Precision Matters

...Stay away from doubt; and do not accustom yourself to tithe by estimation.
— Raban Gamliel, Ethics of the Fathers 1:16

In our transactional consumer culture, we have come to expect less and less from companies that are trying to sell us something, which seems to be just about everyone today. Online transactions can make anyone a clothing merchant or a taxi driver. We want to believe everyone is trustworthy, but it's become harder and harder. We use car mechanics, lawyers and doctors and anyone else with specialized knowledge hoping that they are straight with us about repairs, billable hours and the tests we need.

The Talmud spends pages and pages debating exacting standards with weights and measures, following the biblical dictum of Leviticus: "You shall do not wrong in judgment, in measurement of capacity. You shall have just balances, just weights..." (Leviticus 19: 35-36). Precision measuring makes for honest business, and nothing less will do. The Talmud lauds Rabbi Safra, saying that he fulfilled the verse in Psalms to "speak truth in his heart" (15:2) because he held himself accountable to what he thought but did not say during his negotiations. In the statement above, we want to make sure people are precise with their charitable giving as well.

In Deuteronomy, we read: "You shall not have in your bag differing weights, a large and a small. You shall not have in your house differing measures, a large and a small. You shall have a full and just weight; you shall have a full and just measure, that your days may be prolonged in the land which the Lord, your God, gives you" (25:13-16). Market cheats had stones of differing weight in their pockets or bags that looked the same to deceive customers. It was a repugnant practice, and we have admonitions throughout the Hebrew Bible against what must have been common practice:

  • "Hear this, you who trample the needy, to do away with the humble of the land, saying, 'When will the new moon be over, to that we may sell grain, and the Sabbath, that we may open the wheat market, to make the bushel smaller and the shekel bigger.' And to cheat with dishonest scales, so as to buy the helpless for money and the needy for a pair of sandals, and that we may sell the refuse of the wheat?" (Amos 8:4-6)
  • "Thus says the Lord, God, 'Enough, you princes of Israel; put away violence and destruction, and practice justice and righteousness Stop your expropriations from My people,' declares the Lord God. "'You shall have just balances, a just ephah and a just bath.'" (Ezek 45:9-10)
  • "Differing weights and differing measures, both of them are abominable to the Lord." (Prov. 20:10)
  • "A false balance is an abomination to the Lord, but a just weight is His delight." (Prov. 11:1)
  • "Is there yet a man in the wicked house, along with treasures of wickedness and a short measure that is cursed? Can I justify wicked scales and a bag of deceptive weights?" (Micah 6: 10-11)

The sages of the Talmud assess some of these verses for practical teachings and discuss the very minutiae of using weights accurately, like how often a measuring vessel should be cleaned to assure that residue does not add any additional weight or how to ensure that the small deposits in the scale's pan in a liquid measure be tipped appropriately in the buyer's favor since even this small amount was measured out for him. Market inspectors need to check regularly for accuracy of measures.

Most significantly, they wanted to demonstrate how important this commandment is to preserving the integrity of the land and the nation. Rabbi Levi suggests that falsifying weights and measures deserves a greater punishment than forbidden sexual relations. One reason provided is that regarding a breach with another human being, "there is repentance." When a person cheats strangers again and again, there is no way to achieve repentance because you cannot compensate or apologize to all your customers (BT Bava Batra 88b). Lastly, the Talmud states that it is worse to rob human beings than to rob God - like withholding a gift from the Temple.

The verses in Leviticus and Deuteronomy stress both God and the land of Israel to demonstrate that a person may try to deceive another, but God's watchful eye is ever present. When the Israelites made their desert trek, God wanted them to know that the country they were inheriting needed to uphold a high moral standard or it would reject their residency. Precision in weights and measures is a small, everyday behavior to build a community of trust and a reputation as a place where ethics reigns. People who measure meticulously, especially when others don't, role model integrity, as we read in Proverbs 16:11: "A just balance and scales belong to the Lord; all the weights of the bag are His concern."

Shabbat Shalom

People are Strange

The way of people may be tortuous and strange...
— Proverbs 21:8

I'm not sure if you saw the news. The United States has a new president. Let the healing begin. The fragmentation, the divisiveness, the real hatred that this election surfaced is not going gently into the night. And the shame of it all is that a glass ceiling is still intact, and perhaps dashed the hopes of many other young women looking up from trying to break it. Of course, if you're going where no woman has gone before, you don't want it to be because you're a woman but because you're competent and qualified. An American female politician was recently asked if she was running for office as a woman. Her response: "Do I have a choice?"
The issue of female leadership has dogged the Jewish community. The stained glass ceiling impacts every denomination in different ways. Set against global politics, however, we're not looking so backwards. Even countries like Israel and the UK that have had females in their most senior leadership positions have rarely repeated the feat. It reminds me of the above quote from Proverbs: "The way of people may be tortuous and strange." Assumptions that gender, color or sexual orientation imply an inability to lead highlights woeful and often willful ignorance.
Our verse in this chapter of Proverbs is part of a textual weave of wise sayings that set good behaviors beside bad, strange behaviors beside just ones and intelligent motives beside foolish ones. It explores the way humans think to show us a mirror of our best and worst selves. "All the ways of a person seem right to him," says verse two, "But the Lord probes the mind." We justify our actions, not always sure of why we are drawn to temptation and wrongdoing. God knows. "No wisdom," concludes the second to last verse, "no prudence, and no counsel can prevail against the Lord." You can't be smarter than God.
But you can be smarter than other human beings by paying attention to right and wrong, intentions and motives and by leveraging self-awareness to do better and be better. "One who guards his mouth and tongue guards himself from trouble. The proud, insolent person, scoffer is his name, acts in a frenzy of insolence" (21:23-24). Much of the rhetoric of this ugly election was an illustration of the latter clause of this verse. It was a daily "frenzy of insolence," where words flew fast and furious and wounded quickly. If anything characterized this election, it was the sense of scarcity that underlined it all. There is one way only. That way is fear.
Now, looking forward, it will be interesting if - over time - our traditional notions of who can lead will incrementally crumble and be replaced by greater openness and a spirit of generosity rather than scarcity. Another more subtle aspect of scarcity is what some call the phenomenon of limited success: moral permission. Here's an illustration: if someone hires a female, a person of color or any other hire that is not "conventional" or expected for a certain position, rather than regard it as a breakthrough, it may ironically give license or permission to not hire more. We do a little so we can avoid doing a lot to advance a particular cause.
We see examples of moral permission as it applies to women all over the work world, and all over the Jewish world. If we create a study program, give a new title to a woman's position, have one speaker or hire one professional who is female, we have done what we need to do to show the world how open we are. Instead of this beginning a trend, it caps it. Been there, done that.
Moral permission never excuses creating a culture of genuine openness. In fact, in certain ways it would be better not to have bothered at all because it gives others the impression that we are more morally developed than we really are. "All rash haste makes only for loss," Proverbs reminds us (21:5). We all lose when those who traditionally hold the reins of power cannot share, cannot celebrate the success of the other, cannot learn from it and cannot challenge their own prejudice or bias.
The way of people may be torturous and strange, but it doesn't have to be. We can't allow vicious banter to become the new normal. Let's stop this right now. If you really want to make America great, open up the book of Proverbs and read chapter 21. "Justice done is a joy to the righteous." Amen.
Shabbat Shalom

Justice Needs Practice

…practice love and justice and wait for your God always.
— Hosea 12:6

Several places in the Talmud discuss the case of one murder committed by multiple hands. Maimonides gathers together these opinions in forming his own, which he shares in the “Laws of Murder” in his magnum opus, the Mishnah Torah. There are fourteen hefty chapters in this book because Maimonides is dealing with one of the most significant crimes in the Torah, the taking of a life.

“If ten people strike one person with ten different stick and he dies, they are all not held liable for execution by the court." The law applies whether or not they struck him one after the other or they struck him at the same time. These laws are sourced in Leviticus 24:17, ‘If one strikes any person mortally, he should be put to death;’ through implication we learn that death is not required unless one person alone is entirely accountable for the person’s death. The same law applies if two people push a colleague into the water and hold him there or several people are together and an arrow leaves them and kills someone, none is held liable.” (4:6)

This question of accountability in the case of a murder is not easy to resolve. On the one hand, murdering someone is a capital offense and treated with the full weight of Jewish law during times of Jewish sovereignty. On the other hand, in a case where multiple people are involved, it is near impossible to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that any one individual is responsible.

Maimonides does delineate a case with a different outcome, however. “A different ruling is rendered in the following instance. Ten people threw stones at one person, one after the other. None of the stones was sufficiently heavy enough to cause death. Afterwards, another person cast a heavy stone that could cause death. The last person who threw the stone should be executed.”[4:7]

All things being equal, Jewish law does not implicate any one individual in the collective murder of one person. All bear the shame, but none bears the actual liability. When all things are not equal – one person has a much heavier stone than the others – the one who casts the final death blow is held responsible, even if everyone participated in this crime.

I pondered this last week for several days after the last police officer was acquitted in the Freddy Gray case that took place last year in Baltimore. Remember the case? On April 12, 2015, Freddie Gray was arrested by Baltimore police officers for possession of an illegal switchblade. He died 7 days later. When Gray was transported in a police van after his arrest, he allegedly suffered a coma and was said to have died because of spinal injuries. How did this man die?

The six officers involved were suspended with pay as an investigation ensued. Charges of homicide were waged against the police officers. Each case was presented separately in court. Last week, on July 27th, all the charges were dropped. The case garnered particular attention because Gray’s death was followed by days of violent protests and looting, especially on April 27th, 2015, the day of Freddie’s funeral. A state of emergency was declared in Maryland by the governor, and the National Guard was finally brought it to bring the city to order. It was a frightening and tense time and surfaced many of this country’s fears about police officers, about vigilante justice, about race.

After all the charges were dropped, when many expected the protests to resurface with an even more ferocious aggression, the streets were quiet. Most of the officers who were convicted are back at work. But all is not normal. There have been heated calls for criminal justice reform, for a more independent investigation, for police reforms. The Executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, Chuck Wexler, was cited in The New York Times with this pessimistic end note: “We’re nowhere.” He shared the disappointment many feel: “Both sides walk away from this feeling like they didn’t get justice – the people who were concerned about Freddie Gray, and the people who are concerned about cops doing their job.”

If Maimonides had been the judge, the outcome would likely have been the same. No one person could be indicted beyond a reasonable doubt with taking Gray’s life. But collectively, there is no doubt that something terrible happened in that van that day that reminds us to be vigilant in upholding the sacredness of every life. “Justice, justice you shall pursue,” we will soon read in Deuteronomy 16:20. We repeat the word justice, the commentators tell us, for all kinds of reasons: for emphasis, for additional vigilance, for a call to action. But perhaps we also read it twice because there is earthly justice and heavenly justice. There are people who get away with crimes because we simply cannot prosecute them, but it does not mean that they didn’t happen. Justice somewhere, at some time must be served.

Shabbat Shalom