Thursday, February 11, 2016

The Blinding Power of Money

The Babylonian Talmud relates a tale about the sage Rabbi Yishmael, who often sat in judgment on the local population.
"He had a sharecropper who would regularly bring him a basket of fruits as part of their financial agreement  each Friday. One week the sharecropper brought the basket on Thursday. "What is this?" the rabbi wondered. "I have a court appearance and I thought that once I was traveling, I would bring you the produce today." Rabbi Yishmael refused to accept the parcel, recused himself from sitting in judgment on the case and appointed two other judges in his place. During the give and take of the proceedings Rabbi Yishmael thought to himself, "If only [the sharecropper] would make this claim! If only he'd make that claim!" He then said, "Damn those who take bribes! If I – who refused to take the produce, and even if I had, it would have been my own money – am so influenced in judgment, how much more biased must be those who actually take bribes!"
Throughout the course of his campaign, Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders has attacked former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for accepting lucrative speaking engagements as well as significant financial donations from a litany of sources, including major Wall Street financial institutions. Sanders has implied that the donations affected Mrs. Clinton's judgment and her ability to accurately assess and reign in the danger of the most powerful financial institutions in the world. Recently, Clinton lashed out at the attacks, insisting that the money had not affected her judgment in any way. “Anybody who knows me, who thinks they can influence me, name anything they’ve influenced me on. Just name one thing,” Clinton said at a televised CNN forum in New Hampshire.  At the Democratic debate last week, Clinton directly challenged the notion that she could be bought and bristled at the suggestion: "Time and time again, by innuendo, by insinuation, there is this attack that he is putting forth, which really comes down to -- you know, anybody who ever took donations or speaking fees from any interest group has to be bought. And I just absolutely reject that, Senator. And I really don't think these kinds of attacks by insinuation are worthy of you. And enough is enough. If you've got something to say, say it directly."

Is she right? Are Sanders' accusations an attack on her integrity? Do campaign donations bias a candidate?

The prohibition of accepting gifts appears twice in the Old Testament. "And you shall take no gift; for a gift blinds those that have sight, and perverts the words of the righteous." (Exodus 23:8). "You shall not pervert judgment…neither shall you take a gift; for a gift blinds the eyes of the wise, and pervert the words of the righteous." According to the Bible gifts – money given to those in positions of power – does three things: It "blinds those that have sight", it "blinds the wise" and it "perverts the words of the righteous". We don't unduly influence the wicked; there's no need – they already have a warped sense of right and wrong. Rather, gifts affect people with "sight" - those who we would consider righteous and upstanding people, and prevent them from seeing what anyone else can plainly see. Accepting money specifically affects the righteous – decent, honest people with a proper sense of right and wrong – and prevents them from being truly objective.

Is Hillary correct? Are Bernie Sanders' accusations an attack on her character? Far from it. In fact, Sanders refused to attack her integrity, and has insisted that he respects her greatly. Rather, the Wall Street money she has taken has blinded her, and prevented a righteous woman from objectively seeing the true danger and power that Wall Street wields, even after the most recent round of legislation.

Did Mrs. Clinton fight hard to pass laws to reign in the banking system? Of course she did. But it's also impossible to know whether far stronger legislation would have been passed had Wall Street not paid tens of millions of dollars to lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

We'll never know what would have been without those gifts, because we – all of us – have been blinded by them.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Do Chumrot Go Hand-in-Hand with a Lack of Derech Eretz? A Thought from the Daf (Gittin 54a)

The Gemara presents a rather complicated discussion about whether it's appropriate to legislate a fine or punishment when someone accidentally violates a specific halachah in order to prevent them from later violating the same law intentionally - גזרינן שוגג אטו מזיד. The Gemara presents an apparent contradiction between two positions of Rabbi Yehudah. Whereas normally Rabbi Yehudah felt that in cases of דאורייתא we do legislate שוגג אטו מזיד, it seems that in the case of Shemittah, where a person planted during the Shemittah year accidentally, Rabbi Yehudah did not feel that the plant had to be uprooted. He was not גוזר שוגג אטו מזיד. Why not? The Gemara explains:
דרבי יהודה אדרבי יהודה לא קשיא באתריה דרבי יהודה חמירא להו שביעית
The apparent contradiction between the positions of Rabbi Yehudah are not difficult, for in the locale of Rabbi Yehudah [violation of the laws of] Shemittah was considered very severe.
In other words, Rabbi Yehudah felt no need to legislate in a case of accidental planting (where one thought it was a non-Shemittah year) because in his community, violation of Shemittah was considered such a terrible act, that no one would do it on purpose. Hence, there's no reason or need to legislate שוגג אטו מזיד.

Then, the Gemara tells a troubling story to illustrate just how serious people took the violation of Shemittah:
דההוא דאמר ליה לחבירו דייר בר דיירתא אמר ליה אנא לא אכלי פירי דשביעית כוותך
For there was a certain man who said to his friend [in an attempt to insult him], "You are a convert the son of a female convert. The man retorted: At least I don't eat the fruits of Shemittah like you!
Apparently, it was considered worse in Rabbi Yehuda's community to eat the fruits of Shemittah than to be a convert the son of a female convert! Moreover, someone in the Daf shiur last night pointed out that in Rabbi Yehuda's time, Shemittah was no longer a דאורייתא - a Torah law. It was by then exactly like it is today - a דרבנן - a rabbinic law. Yet, the people in that community still treated the rabbinic law as if it was still a D'oraita!

Reading the story, I found the whole exchange both terribly troubling but familiar. Why were the same people who were so meticulous about adhering to the nuances of the ritual law of Shemittah so callous about insulting someone else in such a demeaning and inappropriate manner? Why do the two somehow seem so often to be connected to each-other? Is there some link between over-meticulous observance of ritual law and laxity with regard to mitzvot bein adam l'chaveiro? 

Reading the two short vignettes connected in the Gemara, it seems that they are indeed linked.