One wonders in this election season of polarized camps, half-truth attack ads, angry protesters, and Bible-quoting politicians, how we plan to create an equitable future in our civilization. Social equity is a pillar of Jewish environmentalism, and the “triple bottom line” (economy, environment, equity). It rests on equal pay for equal work, universal education, health care and civil rights, national service, creating economic opportunities, and cleaning up our environmental mess.
Jews have always been committed to these things. While our moral compass, Torah, contains an array of violent and inequitable content, we have, over the centuries, used Mishnah, Gemorrah, Talmud, Mishnah Torah and other commentary to explain, re-interpret, contradict, deny, and transform it into workable, life-affirming principles and codes of conduct.
A herd of current candidates and leaders is ignoring this progress, however, and misappropriating Torah (or “Bible”) passages for personal, religious and political gain. While the Torah also helps provide a moral compass for 3.5 billion of today’s Christians and Muslims, we nonetheless seem poised to elect candidates who deny evolution and climate change, champion warfare, reject government funding and environmental laws, and support limiting civil rights and women’s health choices. What direction is our moral compass pointing, anyway?
Psychologists, social scientists and political scientists say a strong incentive to candidacy is gaining the power to direct people’s thinking and actions. Likewise, power provides an antidote to the fear of feeling one’s welfare and future are out of control. Neuroscientists have found that our brains are organs bent on survival and procreation, and whatever threatens them ignites fight-or-flight reactions in us. As current politics show, those who feel threatened react in threatening ways. They create threat and fear scenarios, lies and attack ads, which naturally motivate similarly fearful people to move their agendas and elect their candidates.
Can Torah’s moral compass be interpreted to point us in the wrong direction? Stories of human destruction — in The Flood, Sodom & Gemorrah, and swallowing Korach’s minions, could be seen as teaching fear of God, and those who represent “Him.” God goading Abraham toward killing Isaac, Pharaoh deceiving Moses, Laban cheating Jacob, Jacob cheating Esau — could show that the great may mislead the gullible with impunity, and cheaters who don’t get caught can reap great rewards.
God’s gift of the Promised Land, and invitation for the Hebrews to take it by force, could show that “might makes right,” Israel belongs to Hebrew descendants in perpetuity, and those on missions from God need never compromise. Eve’s “original sin,” punishment with pregnancy pain and subservience to Adam, Lot’s devalued daughters, Hagar’s expulsion, Miriam’s background role — all tend to devalue, obscure and defame women. Killing Ba’al worshippers and other polytheists could be seen to affirm that we should fear and abhor outsiders, and the Hebrews’ One God was with them and superior to all others.
Making these counter-productive examples our guides for living undermines our ability to achieve social equity. The Jews took plenty of time to think about that after Nebuchadnezzer destroyed the First Temple and the Northern Kingdom, the Babylonians scattered the Jews thrice, and Rome destroyed the Second Temple and scattered them again. In re-inventing themselves as people more of The Book than of battle, Jews let go of priestly hierarchy and divine rights, and created a horizontally integrated, egalitarian society that prized intelligence and merit. Meanwhile, our Judeo-Christian, Judeo-Muslim and pagan brethren built and destroyed dozens of feudal and religious empires, on their ways to getting swept into new intellectual and technological territory by the Enlightenment, Renaissance, Mercantile Age and Industrial Revolution.
People don’t necessarily move civilization further ahead during times of peace and confidence than times of fear and war. As our country “advanced” over the past two centuries, for example, we’ve continuously caused or supported the killing of people by the hundreds and thousands here, in Europe, Asia, the Caribbean, Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East. Each year, another 43,000 die and 2.9 million are injured in car crashes, 31,000 die and 220,000 are injured with guns and a half million die of cancer. Yet, we resist addressing land development, pollution and health issues, and our pro-gun lobby is stronger than ever.
Despite several U.S. economic “meltdowns,” we haven’t changed our laws enough to avoid more. We also support violent spectator sports, contentious commentary shows and news, and violent movies and video games.
It shouldn’t surprise us to see American citizens act out violently, or respond positively to political negativity; nor to see those whom America has harmed elsewhere coming back to harm Americans here. It’s lucky we don’t see more. Stoking our fears keeps us in fight-or-flight states, which breed heart attacks, cancer, obesity, mental illness, paralysis, and bad government. It’s not healthy. A healthy society requires a healthy economy and environment. They’re interdependent.
The Torah repeatedly reminds us that we’re self-determined. We control the economy with our dollars, we restore our environment and society with our actions, and we control the electoral system with our votes. Let’s show the courage to reject deceit and violence, emphasize the positive, and get good things done.