A Grain of Sand

"I will multiply you as the stars in heaven and as the sand upon the shore." - Genesis 22:17

"I can see the master's hand in every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand." - Dylan, Every Grain of Sand (on Shot of Love)

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Torture and Jewish Values

Alberto Gonzales does not think there will be prosecutions of Bush Administration officials for instituting torture in our pursuit of terrorists. I certainly hope he is wrong. I would love to see those involved - at whatever levels - strongly, er, embraced by the long arm of the law.

This does not come from my desire for the satisfaction of moral vengeance. It comes from my belief in the centrality of law to creating the possibility of moral order. There is a well-known statement in Pirkei Avot (in the Mishnah) that powerfully describes the importance of legal order:

Rabbi Chanina S'gan Ha-Kohanim said 'Pray for the well-being of the government - because without fear of it, a person would eat his neighbor alive.'

When the constitution is subverted, the kind of behavior we saw in Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, and which occurred in foreign interrogations at the bequest of the United States, prevails. Investigations and prosecutions where those are appropriate would shore up the rule of law, and thereby strengthen the government.

Yesterday I met with a Bar Mitzvah student. His Torah portion will be Mishpatim. Initially he was having trouble finding the text interesting - it was just a series of laws: what to do if your ox gores someone; what to do if your donkey falls in a pit created by someone else; the punishment for assault. We talked about what kind of society the Torah was trying to create, and what the society must have looked like without those laws. The moral and political order created by the Torah creates the kind of foundation upon which societies upholding human dignity are built.

So, hooray for prosecuctions. To quote our last president: "Bring 'em on!"

Rabbi Melissa Weintraub began as a rabbinical student to explore this issue and created some incredible resources on torture and the Jewish tradition. There are four documents which can be found here.


  1. My anger at Alberto Gonzales for undermining the laws of our nation, and for Bush, Cheney, Rove and the Republican administration adopting ways to slowly lead America into the ways of our enemies of WWII, Germany and Japan, has almost led me to advocate that they should be tortured. But my faith that the perfect omniscient Lord God Almighty of Israel, sovereign of the Universe will dispense justice in a merciful perfect way gives me satisfaction that He will carry out my desires for justice for me.

    I would go further than Rabbi Melissa Weintraub when she said that more Americans are dying and will die because of keeping Guantanamo open, rather that changing it. If we keep it open it will demonstrate to the world that we good Americans are willing to turn a blind eye to what the evil Americans are doing by committing such acts of injustice and sadism. This will bring on repercussions that will split the world into confrontational camps. People will take sides even when the result is violence and torture. This will bring on Armageddon.

    I did not read much of the technical reasoning of Rabbi Weintrab in her article in which she demonstrated the effect that torture breaks down law and order in a society and then results in the loss of good thoughts and behavior within that society. To me, that is just common sense, and should be understood by anyone who has accepted the existence of a perfect and good omniscient and omnipotent G-d.

  2. The oath of office of the president and every officer in the armed services includes the words "to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States." The essence of the country is in law.

    So too do we see law as central to Judaism - both in practice of following law as well as venerating its gift from God as the ultimate constraint of free will.

    There is no question that the law was subverted. The thornier question is what is ultimately served by exploring guilt of the parties involved in the courts. The present administration and congress seem loath to pursue this path. This is not because they fail to recognize the damage done to the Constitution. They recognize the general political will seems now directed to the future and the solution of our current problems. While this may make our job of perfecting the Union today easier, it will be seen as a shortcut in the future.

  3. You are right on the mark, Moepackman.