Thursday, January 20, 2011

Authority Trashed, Tucson & Tunisia – problems and opportunities of democracy of opinion

In rejecting elitism and in pursuit of freedom, we now face the idea that all opinions, not just people, are of equal value. Is this the democratisation of opinion combined with a breakdown in authority a contributing factor to the madness in the world?

I have not listened to the ramblings of the Tucson murderer yet I feel quite comfortable to assert my view about this. Asserting a view, no matter how ill-considered and regardless of qualification to do so is socially acceptable. In this post, I will mostly stick to what I know and write about attitudes to authority, equality and thinking as these are discussed in the Torah.

Legitimacy of Government Authority
When Jethro, Moses' father in law notices how Moses is wearing himself out he suggests the appointment of a judicial system of men of accomplishment, God fearing, men of truth, who hate bribery[1]. A system of authority is created in the desert. We are instructed to “pray for the welfare of government because if not for its fear, men would swallow each other a live[2].

The inequality in free societies is a terrible injustice, but to make the jump to government and police just being there to protect the rich is untrue and unfair. If the cops are so evil, why don’t their radical critics move to parts of Mexico, where tragically people can be shot up at whim, with no protection from the law? 

Limits of legitimacy
The toppling of a dictator in Tunisia this week reflects the reality that authority is not always a good thing. The Torah warns Jewish kings to write a Torah scroll and carry it with him so "That his heart not become haughty over his brethren.”[3] A judge is warned against judging alone[4]. The classic story of the Iconoclastic, young Abraham, smashing his father’s idols and rejecting the gods accepted by all, including the elites tell us that we cannot simply trust the elders or the government to get it all right. Our law addresses the scenario of a government that is no better than a thief and a thug, but this exception to the principle of “the law of the rule is law” has strictly defined criteria, such as a king whose rule has not been accepted by the people[5] or who does not comply with his own laws[6].

Submission to non- ideal
Authority does not need to be perfect to be seen as legitimate.  There is plenty of realism, perhaps even cynicism in our tradition about government. “Be careful with the authorities, as they do not draw a person close to them for any reason but for their own needs, seems like they love you when it is for their pleasure, but do not stand by a man when he is pressed”.[7]  In spite of this, or perhaps because of it, we are taught, that we need to submit to the judge that is available to us in a given time, even if he is not of the stature of greater leaders. “Like Yiftah in his generation, like Samuel in his generation[8]”. The erosion of legitimate authority is not consistent with the teachings of Judaism.

Wisdom of the Elders
Our tradition would lead toward the privileging of wisdom and intellectual rigour over the democratisation of opinion. In an inversion of ageism, we are advised not to discriminate against the young, “Please pleasant to the black haired[9] so strongly would we naturally defer to the wisdom that comes with age that we need to ensure we don’t dismiss someone because of their youth. One activist recently reflected, “Our defiant motto was “don’t trust anyone over thirty”…this motto deprives us of much wisdom[10]”.

And all the people saw the thunder, and the lightning, and the noise of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking and when the people saw it they moved and stood afar[11]. The people stood far away only saw the external trappings, the thunder and lightning, while Moses entered into the thick cloud were God was[12].

Following your heart
My pet hate is the expression; “I feel that”. Shouldn't it be, 'I think that'?! Unless, we don't need to think any more, we can decide everything by intuition, and just follow our hearts. There is a time for everything, Rabbi YY Schneerson's portrayal of the arrogant self described “kop mentch”, who is cold about everything and refuses to get excited is a devastatingly accurate description that shows why there are some times when we should indeed follow our heart. In fact, one great quality of our animal-like aspect is our ability to get excited and do good things because we feel that they are right and we avoid making all the calculations that might prevent us from doing it[13]. Perhaps, 'feeling that' is useful some times, but dangerous at other times.       

Believing in yourself vs. Humility
It is one of the few rules left, you must believe in yourself. Our tradition tells us, do not believe in yourself until the day you die[14]. While in Tunisia, backing one’s own judgement gave people courage to pursue justice, in Tucson the mad murderer might have hesitated if he grew up with the values of deference and humility. God desired an altar of earth, not silver or gold[15].  If only he could have learned the interpersonal insight that it is ridiculous to think that “davka” according to his own mind is the truth[16].  Instead, a culture of worship of self and an unwillingness to give any credit to the legitimacy of established norms might have contributed to a sick mind giving itself permission to kill people, justified in part on some hair brained ideas dumped on the internet about grammar and government control.

Torah of course believes in absolute Truth, which some people will not embrace. Still there is wisdom in assuming that ‘the truth is out there’, so even if one is not sure about peoples’ ability to find the truth, there are some truths worth embracing. One of these is to learn from a young age to honour one’s imperfect father and mother, doing so impacts on the ability to respect God, because if we can respect our the creators of our own bodies, surely we can respect “our father in heaven[17]”.

In the end, we need to learn to be realistic and question authority, resist it when it is seriously out of line and humbly submit to it when appropriate.

[1] Exodus 18:21.
[2] Pirkey Avot 3:2
[3] Deuteronomy  17:20
[4] Pirkey Avot 4:8
[5] Shulchan Aruch (code of Jewish law), Choshen Mishpat, 369:2
[6] Shulchan Aruch (code of Jewish law), Choshen Mishpat, 369:8
[7] Pirkey Avot, 2:3
[8] Talmud, Rosh Hashana 25b
[9] Pikey Avot 3:12
[10] Nagler, M, (2011) Apologies and Advice: A Letter to Younger Activists ,Tikkun Winter, p.58
[11] Exodus 20:18
[12] Rabbi Mendel of Kotzk –in Greenberg, A.Y., (1992) Torah Gems, Y Orenstien-Yavneh Publishing House, Tel Aviv Israel.
[13] Sefer Hamaamorim Kuntreisim Alef, Maamar Naaseh Na Aliyas Kir Ketana, by R,fd YY Schneerson
[14]  Pirkey Avot 2:5
[15]  Klei Yakar on Exodus 20:22
[16]  Heichaltzu, Maamar of Rabbi Shalom Dov Ber of Lubavitch
[17]  Klei Yakar on Exodus 20:12, Ramban follows a similar interpretation

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