Sunday, June 26, 2016

To the Contrary (Portion Sh'lach L'chah)

It is essential to remember that sometimes the majority—even the vast majority—is radically wrong.  Our tradition reminds us of this, and urges us to take precautions.
This week’s Torah portion, Shelach L’chah recalls one of those critical moments.  As the Israelites approach their destination, Moses sends twelve scouts to survey the land of Canaan and then report on how to proceed.  All agree that the land is bountiful, but ten of the twelve argue against crossing the Jordan, fearing the military strength of its inhabitants.  Only two of the scouts—Joshua and Caleb—dissent, urging the people to have faith and move forward.  The majority wins—and the nation loses.  The Israelites, defying Moses, choose not to enter the Promised Land—and are thereby condemned to wander in the wilderness for forty years.
This experience teaches us to be wary of commonly accepted wisdom, to maintain a healthy skepticism and to question authority.  This is especially critical, because sometimes the errors of the majority are compounded by groupthink; outliers are tempted to second guess themselves and go along with the majority even when they are convinced it is on the wrong path, just because everyone else is doing so.  It must have taken Joshua and Caleb a great deal of strength and clarity to stand by their position in the face of so much opposition.
How do we avoid the pitfall of mindless majoritarianism?  Not surprisingly, the Talmud—the great Jewish compendium of debate and dissent—offers wisdom here.  In talmudic argument, one encounters the Aramaic phrase ipchah mi-stabra.  It is invoked when there seems to be a consensus on an issue—and one of the Sages questions it, suggesting ipchah mi-stabra—just the opposite is, in fact, the truth. It is a gambit to challenge conventional wisdom and offer strikingly different perspectives.
This ancient phrase—and the insight it contains—was famously invoked by the Israeli military in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War, which proved the overly confident pre-war consensus in the intelligence community to be devastatingly wrong.  Citing ipchah mi-stabra, institutions were put into place to reduce the chances that groupthink and overly dominant commanders would prevent diverse opinions from reaching decision makers or even being initiated at all.  One of these was a unit known as the Devil’s Advocate office, with a mandate to question any and all proposals coming from the majority of the defense establishment.  This approach has proven to be very fruitful in the intervening forty years.

Healthy skepticism and thinking outside the box have long been strengths of the Jewish people.  This week, question something in your life that you’ve too long taken for granted.  Perhaps—ipchah mi-stabra—you’ll discover something very different and new.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

After Brexit, Contra Trump: A (Jewish) Anti-Populist Manifesto

After Brexit, Contra Trump: A (Jewish) Anti-Populist Manifesto
The British referendum to leave the European Union reminds me why I fervently dislike government by direct democracy. 
I am an activist but not an anarchist.  I believe in the power of government—even when I do not like the government.  I prefer representative democracy because, as I have noted, in direct democracy—as in referendums by popular vote—policy is decided by people who do not have the time and inclination to really weigh an issue and consider all of the long term consequences of their choices.   This is why we elect representatives. They have staffers and advisors whose are paid to study complex issues, so that when they vote, they (mostly) understand the ramifications of their actions.  Contrast this with yesterday’s Washington Post headline: “The British are frantically Googling what the E.U. is, hours after voting to leave it.”  Even the average Idaho legislator is not quite that ignorant—and if you are not from Idaho, you’ll have to trust me: that is a very low bar, indeed.
I am a progressive, but not a populist.  I grew up steeped in Jeffersonianism, graduating from Thomas Jefferson High School and then Mr. Jefferson’s University in Charlottesville—but I do not trust the political wisdom of the general public over that of a strong representative government.  Perhaps my wariness of populism is deeply rooted in the Jewish experience.  Populism has never been good to the Jews.  In the Middle Ages and beyond, the Catholic Church was no friend to the Jewish people—but by and large, the popes and the hierarchy were less murderous than the general populous.    Even earlier, despite living under the brutal Roman empire, Rabbi Chanina taught in Pirkei Avot: “Pray for the welfare of the government, for without it, every person would eat his neighbor alive.”  And here in America, populism has almost always been accompanied by xenophobia—and anti-Semitism.  Donald Trump is just the latest iteration of the Know-Nothing party.  The left-wing economic populism represented by Bernie Sanders (full disclosure: I voted for Bernie in the Idaho primary) goes back to William Jennings Bryan, who was also a populist Democrat.  Bryan’s love for the “common man” earned him the nickname, “The Great Commoner.”  He championed many noble causes—but he was also an anti-Semite and is now remembered primarily for his opposition to evolution in the Scopes trial.  Populism believes that ordinary citizens always know better than privileged elites.  I believe that sometimes they do—and sometimes, they don’t.
This is NOT to say that the Democratic party can continue to ignore the fears, anxieties and very real inequalities that are fueling the surging populism of 2016.  Do not take my disdain for direct democracy as a dismissal of the power of the people.  It is, instead, a plea that this power should be used to bring real change to our political system rather than short-circuiting it.   Many Americans are hungry and hurting.  The rising tide of the economy has not lifted all boats.  The gap between the rich and the poor is appalling.  Racism and xenophobia and torrents of rage are tearing our country apart.  But populism--especially, God forbid, it's Trumpist strain--will not provide the infrastructure required to bind these gaping wounds. 
Over our nation’s history, almost no significant social change has been achieved through direct democracy.  Justice is secured—albeit very imperfectly—through the representative government—and through the court system.  Now, as we celebrate the one year anniversary of same sex marriage, we should remember this.  I do not want to put the rights of LGBT folks—or anyone else—up for popular vote (where, historically, they did not do so well).
It is equally true that almost no significant social change in our national history has been achieved without radical activism at a grassroots level. Women’s suffrage, civil rights, workers’ rights and LGBT rights are all prominent examples.  We need agitators doing their work on the ground, which eventually translates into court victories and progressive legislation.  This is why I remain a proud part of the Add the Four Words movement here in Idaho.  I want to drag our recalcitrant legislature into the 21st century.  Eventually, this will happen. 
Yes, I know, our representative democracy is terribly flawed.  As I’ve written earlier, I am a liberal Democrat who lives in Idaho.  You don’t have to remind me of its shortcomings—I see them every day.   The system is utterly corrupted by money and power and elitism. 
But government by the masses would not be better.  It would be worse.  Pray for the welfare of the government—for without it, people would eat each other alive.
I believe in the people’s voice—as moderated through their legitimately elected officials.
If we don’t like those officials—and I often don’t—then we need to vote them out.
I believe in primaries selecting candidates through delegates—and yes, I believe in superdelegates, because I believe that there are times when experienced political mavens can provide an important counter-balance to the public sentiment du jour.  If the Republicans had superdelegates, we wouldn’t have Trump.  Before the Democrats had superdelegates, we got George McGovern—a good man who lost 49 out of 50 states to Richard Nixon in 1972.  Yes, integrity matters.  So does winning (no thank you, Ralph Nader).
If we don’t like the corrupting influence of money in our political system, we need to vote for folks who will make real changes in that system—and appoint Supreme Court justices who will overturn Citizen’s United.
Otherwise, we’ll end up with the Brits, suffering government by Google.
I am not an anarchist.  I am an activist.

I am not a populist.  I am a progressive.

Monday, June 6, 2016

In the Wilderness (Portion B'midbar)

I’ve recently returned from four days off the grid, paddling with friends and family on the Grande Ronde River in Oregon.  It’s a gorgeous place: sixty-five miles of crystal clear, snow melt water flowing through pristine, roadless and deeply forested canyonlands populated by elk and egrets, mountain goats, hawks, and eagles.  I can’t imagine a better spot to be the week before beginning our current Torah portion, which begins the book of Numbers—known in Hebrew as B’Midbar, meaning “in the wilderness.”

For my colleagues, Rabbis David Fine and Dan Danson, and me, our spring/summer kayak trip has become a beloved annual rite.  Our wilderness excursions are special times for friendship, learning, and renewal.  We share stories, discuss Jewish sacred texts (often dealing with rivers), and live by nature’s rhythms, freed from the distractions of clocks, calendars, and smart phones.  We sing and laugh and talk.  And, above all, we listen.  In so doing, we restore our souls, strengthening our bonds with our Creator, with one another, and with our best and truest selves.

Surely it is no accident that the Hebrew world for wilderness that names both our weekly Torah portion and the book that it opens, B’midbar, comes from the root daber, meaning “speech.”  The immense quiet at the heart of wilderness heightens the significance of speech.  Far away from the static of our hyper-connected modern world, we can better discern the still, small voices that matter most.  As the midrash teaches, God “speaks” Torah every moment of every day; the reason we uniquely received it at Sinai is because in that wilderness—unplugged, as it were, from the usual distractions—we could all hear and hearken.

I realize that extended paddling trips are not possible—or even desirable—for everyone.  But even the busiest among us can still find or create corners of “wilderness” in space and time.  Next weekend, we will celebrate Shavuot, the season of the giving of the Torah.  To better prepare yourself for this sacred time, try to bring some wilderness to your life this week.