perceived reality.

In my opinion, we have done ourselves a great disservice by demoting personal integrity to the level of something we admire in candidates when we detect its presence rather than something we demand be the sine qua non of everyone who would run for public office. What elections are really about—both on the national and local levels—is not supporting candidates based on the specific positions they espouse, but rather determining the persons in who we would be acting the most wisely to put our trust. The Nature Neuroscience article is really about how wrong it would be to make that decision based solely on outer demeanor or on the trappings, absent the content, of personal integrity.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Time to Go

You really should never say never. I would have thought, for example, that I simply could not think less of the United Nations, an organization so in the thrall of Israel’s enemies that all it seems capable of ever doing is passing even more one-sided, irrational resolutions regarding the Jewish state and providing a satisfying, supportive refuge for even its most vicious enemies. This has been going on for a very long time. It was more than ten years ago, for example, that Kofi Annan, then the Secretary General of the U.N., himself admitted openly that Israel was almost invariably judged by standards never applied to its enemies and that its sense of being under siege at the U.N. was thus entirely justified. So that was refreshing…but the Secretary General, for all his public handwringing, was unable to do anything substantive to change things. Nor was his successor, Ban Ki-moon. Whether the new Secretary General, former Portuguese prime minister António Guterres, will be able to bring about any meaningful change remains to be seen. But, given that systemic anti-Israel bias appears to function almost as the organization’s life-blood, his chances are probably somewhere between slim and none.

And then came this last week’s “Jerusalem” resolution at UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, a wholly one-sided resolution so embarrassing partisan that the front page of UNESCO’s website this week headlines a story not about the resolution itself but about the degree to which Irina Bokova, UNESCO’s director-general, responded to its adoption by scrambling to distance herself from it. Nor did Mrs. Bokova mince her words: “To deny, conceal or erase any of the Jewish, Christian or Muslim traditions undermines the integrity of the site,” she said plainly, adding that any attempt to do so “runs counter to the reasons that justified its inscription on the UNESCO World Heritage list.”  In some sort of grim way, that was a satisfying statement to read. But it only truly serves to underscore the degree to which UNESCO itself has allowed itself to become little more than a mouthpiece for Israel’s enemies in defiance of its own impotent leadership.

In the wake of the resolution, the two candidates vying for the American presidency condemned the resolution clearly: Mr. Trump called it “a one-sided attempt to ignore Israel’s 3000-year bond to its capital city” and Mrs. Clinton’s foreign policy advisor issues a statement clearly stating that it was, in her candidate’s opinion, “outrageous that UNESCO would deny the deep, historic connection between Judaism and the Temple Mount.” Naftali Bennet, Israel’s education minister, said that the UNESCO decision “denies history and encourages terror” and announced Israel’s decision to suspend all cooperation with UNESCO. Would that our country would follow suit and make a parallel decision! Still, there was some slight silver lining to the vote in Paris in that its outcome more or less extinguished any possibility that Congress might vote to restore the funding of UNESCO cut off in 2011 after the organization admitted the non-state of “Palestine” as a member.

The good news is that there is no reason to expect the UNESCO resolution to have any actual effect on the ground. Jerusalem remains the capital of Israel. Jewish access to Jewish holy sites—and, indeed, the access of all to those sites and to the holy sites of other faiths—remains guaranteed. The level of security maintained by Israel at sites deemed plausible terror targets remains as it always has been. Visitors to Jerusalem will therefore not have any different experience next week than they would have had last week. And that, of course, is all for the good.

But it would be wrong to dismiss UNESCO’s resolution as a mere expression of basically toothless anti-Semitism on the part of Israel’s crankiest foes. (And I use that term carefully: by crossing over from condemning, say, Israel’s position regarding West Bank settlements to implying, more or less unambiguously, that the holiest sites to any Jew, including the Western Wall itself, are really Muslim holy sites that Jews have somehow magically co-opted as a way of buttressing their own claim to someone else’s property, UNESCO has openly and shameless crossed the line from “mere” anti-Israelism to true anti-Semitism.) Indeed, there is something important here to consider even if the resolution will have no effect at all on the actual city of Jerusalem or its residents or visitors because, by adopting it, UNESCO has now stepped through the looking-glass into a topsy-turvy world of make-believe that would be almost amusing if it weren’t so deeply sinister.

I read the resolution in its entirety. (Click here and you can too.) Even looking past the deeply offensive reference to Jerusalem, the eternal capital of Israel, as being part of “occupied Palestine” and the almost humorous way the resolution’s authors express their deep regret regarding Israel’s lack of interest in granting visas to UNESCO’s “experts” so they can pursue their hate-filled agenda on the ground in the Holy City, the resolution has to be understood as part of an ongoing attempt on the part of Israel’s enemies to deny the historical connection between the Jewish people and the land of Israel and, particularly, Jerusalem. And that is no laughing matter. Indeed, once the discussion transcends historical reality and feeds solely on the fantasies of Israel’s enemies, we risk entering a realm of discourse in which reality itself plays only an ancillary role and is easily overwhelmed by fairytales spun out by people whose interest in actual history is minimal.

There are no archeological sites or ancient literary sources that suggest, even indirectly, that Jerusalem was not the capital city of ancient Israel both in the First and Second Temple periods, yet UNESCO seems unaware or uninterested in acknowledging that detail, let alone thoughtfully responding to it. And yet the sources are hardly hidden or obscure: readers interested in learning more would do best to find a copy of Menachem Stern’s exhaustive three-volume work, Greek and Latin Authors on Jews and Judaism, published by the Israel Academy of Science and Humanities between 1974 and 1984, and reading it carefully. I read all three volumes and attempted to master their contents as part of the preparation I understood before taking the oral examination in ancient Jewish history that preceded my doctoral defense, and the magisterial nature of the work stays with me still. It is, to say the least, a stunning piece of scholarship…and one even non-experts would enjoy enormously. The author’s erudition is stunning. And the resultant image of ancient Israel among the nations is riveting.

Of special interest in Stern’s work is the fact that almost none of the scores of authors cited was Jewish or had any special affinity for Jews or Judaism. Just the opposite was the case: some of the authors cited were openly hostile to the Jewish people; others were merely interested in including the Jews in their surveys of the ethnic make-up of the various peoples who were in their day part of the Roman Empire. Still others were curious about Judaism as a religion and understood to research the matter as best they could either from a distance or, in some few cases, from close at hand. But what’s remarkable about the three volumes is their unanimity on the very points that UNESCO wishes to deny. These authors lived from roughly 300 BCE to 300 CE, so they cover a period of literary history lasting more than half a millennium. They don’t all touch on the same topics, obviously. But a general consensus regarding the topic at hand—the Jewishness of Jerusalem—easily and quickly emerges when you start reading. Jerusalem is a Jewish city because its residents were Jews and because it was built by Jews. Perhaps even most importantly, it is a Jewish city in many of these authors’ minds because the Temple, the spiritual center of ancient Judaism, was located there. Interestingly, even the most rabidly anti-Semitic authors included by Stern in his anthology do not dispute the fact that Jerusalem was a Jewish city in their day and for as far back historically as they could research; if there is a single detail upon which all seem to agree, it would be the quintessentially Jewish nature of Jerusalem. Readers interested in reading more can click here to read Rivkah Fishman-Duker’s appraisal of Stern’s work as it applies to the UNESCO resolution that was published earlier this week on the website of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. With her conclusions, I concur totally.

Of course, none of this matters to the scholars of UNESCO. That the first Muslim invasion of Israel took place in the sixth century CE, so more than 1500 years after Jerusalem became the capital of David’s kingdom, is ignored entirely. Nor is it merely Jewish history that UNESCO wishes to erase: its history as a place of Christian history and sanctity is apparently as of little interest as its Jewish history. (For more specifically on the way the UNESCO resolution ignores the Christian presence in Jerusalem, which also antedates the Muslim invasion by centuries, click here.)  But, of course, the point here has nothing to do with history at all, and least of all with the kind rooted in the thoughtful analysis of actual facts. What we are dealing with is a concerted effort to present Jerusalem—and the rest of Israel too, only in a less direct way—as an essentially Muslim city under “occupation” by Israel.  Nor, speaking frankly, is it possible to imagine someone sufficiently naïve seriously to wonder why UNESCO, so deeply concerned about Jerusalem today, seemed so totally unconcerned when synagogues were being razed, Jewish graves were desecrated, and every conceivable effort was made to eradicate any trace of Jewish presence in the Old City during the years the Old City of Jerusalem was occupied by Jordan in the years leading up to the Six Day War.

The United States voted against the resolution. So did the U.K., Germany, Lithuania, Estonia, and the Netherlands. Voting in favor were eight Muslim countries joined by China, Russia, South Africa, Vietnam, and a smattering of South American and African countries. Abstaining—which is to say, not being willing to support a resolution wholly rooted in the denial of history and yet lacking the moral courage actually to vote against it—were, among other countries, Sweden, Greece, Spain, Ukraine, France, Japan, and India.

For me, this is also personal. I passed my orals some time ago when I was still in graduate school. But Jerusalem is also my city, the only city in the world in which I own a home and the place in which my oldest child was born. It’s the place to which I retreat on an annual basis to recharge my intellectual batteries, to re-find the spiritual bearing that drew me to the rabbinate in the first place and upon which my rabbinate still rests, and to seek the inner peace that is the personal version of the peace of Jerusalem for which the psalmist enjoined all who would serve God to strive for…and to pray for daily as well. To deny the Jewishness of Jerusalem is to deny the validity of Judaism itself and of Jewishness as it exists in tandem with the faith that grants it its inmost nature and most enduring appeal. Even by its own abysmal standards, UNESCO behaved disgracefully last week. If you ask me, it’s time for our nation to withdraw from UNESCO. We’ve done it before too—the U.S. withdrew its membership in 1984 under President Ronald Reagan and remained absent for almost two decades before eventually returning under President George W. Bush. 

Thursday, October 13, 2016


My ears perked up during the 2nd presidential debate the other evening when Martha Radditz, one of the moderators, read out a question submitted by an individual from Pennsylvania identified only as Diana who wished to ask both candidates about the American response to the agony of Aleppo. That the candidates were asked about Syria was hardly a surprise, but the end of the question was the part that caught my attention: “Isn’t it,” Diana asked, “a lot like the Holocaust when the U.S. waited too long before we helped?”

What exactly we were supposed to understand as the antecedent of “it” in her question is clear enough: she was clearly referencing the American disinclination to do anything too truly decisive to thwart the Russian effort to support President Bashar al Assad by bombing the rebels fighting against the Assad regime who have embedded themselves in civilian neighborhoods in Aleppo without regard to the inevitable civilian casualties that their presence there will inevitably cause.

Like most of you, I suspect, I find the situation in Aleppo to be very confusing. The basic principle is that the eastern part of the city is in rebel hands, while the western part of Aleppo—with a population about five times the eastern half—is controlled by forces loyal to the Assad government. At the end of June, the Syrian army began an offensive against the rebel-held part of the city that involved primarily cutting off the sole supply route of food and goods leading to the rebel-held part of the city, the now-famous Castello Highway. By midsummer, the highway was closed. That would likely have been the end of the rebels—who are actually not a unified group at all, but a loose confederation of many different groups, each with a different agenda and a different vision of the future of Syria—but the rebels then launched a major counteroffensive. Non-stop fighting followed until, finally, a ceasefire, jointly brokered by the U.S. and Russia, came into effect. That lasted for about a week, at which point the Syrian regime unilaterally declared it to be over, whereupon the Russians, unabashedly supportive of the Assad regime, commenced bombing rebel-held neighborhoods in Aleppo from the air and assisting the government in its use of artillery to bomb out the rebels using ground-based launchers. And making the situation even murkier is the fact that the same region of Syria in which all of this is going on is also where the U.S.-led coalition is attempting to defeat ISIS.

The numbers are shocking. Almost 2 million people in both halves of the city are without fresh water. More than a quarter of a million are caught in rebel-held areas and are being bombed daily from the air by the Syrian government and by the Russians. (This last weekend alone, more than 200 people were killed.) Every Western power, including the U.S., has issued strong statements of disapproval and are strongly discouraging the continuation of the bombing campaign, yet the Russians remain adamant in their support of the Assad regime. The U.N., behaving impotently even by their own standards, has reduced itself to the status of handwringing outside observer. Plus, of course, this current bombing campaign is only part of a much larger picture: something like half a million civilians have died in the Syrian civil war since 2011, of whom about 50,000 were children. So that’s the background to Diana’s question when she asked, almost simply, whether Mr. Trump and Mrs. Clinton considered “it”— the American disinclination to do whatever it might take to save the lives of innocents dying daily—to be unsettlingly similar to what happened during Second World War, when America, in Diana’s opinion, waited “too long” before intervening on behalf of the innocent.

Good question, Diana, even though neither candidate actually answered it!

Obviously, the candidates both have positions on Syria. Mrs. Clinton opposes sending ground troops to Syria, but not the use of American special forces to aid the rebels on the ground. She favors arming the rebels too, and also establishing a no-fly zone over Syria (which would put the U.S. into direct conflict with Russia), and an expanded effort to defeat ISIS on Syrian soil. Mr. Trump is prepared to commit “tens of thousands” of American troops on the ground to the war against ISIS, but seems prepared to allow the Russians to pursue their pro-Assad policy without American opposition regardless of whatever collateral damage their bombing raids bring about. As far as I can see, neither candidate has proposed a cogent plan for saving the civilians of Aleppo while continuing the war against ISIS and not confronting Russia directly regarding its military support for the Assad regime.

But it was the next part of your question, Diana, the part that raises the Shoah parallel, that I’d like to write about today. Based on the way you phrased yourself, I’m guessing that you are of the opinion that the U.S. waited too long before entering the war to rescue as many of Hitler’s blameless victims as possible. The problem with that supposition is that United States did not actually enter the war to save the Jews or any others marked for extermination. Just to the contrary, we stayed out of the war for as long as we could, then entered after Pearl Harbor made any other course of action unthinkable. Nor did we declare war on Germany in the wake of Pearl Harbor. We actually declared war on Germany four days later, on December 11, 1941, after Germany declared war on us in the wake of our declaration of war against Japan on December 8.  So to say that the United States went to war to rescue the millions upon millions of civilians whom the Nazis were already attempting to annihilate seems, to say the very least, exaggerated. (Just for the record, Germany had occupied all of Eastern Europe, home to more than seven and a half million Jews, and were just 200 miles from Moscow on the day the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and made the question of American involvement in the conflict a non-issue. And even after our nation was fully committed to the war in Europe, we still declined to bomb the tracks along which travelled the trains that took millions to their deaths even long after we were more than capable of undertaking direct, decisive action to save countless otherwise-doomed innocents. In my personal opinion, there should be deep national shame connected with the decision to allow Auschwitz to function until the Germans themselves heard the Red Army in the distance and fled. (If this controversy is unfamiliar to you, Diana, I recommend Jay Winnick’s very interesting and well-researched book, 1944: FDR and the Year that Changed History, published last year by Simon and Schuster, which will provide you with some good, even-handed background.)

That being the case, there is something just a bit naïve about your question whether the American non-involvement on the ground in Aleppo now is “like” the American disinclination to act forcefully on behalf of the Jews of Europe then, and that’s not to mention the quarter of a million mentally and physically handicapped people, the almost two million Polish civilians, the two and a half million Soviet prisoners-of-war, and the thousands of Catholic priests and Jehovah’s Witnesses whom the Germans openly rounded up and shamelessly murdered. Obviously, we and our allies ended the killing by defeating Germany and bringing the war to an end. But we specifically did not intervene to save the innocents or the civilians marked for extermination by official German policy. So, to ask if we risk waiting too long “like in the Holocaust” is somehow insulting and flattering to us at the same time. We didn’t intervene “too late” during the Second World War. We didn’t intervene at all on behalf of the innocents then, except indirectly by defeating their persecutors, and we clearly are also not going to intervene on behalf of the civilians of Aleppo…not if it means confronting the Russians directly, which notion neither candidate supports.

It would also be reasonable, Diana, to approach your question by asking whether the comparison itself between now and then is reasonable at all. Elie Wiesel himself went on record in the 1990s to compare the massacre of innocents by Bosnian Serb forces at Srebrenica and other sites to the Shoah.  So that surely legitimizes, at least in the minds of many (including myself), the use of Shoah-based analogies to reference genocide in other contexts. On the other hand, there is no actual effort underway in Syria to exterminate any specific group of people, including not even by ISIS itself: the residents of Aleppo are far more “like” those poor civilians in Gaza in whose civilian neighborhoods (and schools and mosques and community centers) Hamas set up the rocket launchers that were lobbing thousands of missiles against Israeli civilian centers in 2014, except that the people in Aleppo do not have the good fortune to have the IDF as their unwanted guests’ enemies, so there is no advance notice to escape their homes, no non-lethal advance “knocking” on the roofs of building scheduled to be attacked, and no effort at all to save innocents by clearing them from harm’s way. So they are victims in the sense that their lives are deemed expendable by the people dropping bombs on them even though it surely isn’t anyone’s specific plan to murder them other than accidentally. That being the case, it seems more than a bit overstated to use Shoah-based language to describe their fate: this is an instance of extreme insensitivity to the value of human life, not genocide. If you are on the ground hoping not to be killed, the distinction is surely uninteresting. But to label as genocide every instance in which human life is deemed expendable by people who don’t actually care if the innocents do or don’t die…that seems a bit insulting to the victims of actual genocide. Aleppo is hell. But it isn’t Treblinka.

All that being the case, the question I would have liked you to have asked Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Trump is how, yet again, the world can make itself both unknowing and uncaring as tens of thousands, including thousands of children, are put in harm’s way. The reason to care about Aleppo is because countless innocent lives are about to be lost to a bombing campaign undertaken by an alien power eager to shore up a dictatorial regime that is under siege because its own citizenry rose up against it in open revolt. From the U.N., we obviously expect nothing at all. The Russians seem wholly unwilling to tailor their foreign policy to address the concerns of other nations. So that leaves our nation itself in a quandary. Doing nothing means acquiescing at least tacitly in the deaths of innocents. Not doing nothing means risking an armed confrontation with Russia. I suppose it boils down to how much we are willing to risk to save a child’s life…and whether geopolitical considerations can make it right, or at least politically cogent, to look away. You know, Diana, maybe there was more to your question than I thought.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Muzzled and Not Liking It

It’s hard to think of anything more obvious than the notion that the free citizens of a democracy such as our own should be free to act in accordance with their own consciences and to do as they wish…other than when those wishes impinge on the rights of other citizens to live their own lives as they wish and see fit. In other words, the goal of law in a free society should be to create a peaceful setting for free people to flourish according to their own lights and to prevent others from impacting negatively on their right to do so. That much seems simple enough!

And yet there is—and probably always has been—a certain paternalism built so deeply into our American culture that it feels natural for it to be there.  I could make that observation from a lot of different vantage points, but today I’m thinking primarily of the way it impacts the electoral process…and particularly the election of our presidents.

The glory of our republic may be the unfettered electoral system according to which the citizenry chooses its leaders…but there are many rules and regulations that prevent citizens from voting for whomever they feel would make their nation’s best leader. We are, for example, prohibited by law for voting for such a candidate if he or she has already served as president for two terms. We all know that…but we rarely think about it and ask the obvious question: why is it specifically not a curtailment of citizens’ civil rights to prevent them from voting for the candidate of their choice simply because of that individual’s past success in the very electoral process under consideration? I am familiar with all the reasons invariably put forward to argue in favor of term limits. But, their cogency notwithstanding, I’m asking a different question: why should the basic civil right to vote for the candidate of one’s choice not override the perceived danger in electing some specific person to an office that individual has already held twice?  Or, to approach the matter from the opposite direction: why don’t term limits constitute an unlawful curtailment of such a former president’s civil right to run for office and to serve if elected? The question is not whether term limits are a good idea. The question is how it can be lawful to prevent the citizenry from choosing their leaders freely?

You could ask the same set of questions about naturalized citizens being prohibited from serving as president: why should a whole class of citizens be prohibited from serving in any office at all to which they are elected by the citizenry in a free election merely because of the circumstances of their births?  Or the age restriction: why should the winner of a presidential election under the age of thirty-five not be permitted to assume office? Or the residency requirement: to serve as president, a successful candidate has to have lived in the United States for more than fourteen years, but that effectively curtails the rights of the citizenry to elect someone who hasn’t lived here for that long.  I get it that there are all sorts of reasons to feel that these are thoughtful, wise restrictions intended for our own good. But, with all respect to our legislators, I really am a grown-up man capable of deciding for whom I wish to vote without being told that I may not vote for the individual I wish to support for president because of how old that person is or how exactly he or she became a citizen.

You’ll all be relieved to know that I personally could serve as president: I was born here, I’m old enough, I’ve lived here long enough, and I haven’t served as president even once (let alone twice). So I’m good! But I wish to write today not about restrictions that don’t apply to me (I’m not actually running for president), but about one—and, at that, a huge one—that does. Indeed, I write today as someone legally muzzled, as a citizen whose right to free speech has legally been curtailed by a government motivated by the same overprotective impetus I sense behind the rules mentioned above with respect to the presidency. And I am not enjoying it much. I comply. (I’d better—see below!) But I am not a happy camper…and I resent the rules that make me less free to speak my mind than almost everybody reading these words is to speak his or hers.

I am referring to the so-called Johnson Amendment, named for the future president (Lyndon, not Andrew) who was a senator from Texas in 1954 when he proposed the amendment to the U.S. Tax Code that now bears his name and which formally prohibits tax-exempt organizations or their leadership from publicly supporting or opposing candidates for office. Technically speaking, my First Amendment right to speak out in public as I wish is not being curtailed; I am as free as any of us is to say what I wish to whomever I wish to say it. However, the Johnson Amendment empowers the IRS to deny the congregation I serve its tax-exempt status were I to avail myself of that right with respect to candidates vying for public office. Since that would be a true catastrophe for any tax-exempt entity, most definitely including houses of worship like the one I serve, I hold my tongue. I’m just not much enjoying it, that’s all.  (Just for the record, the statute is interpreted broadly enough to include speech that encourages or discourages voting for a particular candidate even if his or her name is not used and the language of endorsement is avoided; even speaking negatively or positively about an issue that is unambiguously identified with a specific candidate—for example the they’ll-pay-for-it wall along the U.S.-Mexican border—is covered: if the speech in question could be construed by the average listener as implying support for, or opposition to, a specific candidate then a church or a shul could lose its tax-exempt status if its spiritual leader is caught indulging in it.

There are so many reasons that this is unreasonable that I have to think carefully before deciding how to list them all.

First, the Johnson Amendment strikes me as an imperious violation of the principle that the government should not intrude into the religious lives of the citizenry…and it’s hard to think of a better example than empowering the IRS to inhibit the natural inclination of clergypersons like myself to speak out forcefully on issues facing our nation merely because the candidates for some specific office have also expressed themselves strongly in that same regard. Should I not speak out about matters concerning the status of Jerusalem merely because all important politicians have public stances in that regard? What about talking about the question of immigration, and particularly with respect to refugees from Syria? Both candidates for president have opinions on that as well, and forcefully put ones. The bottom line is that the important issues our nation is facing are all things I’d like to express myself about and all things regarding which both candidates for president have expressed themselves…and my own opinion is more similar to one on some and the other on others. Am I really supposed not to speak about issues that go to the heart of the future of the Jewish community or of the State of Israel from the pulpit because I might inadvertently express myself more along the policy statement of one candidate than the other? It’s absurd. But it’s the law: I may speak about what I wish, but not if my opinion coincides too identifiably with either candidate’s position.

Second, to argue that my free speech is not being curtailed because there is no possibility of me personally being arrested or charged with a crime no matter what I say about any issue or any candidate is to miss the point almost entirely: by imposing a potentially devastating punishment on the institution I serve if I avail myself of my First Amendment right to speak out openly and freely on something that strikes me as relevant and important to speak about, the government is inhibiting my right to speak out at all. To argue otherwise is not to understand why people who work for a living are eager not to see the institutions the serve collapse…and are, generally speaking, prepared to do what it takes to keep that from happening.

Third, in addition to guaranteeing citizens the right to free speech, the First Amendment also obliged Congress to “make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” That last part is called “the free exercise clause.” But I am specifically not free to exercise my natural prerogative to speak about issues of crucial importance to the Jewish community if my own stance mirrors the stance of one of the candidates for president closely enough for my remarks to be construe-able as a kind of veiled endorsement of that candidate. And that is how it works even if I have no specific intent to endorse, even obliquely, one candidate. How that squares with the obligation for the government not to inhibit the free exercise of religion, I can’t even begin to say.

Finally, I don’t just work for Shelter Rock, I live here too. Shelter Rock is my congregation spiritually as well as professionally, and I think of it, not just as where I work, but where I live as well. (And I am a member of Shelter Rock too, albeit an honorary one.) Incredibly, the Johnson Amendment covers private speech as well as formal preaching or teaching from the pulpit; if I run into a congregant in the parking lot of a supermarket and chat for a few minutes before we each go our separate ways, that speech too is covered by the Johnson Amendment because, even if we are also friends and neighbors, the clergyperson/congregant bond is deemed ever-present and, in terms of the Tax Code, decisive.

I do my best. I certainly haven’t ever endorsed a candidate from the bimah nor will I. I obey the law because I must, because the consequences of getting caught violating it would be truly ruinous for my congregation. But I feel muzzled and uncertain about speaking about anything at all current from the pulpit: since the candidates all have positions on every conceivable issue facing the nation, how can anything at all that I say not be closer to one side than the other?

I can see the rationale in clergy not taking sides in an election lest people in the congregation who support the other candidate feel excluded and marginalized. (I’m still not sure, however, why that needs to be enshrined in law.) But, at least in my opinion, the Johnson Amendment should be amended to permit people such as myself to speak out about any issues at all that seem crucial to the public weal and the future of their own communities.  The natural right of clergypeople to add the voice of spiritual leadership to the ongoing national debate about crucial issues facing our nation precisely as we prepare to choose a new national leader should be restored.

I’m even going out on a limb just by writing this out at all for anyone to read: the repeal of the Johnson Amendment is part of the platform of one party and not the other. So let me conclude by saying categorically that I am not recommending voting for that party for that reason, or any party for any reason. I am certainly not recommending voting for any specific candidate because of his or her stance on this issue. I just want my right to free speech restored so that I can speak out forcefully and, I hope, persuasively, about issues facing the American Jewish Community that I try faithfully to serve. No more than that! But also no less.