Super Pacs, Democracy, and This Imperfect Union

The practice of democracy, the practice by which we may form a more perfect union, is not that different from the practice by which we try to move in deliberate but halting steps toward a more just world that embraces the presence of God. The practice of democracy does not begin at the ballot box, though the ballot is a necessary part of the practice. The actual democratic practice begins in the face to face conversation of two residents. The growth of this conversation outwards, in concentric circles, is the growth of a democratic movement. The essential moment is a moment of respect and response. It is a moment in which I hear your word as someone who is not me, someone who is outside me and not subject to my whims and wishes, yet someone who can and does challenge me to move toward the right and the just. By listening and responding, by arguing and parrying, by sharing essential concerns of community, we create a bond that can only be called political. The move beyond the dyadic conversation toward a third person and then on, is a move that differs in degree but not in kind. There is a challenge, as we move outward, to retain the essential core gesture of response, of recognizing the individuality of the voice as, in the move from one concentric circle to the next, the conversation grows to form a community and then a constituency. However, if grounded in that initial moment of face to face response, the constituency and even, ultimately, the country retains the aura of persons in a polity rather than the faceless mass of a “crowd” or a “mob”. This is what is threatened when the political conversation is controlled by Super Pacs and their mega-donors—the space and the ability to practice democracy. Continue reading

Immigration and the scoundrels

What is it that the Jewish community brings to the discussion of immigration? What learned wisdom do we have to share?

It is true that the Jewish people is a people born and nurtured in the Diaspora, as immigrants, as strangers and sojourners on the way to or from somewhere else, making temporary or permanent homes in foreign lands. As the French Jewish Bible scholar and thinker Andre Neher points out, beginning with Abraham, the Israelites spent more time wandering and living outside of Canaan and the Land of Israel than residing in it. As soon as Abraham follows the Divine directive and leaves Haran and arrives in the Land of Canaan, there is a famine and he and Sarah and the whole household hit the road again. This story repeats itself until three generations later the Israelites settle as sojourners in Egypt for four hundred years.

The Torah itself ends with the Israelites camped in the desert across from the Land of Israel, not having crossed over the Jordan yet. The Jewish canonical Bible ends just as Cyrus authorizes the Jews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple and resettle the land, but before they actually return. This is an important point since the final book of the Jewish Bible (the TaNaKh—Torah, Nevi’im/Prophets, Ketuvim/Writings) is not historically the last book. Chronicles ends the canon, but the books of Ezra and Nehemiah recount the return to Jerusalem and the rebuilding of the walls and the rededication of the Temple. The canonical choice then is making a point—a point about the importance of the Diasporic experience. Continue reading

Fiscal Cliff or the Path of the Righteous

My latest piece in the Jewish Journal
There is a lot of talk about the fiscal cliff — the self-imposed Jan. 1 deadline by which time a budget agreement must be passed and signed or there will be automatic cuts to defense and social programs of more than $1 trillion. In order to avert this self-imposed disaster, President Barack Obama has proposed to sunset the tax cuts on the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans, those earning more than $250,000, while maintaining needed tax cuts for the other 98 percent.
A fascinating story in the Talmud discusses labor relations in late antiquity. A certain rabbi by the name of Rabbah bar bar Hannah hired two porters to carry jugs of wine for him. Something happened — whether negligence or accident is not clear — and the jugs broke. Rabbah bar bar Hannah was understandably angry and grabbed their cloaks as compensation for the damage. The porters went to another rabbi named Rav to adjudicate the dispute and perhaps get them their cloaks back. Rav immediately ordered that the garments be returned.
The porters then cried out: “We have been working all day, and now we have no money and nothing to eat.” Rav ordered that Rabbah bar bar Hannah pay them their wages. Rabbah was not happy. He challenged Rav: “Are you ordering me to do these things because it is the law? Or are you doing this in your capacity as a pastor and you are urging me to hold myself to a higher standard than the law?” Rav answered: “It is the law. The ruling is grounded in a verse from Proverbs: ‘So follow the way of the good and keep to the paths of the just.’ ”
Rav, 1,500 years ago in Babylonia, laid claim to the principle that one cannot morally separate economic issues from matters of justice. A just community is a community of obligation, according to the Jewish tradition; it is a community in which residency is measured by the legal obligations that one has to support the various parts of the social safety net (funds for food, clothing, housing, etc.). The ancient rabbis recognized that the needs of the community were not going to be met by personal philanthropy. Even the biblically mandated tithing and gleaning and gifting to the poor were geographically based and therefore inefficient in reaching the largest number of needy people with the maximal resources. They therefore set it up as an obligation on the city itself, through its political mechanisms, to support the needy.
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Budgeting as a Moral Practice and Why I Support Proposition 30

How do we translate our common moral commitments into action?

For argument’s sake let us agree that we all believe in the dignity of every human being.  That is, we believe that a person’s dignity is an inalienable part of their being, to borrow a phrase from the founders. In religious terms one would say that every person was created in the image of God. This is perhaps the most forceful way of saying that each and every person’s value as a person is not contingent upon anything external to that person, and that no one has a right to act in such a way as to harm that dignity, that image of God, that tzelem elohim. It is as if when one damages another’s dignity one does harm to God.

Okay, let us assume that we all agree with this. How do we translate this into practice? How do we move the rhetorical statement to action—moral and legislative at once—which incorporates this understanding into the fabric of our polities, city, state and country?

The only way to get from here to there is to get into the high grass of public policy—and the highest grass of public policy is budgeting. I am not arguing, nor would I, that the budget should direct our moral choices, that the economic bottom line should be the deciding factor in whether or not a policy is good or bad. The exact opposite is what I would argue. The choices we make in our budgeting process must reflect the values which we hold most high.

Since here in California we have over the years decided that our elected representatives should have us do their work for them in the ballot process; and since in that process important questions of budget and taxation are decided, we are forced every election to weigh our votes on budget propositions on the basis of whether or not they reflect our most important values.

The bottom line is that a budget must be an ethical document. The choices of what to fund and what to cut cannot be just a matter of arithmetic, but must first of all be a matter of moral choice.

So how do we create a budget which reflects the respect of every person’s being created in the Divine image?

I would suggest that we start by articulating the interlocking web of necessities which a person needs in order to be able to live with dignity in our cities. A non-exhaustive list would include, for example, a job with a living wage, decent education, housing, and health care. These needs are interlocking in that if one is missing, the whole web can fall apart. If one does not have a decent job with a living wage, then one cannot get decent housing or healthcare which impacts one’s ability to get an education. If one does not have access to education, one cannot get a decent job which impacts one’s ability to get access to housing or health care. And so on. (The more robust argument, for another time, would include the claim that all of these necessities enable a person not only to survive, but to flourish as a person, which is to actualize the Divine image.)

When the budget that is created does not allow for people to live in dignity, let alone flourish we have failed as a society.

It is then incumbent upon us as a society, through our government—which is the mechanism by which we handle our ability to live together—to redirect our resources such that everybody can live in dignity. To that end I would argue, we must support a robust school system and a system of higher education. We must ensure that everybody has access to health care. We must provide shelter and housing to the homeless.

In this election, one action which can bring us one step further along this path is voting for Proposition 30: The Schools and Local Public Safety Protection Act. The temporary (seven year) increase in income taxes for those who earn more than $250,000 a year, and 1/4 cent increase in sales tax for four years would garner the resources necessary for to continue funding our education system. The dire cuts that would ensue if Prop 30 fails—5.4 billion dollars from the Los Angeles school system and community college system; 250 million dollars from the UC and Cal State systems; 50 million dollars from mental health services and more—would cripple us morally, doom many to lives of poverty and pain, and almost certainly guarantee that California will not thrive economically in the future.

For these reasons I urge every California voter to support Proposition 30.

What is at stake?: Elections, budgets, ethics

It seems that every third line in any debate or speech by any candidate or advocate of public policy is about money. About the so-called bottom line. Who can and who cannot balance a budget? Who should and who should not pay taxes and how much taxes? What can we as a State, as a Nation, as a society afford to spend money on? Defense? Education? Poverty relief? How do we make these decisions? The overwhelming talk about the bottom line has been crowding out the conversation we should be having—a conversation about values and about justice.

Its not that the economic strictures of budgets or revenues are not important. We all live in a world in which the government cannot supply services—from defense to preschool—without paying for them. However, the economic voice should be neither the first nor the loudest voice in the conversation. Continue reading

On Generosity and Justice

So what else is there to say about Mitt Romney’s tax returns? I would suggest that we could learn at least two things from them. First, on a personal level, it seems that Mitt and Ann Romney are very generous people. They donated $4.02 million in charity in 2011 (out of $13.7 million of income) and $3 million in 2010 (out of $21.7 million in income). If these figures are accurate (and there is no reason to doubt them) the Romneys donated almost 30 percent of their 2011 income to charity, and 14 percent of their income in 2010. That is a sizeable chunk of their income donated to charity.

A large percentage of that money went to the Mormon church, which supports political activities that I think are appalling, however, giving that large a percentage of one’s income to charities is still a laudable thing.

The second thing that we can learn is that this display of personal largesse and philanthropy reinforces the wisdom of the Rabbinic tradition which demands that poverty relief should be a function also of municipal institutions. Whereas Biblically mandated poverty relief is an individual affair—you give your charity to whichever poor person you desire—the Rabbis recognized that this was both inefficient and unfair. A poor person who lived in an agricultural area might find a very favorable ratio of poor people to assistance being distributed (tithes, gleanings, charity). However, if a poor person lived in an urban area they would probably find a less favorable ratio. If you are one of the thousands of poor people in an urban area attempting to scavenge gleanings at one of the few nearby farms—good luck. Continue reading

On Prophecy and Democracy

My latest piece in Sh’ma: A Journal of Jewish Ideas

The prophets were not democrats. Addressing a gathering of citizens petitioning their elected leaders for the redress of grievances, I have sometimes felt as though I were channeling Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. or Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.  Especially if I was “in the zone,” the exact words would flow through me and I would feel a direct and deep connection with the people I was talking to, and, at the same time, I would be able to focus the right amount of anger at the people I was talking about. I suspect that when King and Heschel were “in the zone,” they felt that they were channeling Isaiah or Amos. It is anybody’s guess who Amos and Isaiah thought they were channeling. This, however, is not democracy. The use of words and rhetoric in a manner moving and poetic in order to focus the righteous rage of citizens on the sources of injustice is not democracy. It may, at times, be one aspect of a democratic culture.

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Best wishes to everyone for a sweet and just New Year.

Obamacare, SCOTUS and the monetization of our morals

Justice Roberts surprised everybody yesterday by joining and writing the opinion for the majority in this week’s Supreme Court decision to uphold most of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). I want to suggest that his decision is to be appreciated by the progressive community not only for upholding the act but also for shifting the legal conversation.

The decision was a major step forward toward creating a more perfect union, toward helping to forge a society in which we all share obligations toward those who cannot fend for themselves, toward a vision of a just society which honors each and every person as being created in the tzelem elohim/the image of God. This experiment in democracy—in which we have given our trust and loyalty, and by way of which we have pledged to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor—has taken a major stride forward in affording tens of millions of people the ability to have health insurance and thereby health care. At bottom, upholding the constitutionality of the ACA saved lives. People who otherwise might have died, will not die because they will have access to doctors, medicines and life saving treatments.

However, the Roberts decision in my opinion also set the legal conversation about civil and human rights on a firmer moral ground. Roberts sided with the conservative wing of the court to say that the ACA was not constitutional under the commerce clause. The commerce clause, is the clause in “the Constitution [which] authorizes Congress to ‘regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes.’ (Article I, sec. 8, cl. 3)” Further, and more importantly “[o]ur precedents read that to mean that Congress may regulate ‘the channels of interstate com­merce,’ ‘persons or things in interstate commerce,’ and ‘those activities that substantially affect interstate com­merce.’” (quoting from Justice Roberts’ opinion p. 4) Roberts upheld the ACA based on Congress’s power to “lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States.” (U. S. Const., Art. I, sect. 8, cl. 1) Roberts interprets this straightforwardly that: “Put simply, Congress may tax and spend.” (Roberts’ opinion p. 5) Continue reading

On Immigration and Holiness

What might it mean to be holy? One interesting definition is found in the thirteenth century commentary by the Spanish Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, often referred to as Nachmanides. In commenting on the verse from Leviticus 19: “You shall be holy, for I, God your God am holy,” Nachmanides says that this is a demand not to be a “scoundrel within the domain of the Torah.” That is, one should not abuse sacred law by justifying immoral acts which are technically legal. (One of his examples is that one should not be a glutton even if one eats only kosher foods.)

This commentary came to mind while listening to a debate on immigration recently. The advocate for a hard line on undocumented immigrants repeated over and over that “these people” had broken the law and therefore, despite their having been in the country for many years, and despite their having been productive members of society—holding jobs, raising a family, participating in their communities—they should not be allowed to acquire a driver’s license, they should not be allowed to get health insurance, they should not be allowed to work. Their lives should be made sufficiently intolerable that they leave the country. Eleven million people.

This seems to me to be the exact secular definition of a scoundrel within the domain of the Torah. Continue reading

Justice in the City: the book is here

I am very happy to announce that my book Justice in the City: An Argument from the Sources of Rabbinic Judaism is out and available at Academic Studies Press and

You can now download and read the introduction of the book here (just click on the cover image).

I hope that this will whet your appetite or stimulate your curiosity or at least disturb in a productive way, and hopefully you will buy the book and incorporate it in your discussions about how to make our part of the world a more just place.