Thursday, October 18, 2012

Big Bird and Binders

LAST NIGHT I WAS on a cross country flight from LA on Virgin America, and on the entertainment system MSNBC and Fox News were on consecutive channels. I flipped between them to listen to their reaction to Tuesday night’s debate, and you might be surprised to hear that each network had a very different take on who won the debate.

After about ten minutes of blatant partisan salesmanship, in which they lauded the performance of their preferred candidate without a single mention of a misstep, I turned it off out of fear that otherwise I would attempt to poke my eyes out with a plastic fork. It was a close call.

Election season seems to have gotten more and more difficult to stomach, and social media is abuzz with friends and family offering their opinions on the election. The political debate dissolves into memes and catch phrases, “Big Bird”, “the Binder”, or “texts from Hillary Clinton”. Debate coverage focuses on body language and how “Presidential” the candidates seem.Has our political system gone out of control?

In this week’s Parsha, Parshat Noach, we see the fate of Noach’s generation was sealed because of “Chamas”. Rashi quotes the Talmud (Sanhedrin 108a) and explains this term to mean that the final straw was a generation of theft, where everyone was either openly or surreptitiously stealing from one another. While idol worship and sexual immorality had already been rampant and reached unfathomable levels, the world still had hope. However, once society was no longer safe, once lawlessness had engulfed humanity, there was no longer any hope and Hashem brought the flood.

The Talmud explains (Sanhedrin 56b) that there are seven Mitzvot non-Jews are expected to keep, and by doing so earn a place in the “World to Come”. They are referred to as the “Seven Mitzvot of the sons of Noach”:

1. Prohibition of Idolatry
2. Prohibition of Murder
3. Prohibition of Theft
4. Prohibition of Sexual immorality
5. Prohibition of Blasphemy
6. Prohibition of eating flesh taken from an animal while it is still alive
7. Establishment of courts of law

The name is very telling, it is the sons of Noach that are commanded to promote these concepts to the world. The establishment of a just legal system, even one that is not in any way based in Jewish Law, is a prerequisite for a moral society. The desire to acquire money and power at all costs makes a just legal system precarious even in our times. The stark contrast of the American elections and the Syrian massacres could not be more telling. Bashar Al-Assad’s brutal regime illuminates how far someone will go to maintain their power; the murder of tens of thousands of his own citizens is not nearly as important to him as his own power.

In America, our leaders are forced to concede that their power is limited. That no matter how successful they are, eventually they must willingly hand over the reins. It goes against the strongest of human instincts, but we have created a social contract that will not allow it any other way. It is truly the power of the people.
This creates an entirely different dynamic. The candidates end of pandering to voters, making promises they can’t keep and flip flopping on issues depending on whose votes they need. A politician’s job is to get elected, and often truth, integrity and even dignity are sacrificed in the name of that goal. It can be easy to lose sight of the glory of this process. They have to beg for our votes. They need to convince us, so ultimately the power remains in the hands of the people. We can’t lose sight of how rare this has been throughout human history.

So enjoy these next three weeks. The smear campaigns, the vicious attack ads, and even the partisan politics. Ultimately they are the sign of a healthy republic, and a nation living up to the “Seven laws of the sons of Noach”

Rabbi Joshua Strulowitz is an Orthodox rabbi who built the first eruv in San Francisco. He has also founded the "Jewish Ethics and the Internet" program. Follow him on Twitter at @RabbiStrul.