Promises, Promises

Your ‘yes’ should be just, and your ‘no’ should be just.
— BT Bava Metzia 49a

Can you, the sages of the Talmud want to know, renege on a gift you've committed to give? "Rabbi Yohanan says, 'One who says to another: I am giving you a gift, is able to renege on his commitment.'" Other rabbis are surprised at Rabbi Yohanan's position, "One is able to renege?" It seems unlikely. The answer would seem obvious: no. If you said it, you must have meant it. That supposition would work if human beings weren't so fickle, especially when it comes to money.
Rabbi Yohanan then clarifies his opinion. When it comes to a small gift, a person cannot renege if he has made a verbal commitment. If you said it, you have to do it. But a person can renege on a large gift because even the recipient knows that when it comes to large financial decisions, people change their minds. We grant a cushion of time for a person to reconsider. The nineteenth century satirist George Prentice quipped, "Some people use one half of their ingenuity to get into debt, and the other half to avoid paying it."
In a subsequent discussion about changing one's mind as a buyer, the Talmud has its own lemon law. The time a buyer has to change his mind after a purchase is "the time it takes for him to show it [the item] to a merchant or a relative" [BT Bava Metzia 49b]. We can easily imagine the scene. A buyer takes his new purchase home and his wife, son, first cousin chide him for overspending. "You paid what? I bought an even nicer one in the market for half the price." This measure of time is suited to the insecurity we have about the way we use our money. Many of us second-guess ourselves or beat ourselves up about poor decisions. The rabbis of the Talmud understood this and created a get-out clause.
But the rabbis also understood that a person who does this regularly or in certain instances is committing an act of bad faith and even brings a curse upon himself. One can regard this strange response as superstitious or the natural result of what happens to a person's reputation who consistently backs out of promises, just as the expression above says: make your 'yes' just and make your 'no' just. Mean what you say. If you don't, there are moral consequences. Because there was no formal punishment for reneging, the sages came up with a curse. Here it is if you ever need to use it: "May the One who exacted payment from the people of the generation of the flood, and from the people of the generation of the dispersion, and from the inhabitants of Sodom and Gemorrah  and from the Egyptians at the Red Sea, exact payment from whomever does not stand by his statement" [BT Bava Metzia 49a]. You may think you're getting away with exploitation or dishonesty, but God is watching. Beware. Just look at the stories in the Good Book that show how people who were once in power got their comeuppance.
And there is one instance where the curse is definitely activated. Later rabbinic discussions conclude that if it is a gift to a poor person then one may not renege no matter the size of the gift. When you commit to give a gift to someone who really needs it, you have catalyzed optimism in that individual's future. That recipient is mentally imagining that tomorrow will be better than today. If you renege on that, you have taken away something much more precious than money alone; you have robbed that needy person of hope. According to a 16th century authoritative code of Jewish law, reneging on a gift to the poor is tantamount to reneging on a charitable gift [Shulkhan Arukh, Hoshen Mishpat 202:8, 243:4].
As we close this painful election year, we're closing the door on lots of political promises. Will there be a just 'yes' and a just 'no'? Will people who have been promised change lose hope because those who promised reneged on their commitments? It's easy enough for us to be cynical when it comes to others. We must also turn inward. We are also closing a financial year when many charities will turn to us before the end of December. Are their commitments and pledges we have made that we must make good on? We cannot, according to Jewish law, renege on them. And, in general, while we can get out of verbal commitments, there is always, the Talmud reminds us, a price to pay for broken promises.
Shabbat Shalom

Stay, Don't Stray

“Whoever has the possibility of rebuking [sinners] and fails to do so is considered responsible for that sin, for he had the opportunity to rebuke the [sinners].”
— Maimonides, Laws of Character, 6:7.

"I wish I had never seen that list," was the way a woman shared a difficult moral dilemma with me. She was referring to a list of married people who had signed on to the website Ashley Madison searching for affairs. When the site was hacked, names spilled out into public view. Circulating among her peer group, was not the name of one but the name of two husbands of friends in her circle. What should she do?

Before I had the chance to respond, she wrote back saying that she could not sit quietly knowing that a close friend's husband was on the list. She had a troubling job in front of her, one that many of us might not approach with her bravery. "I grappled with reaching out to her directly but decided I would first let him know that our community was aware that he was on this list, and it was just a matter of time before his wife found out.  I just spoke with him, and it was very tough and awkward."

The husband sounded surprised that the list was making the rounds and shared that registering was more of a curiosity than anything else. Yet this courageous woman who outed him to himself concluded that he must have been very curious because he had registered repeatedly over a year. He did commit to speak to his wife. With a lot of people in the know, he could not escape the pressure of the goldfish bowl approach.

"I wish I had never seen that list" is an understandable response and yet had she not seen the list, she may not have taken the first big step in helping a couple salvage a marriage. Others perhaps saw the same list, experienced shock but held back. I have taught many people who confessed that a friend or colleague was involved in an extra-marital affair, and they did nothing.

The medieval scholar Maimonides writes cogently of the need to serve as a moral insurance policy for each other. "It is a mitzva for a person who sees that his fellow Jew has sinned or is following an improper path [to attempt] to correct his behavior and to inform him that he is causing himself a loss by his evil deeds as [Leviticus 19:17] states: 'You shall surely admonish your friend.' He advises that this needs to take place privately and softly with the assurance that this needs to be done for his or her own good. Maimonides even advocates very harsh critique if the person refuses to listen. In situations of addiction, immorality and potentially life-threatening behavior, sometimes a harsh approach is the only one that will get through. Maimonides concludes this law with the quote above: "Whoever has the possibility of rebuking [sinners] and fails to do so is considered responsible for that sin, for he had the opportunity to rebuke the [sinners]."

Many years ago at a retreat, I was teaching this law in an entirely different context, and a young woman asked to speak with me after class. She confided that a close friend had shared with her that she had begun an affair with a married man. This woman was married herself and had two young children. The woman who approached me was concerned that if she had a strained conversation with the friend about how wrong her behavior was, she would lose an old, close friend. I listened carefully, appreciating the emotional difficulty of her situation. I asked her one question, "What's more important, her marriage or your friendship?" She continued to discuss the friendship, and I asked her the same question again because we both knew the answer.

With all of the moralizing that goes on in our community, adultery is still the "quiet" transgression many are afraid to address outright. But it is the most fundamental breach and betrayal of the fabric of family, integrity and trust - the very foundations of our faith, as we read in Hosea, "I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you in righteousness and justice, in unfailing love and compassion." Our relationship with God and with the person we marry must be one of righteousness and justice, love and compassion.

Ashley Madison's motto is "Life is short. Have an affair." Our motto: "Life is short. Commit to a life of trust and meaning."

Life is too short to hurt the people we care about. Be brave. Protect the sanctity of the relationships that matter. Be a good friend. And if you are the one contemplating an affair or in the midst of a relationship that will break your partner's heart, it's the season of repentance and forgiveness. It may not be too late to save the most important relationship of your life.

Shabbat Shalom

Stealing Minds

It is forbidden to steal anyone’s mind...”
— BT Hullin 94b

Yesterday's Washington Post had a shocking column about a Virginia school principal whose resume was full of lies about his educational background. He presented himself as having college degrees he never had from institutions he never attended. He obtained his teaching license fraudulently and falsified three university transcripts. Three days after this discovery, he resigned. It seems that he had been employed for 14 years before anyone made this discovery. Ironically, his last name is Toogood. Too bad. 

I scanned the next page of the Metro section to discover that a dermatologist practicing in Mclean, Virginia intentionally "misdiagnosed patients with skin cancer" to perform unnecessary surgeries. He employed unlicensed and unqualified medical assistants to suture and close wounds and conduct other procedures and billed for surgeries that he assigned to his nurses, sometimes billing at three different locations at the same time. Washingtonian magazine recently named him one of the region's top dermatologists. Oy. If this is the one of the best, what does the worst look like?

Reading on the same day how the public was duped is painful, but it raises, in many ways, a different question. How did each of these men get away with this fraudulent behavior for so long? Both of these professions - education and medicine - are regarded in Jewish tradition as sacred. They are mitzvot, commanded occupations, perhaps because they involve and assume a level of trust. Perhaps precisely because of that trust, no one bothered to do a proper background check or an investigation into business practices. We assume that there is a certain unspoken covenant we make with people who lead us and take care of us. Unfortunately that agreement is too often broken.

In Jewish law, there is a category of theft called genevat da'at, literally stealing knowledge, based on a biblical prohibition found in Leviticus 19:11. Some call it stealing the mind. It is a subtle robbery; you likely won't know it's happening until long after it has happened. It's not like getting pickpocketed. You may never know that something was stolen from you. Professor Hershey Friedman describes the term genevat da'at as "fooling someone and thereby causing him or her to have a mistaken assumption, belief, and/or impression. Thus the term is used in Jewish law to indicate deception, cheating, creating a false impression and acquiring undeserved goodwill." This is a prohibition of biblical order so if you weren't going to break any of the big ten, you might want to add this as an unexpected eleven on your Jewish dignity laundry list of commandments.

The example I often use of genevat da'at is buying someone a gift at Walmart and putting it in a Nordstrom box. You never said you bought it there. You let the packaging speak for you. It did not tell the truth. You get undeserved friendship points as a big spender when, in fact, Jewish law calls you a subtle liar. Because we take knowledge so seriously, we take deception seriously as well, the breakdown in knowledge that plays on false trust, ignorance or naiveté. Other examples of this include inviting someone to an event when you know they cannot attend so you get bonus credit with them (unless you are doing so specifically to show respect and honor) or any financial misrepresentation when you are selling or buying something.

You might claim that there is a universe of difference between faking a transcript and faking how much you paid for a gift because you took the clearance tag off and left on the "real" price. But in Jewish law, these are matters of scale and degree. The willingness to misrepresent yourself to look richer, stronger, smarter, more generous than you really are - may one day take you to someplace you really don't want to be: the land of deception, where integrity cannot live.

Alternatively, you can take the view of George Burns, "Sincerity - if you can fake that, you've got it made."

Shabbat Shalom