Jewish Ethics: Links to Books

Image: An Amazon distribution center work floor. Photo from 7 Examples of How Amazon Treats Their 90,000+ Warehouse Employees Like Cattle by Jacob Weindling on PasteMagazine.com.

I often recommend books on this blog, and I am certainly an avid consumer of books. I’m working my way towards some better choices, and I thought I’d share the process with you.

Every consumer has a different menu of choices for consumption. The choices available to an able-bodied suburban consumer who owns a car are different from the choices available to a consumer living in an area with limited options for transportation and severe time or energy constraints. I want to emphasize that I am NOT making a judgment on choices forced by poverty, disability, or other menu-shrinking constraints. Rather, the same method follows: evaluate your choices and pick the best for you, whatever it is.

Jewish tradition bids us to take care not to injure others, directly or indirectly. When we do business with a company, we validate their choices about labor practices, sourcing their products, impact on the environment, etc. Their choices become our choices. Therefore it is worthwhile to think through our priorities for consumption.

Years ago, I boycotted Amazon.com because I saw it as a killer of locally owned bookstores. Gradually, as the bookstores succumbed anyway, and as my disabilities expanded, I altered my behavior and began using Amazon’s extremely convenient services, including book sales. The ability to have things delivered to my home as well as the convenience of the Kindle for reading in bed drove my decisions.

I winced whenever I read about Amazon’s labor practices, poor working conditions, and other questionable policies. Still I did not see better options for me, so I kept on buying from Amazon. Even here on the blog, I linked the names of books I recommended to their Amazon pages.

However, I made an error in my ethical calculations. I framed the choice to do business with Amazon as a binary choice: buy nothing from them vs. buy automatically from them. That is an easy mistake to make, since our brains tend to frame questions in the binary. There is also a sneaky convenience in saying, “I have to buy X from them, I might as well buy Y as well.” In fact, there are more options than those two.

Instead of “all” or “nothing,” I now re-frame the Amazon decision: I will buy from that company if and only if it is the least-harmful option available to me for genuinely necessary consumption. That’s going to take some extra time and effort, but I see it as a more ethical choice.

The part of that decision that will be visible here on the blog is that I’m going to start linking book titles to other choices than Amazon. In the most recent such post, Book List: Jewish Spirituality, I’ve begun my new practice. When an author has a web page with a link for buying the book, I’ll link to that, because no matter what it links to (usually Amazon) the author will get more money for their work. When there is no such page available, I’m going to link to an independent bookseller, and I’ll mix those up among several I know. On the recent list, I linked to Powell’s Books, an independent bookseller in Portland, Oregon with a good website and excellent service. Readers can navigate to the bookseller of their choice or to a local library.

Finally, as with all such questions, I’m open to the hope that Jeff Bezos (owner of Amazon) will see his way towards treating his employees with decency. Consumer pressure makes companies improve bad policies all the time: ask Nike, for instance, which has had an ongoing conversation with consumers and activists since the 1990’s.

Some principles to ponder:

Money is power, even in small quantities. We influence companies when we choose to do business with them, or not to do business, or to do business as little as possible.

Most menus have more than two items. I thought of Amazon as a yes/no decision, when in fact it was a yes/no/sometimes choice. If the only way a person can afford something they need is to buy it Walmart, Jewish tradition teaches that it is not my business to judge them, because I will be much too busy working out my own ethical problems.

Buying “Used” is an option, too. If we are concerned about the planet and sustainability, sometimes buying used goods is the most ethically sound option. I recommend this option with enthusiasm, although it has a downside: the author gets no pay for a used book sale. Again, the choices are ours and none of them are 100% “pure.”

Advertisements

A Modern-Day Sodom?

Image: The Sonoran Desert in Arizona (by icondigital / Pixabay)

The Washington Post recently printed a first-person account by a geographer named Scott Warren. He has been charged with a felony for giving water and food to refugees in the Sonoran desert. For saving lives, Warren faces up to 20 years in prison.

The policy of routing refugees through the deadliest parts of the desert goes back to the Clinton Administration, by the way. The Trump Administration has added the enforcement of rules against offering any assistance, even water, to those trekking through that desert.

Scott Warren’s story reminded me immediately of a midrash taught by our sages. They told a story they told about their notion of the people most displeasing to God, so displeasing that they merited being burned alive along with their entire region. It is the story of the people of Sodom.

The first mention of the story is in Genesis 13:

Lot looked about him and saw how well watered was the whole plain of the Jordan, all of it—this was before the LORD had destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah—all the way to Zoar, like the garden of the LORD, like the land of Egypt.
So Lot chose for himself the whole plain of the Jordan, and Lot journeyed eastward. Thus they parted from each other;
Abram remained in the land of Canaan, while Lot settled in the cities of the Plain, pitching his tents near Sodom.
Now the inhabitants of Sodom were very wicked sinners against the LORD.

Genesis 13:10-13

Next we get the well-known story in Genesis 18-19, in which sends two “men” (angels) to investigate an “outcry” from Sodom. It begins:

Then the LORD said, “The outcry from Sodom and Gomorrah is so great, and their sin so grave! I will go down to see whether they have acted altogether according to the outcry that has reached Me; if not, I will take note.” The men went on from there to Sodom, while Abraham remained standing before the LORD.

Genesis 18: 20-22

Abraham then famously bargained for the lives of Sodom, getting God to agree to spare the city if 10 good people could be found there.

The angels who “went on” to Sodom were greeted by Lot, who was anxious to get them out of the public square and to conceal them in his house. He does that because Sodom is hateful to strangers, and he knows something terrible will happen to them if they are not quickly out of sight. Sure enough, a crowd forms at Lot’s door, clamoring to rape the men. Lot refuses to release them to the crowd. Later, God rains fire down on the city, and it is completely destroyed because 10 good men could not be found. (Genesis 19)

The sages told more stories about Sodom, fleshing out the tale in the Torah. What had the people done to merit death by fire? Here are some of the stories:

R. Levi said: [God said]: ‘Even if I wished to keep silent, justice for a certain maiden (ribah) does not permit Me to keep silent.’
For it once happened that two girls went down to draw water from a well.
One [young woman] said to the other, ‘Why are you so pale?’
‘My family has no more food left and we are ready to die,’ she replied.
What did she [the first young woman] do? She filled her pitcher with flour and they exchanged [their pitchers], each taking the other’s.
When they [the Sodomites] discovered this, they took and burnt her.
Said the Holy One, blessed be He: ‘Even if I desired to be silent, justice for that young girl does not permit Me to keep silent.

Genesis Rabbah 49:6

and another, about the cruelty to poor men:

If a poor man happened to come there, every resident gave him a dinar (coin,) upon which he wrote his name, but no bread was given him. When he died, each [resident] came and took back his [dinar]. 

Sanhedrin 109b

There is another story about a young woman who tried to give help to a hungry man:

A certain maiden gave some bread to a poor man, [hiding it] in a pitcher. When the matter becoming known, they daubed her with honey and placed her on the parapet of the wall, and the bees came and consumed her. Thus it is written, And the Lord said, The cry ( זעקת ) of Sodom and Gomorrah, because it is great: whereon Rab Judah commented in Rab’s name: On account of the maiden [ribah]

Sanhedrin 109b

And a later midrash tells us about a variety of cruel practices:

Rabbi Zeira said: “The people of Sdom were the wealthiest people in the world since they were from the fattest and best of the land and all of their early needs could be derived from it, as it says: “its dust contains gold dust” (Job 28:6) When a person wanted to go out and get for himself vegetables, he would say to his servant, take for me an issar worth of greens. He would go and take for him greens and find in its place gold, as it says: “its dust contains gold dust.” And silver would come out of it, as it is written: “There is a mine for silver.” (Job 28:1) Precious stones and jewels would come out of it: “Its rocks are a source of sapphire.” (verse 6); bread would be brought forth from it: “earth out of which food grows” (verse 5); and they did not trust in the shadow of their Creator but rather in their wealth; for their wealth pushed aside their fear of Heaven: “men who trust in their riches” (Psalms 49:7)

Rabbi Joshua ben Korha said: They were not sufficiently concerned with the honor of their Creator to provide food for guests and strangers but rather they would cut of the branches of fruit trees above the fruit so as not to provide benefit to birds of the heavens: “No bird of prey knows the path of it.” (Job 28:7)

Rabbi Netanel said: They set up as their judges false judges who ruled with regard to any guest or stranger who entered Sodom, that they should defraud them in their crooked judgment and set them out naked, as it is written: “And the stranger they cheated without justice.” (Ezekiel 22:29) And satisfied with the harvest of the land – they lived in security and peace and quiet without fear of war from their surroundings satiated with all good things and not strengthening the hand of either the poor or the impoverished with food: “Behold this was the son of Sodom your sister.” (Ezekiel 16:49)

– Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer 25

For these crimes, God blasted the city Sodom, leaving nothing but a salty mineral desert and a deadly sea beside it. To this day, if you visit the Dead Sea, you will see nothing alive there.

I fear for our souls.

Who is That Person in the Mirror?

Image: Person aims a camera at a fragmented mirror. (pxhere, Public Domain)

Look in the mirror.  Look at the face that looks back at you.  What do you see?

Do you see a person

— who needs sleep?

— who needs to see a doctor?

— who drinks too much?

— who eats unhealthfully?

— who is too tired to know what she needs?

— who is depressed?

— who needs regular exercise and doesn’t get it?

— who hasn’t laughed in HOW long?

— who is secretly struggling with something he hopes no one else will notice?

— who needs help and won’t ask for it?

— who has been offered help but refuses to accept it?

— who is lonely?

— who is frightened about something?

— who hasn’t had a day off  in HOW long?

Modern secular culture encourages us not to take care of ourselves. We see advertisements for unhealthy foods, for “fun” gambling, for TV shows that are on late at night. We get caught up in the push for certain kinds of success. With our families scattered all over the country or the world, care for children or elders often falls on one or two family members, who get no help or relief. We avoid admitting to depression, mental illness, disabilities, because of the stigma they carry. We avoid asking for help because that would involve admitting that we need it.

These are sins against ourselves. When we fail to get enough sleep, good food, and enough exercise, we forget that our bodies are limited, that we are setting ourselves up for illness. When we fail to ask for or accept help, not only do we hurt ourselves, but we keep others from having the opportunity to do a mitzvah.

Ask: What could I change in my life so that I could get enough sleep? Help taking care of my aged parents or my child? Help doing whatever it is I need to do to take care of myself?

Then make a plan.  Do it.

If the answer to that question is, “Nothing,” or “I don’t know” then make an appointment to talk with someone who can help you find options: a rabbi, a therapist, a counselor, a friend.  Admit how hard it’s all gotten to someone who can hold that for you. Ask them to help you find some ways to lighten the burden.  Those ways exist, whether you can see them or not.

Make the call.  Do it.

Someone is waiting for you, and for me, in the mirror.

Oft Quoted, Oft Misunderstood

Image: Ruth and Naomi, painting, Walker Art Gallery. Artist: Philip Hermogenes Calderon, 1833-1898.

Oft quoted, oft misunderstood: I’m talking about Leviticus 18:22. It’s one of the passages recited so often that just about anyone will recognize it, even if the Bible isn’t a book they read:

וְאֶ֨ת־זָכָ֔ר לֹ֥א תִשְׁכַּ֖ב מִשְׁכְּבֵ֣י אִשָּׁ֑ה תּוֹעֵבָ֖ה הִֽוא׃

Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman; it is a to’evah.

Leviticus 18:22

This line is often translated into English in ways that make it “obvious” that this is about male homosexuality. The Hebrew, however, isn’t nearly so clear. If you are curious about that, see Leviticus 18:22 in Queer Bible Hermeneutics, from the Perkins School of Theology of Southern Methodist University.

Language that suggests love relationships between same-sex individuals appears in the Tanakh. The best example is David and Jonathan, who were passionate about each other. (1 Samuel 18) The passionate vow that Ruth makes to Naomi (Ruth 1:16-17) sounds like a modern marriage vow. Granted, both David and Ruth went on to marry people of the opposite sex, but they did not express love for them.

So if this passage isn’t about homosexuality in the modern sense, what am I to learn from it, since it must mean something?

V’et zakhar lo tishkav – And (to) a male (you) do not lie-down

mish’k’vei isha – from/like the lyings-down of the wife

to’evah hu. – It is a bad-thing.

Zakhar designates something as male, whether it is a human, an animal, or a bit of grammar. Its opposite is nikevah (“female” or “feminine.”) It’s a binary: everything is one or the other. Zakhar overrides nikevah in grammar when both are present. If I put one male horse (sus) in a paddock with 15 mares (susot) the plural changes to male (susim.)

Ishah designates a woman, or more often, a wife. This, too, has power implications, but in this case it is the absence of power. This is a person who is acquired by others who have more power. The first verse of Kiddushin, the tractate of the Talmud devoted to marriage, states:

האשה נקנית בשלוש דרכים

A wife is acquired in three ways…

BT Kiddushin 2a

I’m willing to read tishkav and mis’k’vei as having a sexual meaning, given the context of the surrounding verses. The first is a negative command: don’t be sexual this way. The second is a description of the forbidden sort of sex: having sex as one would with a lower-powered individual.

I think this is a verse about power, and especially about power differentials. I read it as saying that it is forbidden to have an intimate relationship in which one person holds the power, and the other is subordinate. To put it more positively, sexual intimacy is permitted only between equals. Coming as it does on the heels of a set of verses about incest, it makes sense that this is a passage about relationship and power.

One could make the argument that in the ancient world, and in much of the present-day world, most sex takes place between partners of unequal standing. However, that isn’t how it’s supposed to be: here in Parashat Acharei Mot, Leviticus holds up many ideals for us to pursue, whether or not we manage to reach them.

We strive for a world in which strangers are welcomed, and the vulnerable are protected. We strive for a world in which there is no incest and no abuse of animals. In the following chapter, we will be commanded to pursue justice, respect elders, share with the poor, deal kindly with the disabled, and to eschew revenge. We strive for those ideals, too, even though after millennia we still fall short.

We’re still working to live up to those. I read verse 22 to say that we are supposed to be trying to live up to the ideal of consensual sexual intimacy, whoever we’re having it with.

What do you think? How do you deal with Leviticus 18:22?

Jewish Values and Money

Image: Three stacks of coins, with seedlings growing on top. (nattanan23/pixabay)

Jewish tradition has always regarded economic activity as a normal and legitimate pursuit. Just as with any other normal human activity, Judaism established a framework for economic activity to keep it within the boundaries of Torah.

The Jewish businessperson, the Jewish consumer, and the Jewish investor have sacred boundaries for behavior in our tradition. Jewish values apply in the economic sphere. Some examples:

  • Every adult is responsible for their own words and behavior.
  • Every adult is responsible for the maintenance of the community.
  • The strong may not exploit the weak or the ignorant.
  • Powerful individuals may not use their power to the detriment of society.
  • Workers are protected from exploitation, but they also have responsibilities.
  • Truth in marketing, advertising and speech are key values.

These values hold true for Jews whether they are capitalists or socialists, conservatives or liberals, owners, stockholders or workers.

I am not suggesting that we substitute halakhah (Jewish Law) for the laws of the state. There is a principle in Jewish law, “Dina d’malkhuta dina” (in Aramaic, דִּינָא דְּמַלְכוּתָא דִּינָא ) “the law of the land is the law.” That means that the law of the state is binding upon the Jews who live there. However, when Jewish tradition holds us to a higher standard than the civil law, the observant Jew should adhere to that higher standard.

Has there ever been a time when you felt a conflict between your Jewish values and your economic interests? Did you feel you had the tools to make the right decision?

White Collars & Blameless Lives

Image: (l to r) Paul Manafort, Bernie Madoff, Michael Cohen (Images are in the Public Domain)

On March 7, 2019, U. S. District Judge T. S. Ellis sentenced political operative Paul Manafort to just shy of four years in prison for five counts of tax fraud, two counts of bank fraud and one count of failing to disclose foreign bank accounts. The judge spoke at length about the unfairness of the federal sentencing guidelines, given Manafort’s “otherwise blameless life.” So instead of 19 1/2 to 24 years, Manafort received not quite 4 years.

Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to various financial crimes including tax violations, lying to a bank and buying the silence of women who claimed that they once had affairs with future president Trump. He was sentenced to three years in prison.

Only one high ranking investment banker went to prison for his part in the financial crisis of 2008, Kareem Sarageldin of Credit Suisse. He pleaded guilty to conspiring to falsify the books and records of Credit Suisse, which caused the bank to take a $2.65 billion write-down of its 2007 year-end financial results, contributing to the destabilizing of U.S. financial markets. For his crimes, Judge Hellerstein sentenced him to 30 months in prison, to two years of supervised release, forfeiture in the amount of $1 million, a $150,000 fine, and a $100 special assessment.

Thomas Zenle, one of Manafort’s lawyers, said “Tax evasion is by no means jaywalking. But it’s not narcotics trafficking.” That appears to be the logic behind much of our legal system when it comes to white collar crime.

Business crimes are hard to describe, hard to understand, and their effects are often diffused across many, many victims. Narcotics trafficking is easy to understand: bad man sells drugs.

In the case of Bernie Madoff, who was sentenced for white collar crimes ten years ago this month, it was simpler: he defrauded people via a Ponzi scheme. The people and institutions he stole from were high-profile and easy to identify. For pleading guilty to this easy-to-understand bit of criminality, he was sentenced to 150 years in prison.

Still, I am struck by the slap-on-the-wrist received by most white collar criminals, and especially by the dismissive language employed by Judge Ellis and Thomas Zenle. There is a sense in which even our judges and the officers of the court seem to think that white collar crimes are less serious than, say, robbing a 7-11 or dealing drugs.

Jewish tradition does not agree with this assessment of business crime. Torah is specific on this point:

You shall not falsify measures of length, weight, or capacity. You shall have an honest balance, an honest weight, an honest ephah [dry measure], and an honest hin [liquid measure] .

Leviticus 19:35-36

And:

When you sell anything to your neighbor or buy anything from your neighbor, you shall not deceive one another .

Leviticus 25:14

The rabbis built and built on these topics, filling entire volumes of Talmud with discussions about standards for business dealings. Rules were very specific: a deal involving price gouging was rendered null and void, for example.

If you will heed the Lord diligently, doing what is right in His eyes’ (Exodus 15:26) – this refers to business dealings. This teaches us that whoever trades in good faith. it is accounted to him as though he had observed the entire Torah”.

Mekhilta, ( Vayassa, ed. Lauterbach, vol. 2, p. 96 )

Jewish tradition is not American law. Still I wish we could take white collar crime more seriously in this country. The cavalier attitudes put forth in the words of Judge Ellis and Thomas Zenle belie the real damage that financial crimes inflict. Savings are destroyed, lives are ruined, people’s health is affected. These are not victimless crimes, and while it is certainly true that a drug dealer ruins lives, he does not have Wall Street as the distribution system for the misery he inflicts.

Moreover, if more well-dressed white men who had led “otherwise blameless lives” were to see prison as somewhere they might end up, perhaps white America would care more about others who have been incarcerated, however justly.

Bal Tashkeit: Do Not Destroy

Image: Red apples on the branch (Pixel2013/Pixabay)

Jewish tradition has a special respect for trees. A passage in Deuteronomy starts a discussion that will go on for centuries:

(19) When in your war against a city you have to besiege it a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy its trees, wielding the ax against them. You may eat of them, but you must not cut them down. Are trees of the field human to withdraw before you into the besieged city? 

(20) Only trees that you know do not yield food may be destroyed; you may cut them down for constructing siegeworks against the city that is waging war on you, until it has been reduced.

Deuteronomy 20: 19-20

This passage appears in a long discussion of the rules of war. Even in the heat of battle, fruit-bearing trees must not be disturbed. Why is this? We get a clue in verse 20: we may destroy trees that do not yield food. The fruit-bearing trees provide life for human beings, animals, and birds. To destroy them is to lay waste to the earth, because life on earth is interconnected.

This prohibition is inconvenient in all-out war. One is tempted to say, “But the other side has destroyed trees! We must teach them a lesson!” Or even, “These are really our trees, so we can destroy them!” And surely some military strategists argued for a work-around: what if we kill the trees but by some other means than cutting them down? The Sages have a fast answer for that:

6) “You shall not cut down its tree by wielding an axe against it”: This tells me only of iron (i.e., an axe blade). Whence do I derive (the same for destroying it by) diverting a water course from it? From “You shall not destroy its tree” — in any manner.

Sifrei Devarim 203:6-10

What if the tree is in the way of a farmer who is trying to plow? May he destroy a fruit tree? Again, the answer is quite firm:

Ravina objects to this: And let the tanna also enumerate one who chops down beautiful fruit trees in the course of plowing, and its prohibition is from here: “For you may eat of it, and you shall not chop it down”(Deuteronomy 13:18).

BT Makkot 22a

Some of the objections to the destruction of fruit trees are quite poetic:


When people cut down the wood of the tree which yields fruit, its cry goes from one end of the world to the other, and the voice is inaudible.


Pirke de R. Eliezer 34:4

Of course, there are times and places where it is necessary to destroy a tree, even a fruit tree. Maimonides gives us a succinct description of that in the Mishnah Torah:

Fruit-bearing trees must not be cut down outside of the city43 nor do we block their irrigation water causing the trees to dry up, as it says, “do not destroy her trees” (Deut. 20:19). Anyone who cuts down a tree receives lashes. This is not only at times of a siege, but anyone at anytime who chops down a fruit-bearing tree by for destructive purposes receives stripes. The tree may be cut down if it is damaging other trees or it is damaging another’s field, or because the tree is more valuable for its wood than its fruit. The Torah only forbids wanton destruction.

Mishneh Torah, Kings & Wars 6:8

Maimonides zeros in on the principle that the Sages derived from the discussion of fruit trees: “The Torah only forbids wanton destruction.” Thus from a Torah discussion of the rules of war, we learn the rules of peace as well: we are commanded to preserve this world, and not to engage in wanton destruction.

When I read in the news about Israelis destroying the olive trees belonging to Palestinians, all I can think is, “Who taught Torah to these people?” Of all the ways they might fight with the Palestinians, why choose this particular one? Olive trees normally live to a great age. They give fruit to eat, and oil for many purposes. If this is not “wanton destruction,” then what is?

I do not have an easy answer to the situation in the West Bank. I have friends on all sides of that particular argument. But I know one part of this is very simple: we are commanded not to destroy fruit trees.

Ancient olive trees. Photo by Dimitri Laudin/Shutterstock, all rights reserved.