A picture: an old man sits with breathing tube, confined to a wheelchair, slowly dying of congestive heart failure, accused of child molestation over 50 years ago. Inimai M. Chettair, http://www.brennancenter.org/expert/inimai-m-chettiar at New York University School of Law, comments, “Incarceration is the most extreme punishment. And more punishment doesn’t mean more justice.”
Think about that: “…more punishment doesn’t mean more justice.” Isn’t that how we imagine justice ‘being served,’ namely, through punishment? If he is correct, then what constitutes justice? “Tzedek tzedek tirdof” – “Justice justice you shall pursue” (Dt. 16:20) Scripture orders us. If not through punishment, then how do we achieve justice – or at least pursue it?
Another image: a Nazi war criminal lives out his last days in Germany, deported from the United States, subsisting on his Social Security pension. This week The Associated Press broke the story that millions of dollars in Social Security benefits have been and are being paid to veterans of the SS Death’s Head battalions, enabling them to survive quite comfortably upon their return to Germany or Austria. http://bigstory.ap.org/article/eb4a5ff7c40e49bcb310b4ca77694795/expelled-nazis-paid-millions-social-security and http://www.poynter.org/latest-news/mediawire/277279/how-the-ap-busted-nazi-suspects-receiving-social-security-payments/ This was not a bureaucratic mistake, but the Justice Department’s idea to save itself the cost and time of prosecutions. Perhaps more punishment doesn’t necessarily mean more justice, but where is the justice in ‘deportation with a lifetime paycheque?’
As the Canadian Museum of Human Rights prepares to open, as Winnipeg faces the future with a new mayor, and as the city and province continue to work on reconciliation and truth in the wake of generations traumatized by the residential schools, we could consider another translation for ‘tzedek’ – righteousness. What would that look like?
Does it pass the ‘would you want this as a headline on the first page of the newspaper?’ test? Does it pass the ‘would you want your mother to know this?’ test? Does it pass the ‘appearance’ test? If the answer to all three is ‘yes,’ then it (whatever it is) may be all right; but Rabbi Barry Freundel’s activities overseeing the mikveh and conversion process pass none of those tests. http://www.jta.org/2014/10/21/default/op-ed-what-the-freundel-scandal-says-about-orthodoxy-1
Anger, betrayal, humiliation, violation ~ to name just a few of the emotions that the revelations and allegations of his setting up recording equipment in the changing room of the mikveh have raised. Those who hold the most power over our lives – whether by love or authority – are those who have the power to betray us on the deepest level. If the mikveh is a “women’s commandment” as it has been promoted to be, then men should not be in control of it. Rabbi Elyse Goldstein has argued eloquently for a new approach to the mikveh http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/take-back-the-waters/ .
But back to that ‘appearance’ test. Judaism has a concept called ‘ma’arit ayin’ – what something looks like. Really, perhaps there is a need for a digital clock in the changing room. Perhaps there is a need to security cameras. But need has to be weighed against the appearance. And the supervising rabbi setting up and removing digital equipment is ‘ma’arit ayin.’ It just looks bad, even before the investigation concludes, before his day in court.
I know ~ we all make mistakes ~ but if we kept those three questions in mind and made the ‘appearance’ test part of our daily lives, we could save ourselves a whole lot of tsures, or trouble. Pity Rabbi Freundel didn’t think about ‘ma’arit ayin.’
Stop! Before we completely forget our Rosh HaShanah through Yom Kippur through Sukkot through Simchat Torah journey, join me in one final (for this year) reflection.
The title of the story “If Not Higher” reminds us that through the High Holydays, we become more true to our spiritual selves. Really – why do we fast on Yom Kippur? One reason is that we don’t ‘need’ physical nourishment – we are beyond that. Yom Kippur concludes and we have four days to make a very physical shelter, the Sukkah, where ideally we are to take meals and sleep for seven days. Nothing like a temporary shelter in Winnipeg in October to get in touch with one’s physical vulnerability!
A popular maxim says, “We are spiritual beings on a human journey.” Judaism also emphasizes that we are human beings on a spiritual journey. Neither one nor the other exclusively; our human and spiritual task is to bind the two, for neither is true by itself. When we are physically weakest (perhaps) after fasting, we are to ‘get out and build that Sukkah.’ And then, after experiencing our physical limitations and vulnerability with the Sukkah, we are to lift and dance and celebrate with the Torah.
Opposites that are not opposites; a balance of needs and ability; what a great way to start a new year!