Sunday, March 26, 2023

Avot 3:2 The Role of Government

Rabbi Chanina used to say: Pray for the welfare of the government, for without it, people swallow each other alive.

Over the past few weeks, our passages from Avot have emphasized the importance of individual acts of justice and compassion.  Our deeds and choices matter.  Even if their impact seems small, we are obligated to do our part—Although is not incumbent upon us to finish the work, neither are we free to desist from it.  But there are many systemic inequities that individuals cannot right on their own. There can be no justice without the exercise of governmental power.

Rabbi Chanina had ample reason to loathe the government.  During his lifetime, Roman authorities brutally tortured and killed scores of Jewish teachers (including, by some accounts, Rabbi Chanina himself).  Yet he ardently urged his students to honor and even pray on behalf of the regime.  Why?  Because Chanina knew that as bad as things were under Roman rule, without a strong central government, life would be even worse.  He teaches us that human culture cannot thrive without some form of ruling authority capable of preventing the powerful from devouring the weak.  His legacy endures: Jewish communities worldwide still offer prayers on behalf of their governments every Shabbat morning.  

Two millennia later, Rabbi Chanina’s wisdom is more essential than ever.  Today’s far-right politicians espouse a “starve the beast” strategy, slashing taxes for billionaires and mega-corporations in order to deprive the government of the revenue it needs to provide the rest of the population with core social services like Medicaid and Medicare, Social Security, and public education.  As one of their key strategists, Grover Norquist, famously said, “My goal is to cut government in half in twenty-five years, to get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.”  Here in our state, the Idaho Freedom Foundation follows the same model.

Rabbi Chanina recognized the peril of radical anti-government ideologies.  So, too, even earlier, did the authors of the Hebrew Bible.  The book of Judges presents a terrifying picture of society without governmental oversight.  Tribes slaughter one another, theft and lawlessness run rampant.  The text sums up this sad state in just one line: “In those days, there was no king in Israel; every person did what was right in their own eyes.”

Unless we reverse course, this is where we are headed.  May we heed Rabbi Chanina’s wise words and foster healthy respect for a strong and fair government that serves all its citizens, securing justice when the mighty would otherwise tyrannize the vulnerable. 

Sunday, March 5, 2023

Avot 2:17 Economic Justice

Avot 2:17Rabbi Yosei says: Let your fellow’s money be as dear to you as your own.

In most capitalist economic systems, the guiding ethic for transactions is to secure the best possible deal.  The goal of both buyers and sellers is to make (or save) as much money as they can, even if it means taking advantage of the other party.  For example, a successful merchant aims to sell at the highest price the market will bear.  On the other side, if someone shopping at a yard sale recognizes that a painting in the dollar bin is actually a lost masterpiece, our culture applauds their ability to use their savvy to make an enormous profit.

Jewish law does not work this way.  For us, commerce should be guided by justice.  While merchants are entitled to fair profits, they must not exploit their buyers.  And our shrewd yard sale shopper is required to tell the seller the true value of the painting rather than getting it for a “steal”—because failure to disclose takes advantage of another’s ignorance.  Leviticus teaches: “You shall not place a stumbling block before the blind”—which the Rabbis understand as blind in the matter at hand.

Rabbi Yosei boils this down to one line: “Let your fellow’s money be as dear to you as your own.”  When your outsized profit comes at another’s expense, it is, by definition, unethical.

This is profoundly counter-cultural in 21st century America—which is all the more reason to heed the words.  Unfettered market capitalism is inhumane.  Our tradition demands better.