Thursday, March 3, 2011

Public Servants - Accountability and Scorn – Wisconsin & Sinai Pekudei

Accountability is on the agenda. With an election looming in the Australian state of NSW, Australian school results displayed on the My School website, and out of Wisconsin a storm brewing over public servants. I am not across the details in the US situation, but it seems like Class-warfare organised by the party serving the interests of the “self-made” rich and of 'true American rugged individualism” against the union affiliated “other” of the public sector.  The public servant as an underpaid political punching bag is one ethical problem. As a public servant myself, in the sense that I work for a non-profit with substantial government funding, I can empathise with my colleagues. I also want to think about the obligations of the public servant. First among these is the principle of “you shall be clean in eyes of God and man[i]”.

Accountability meets some resistance from some people involved in public service. Teachers in the US for example thought it ridiculous that a principal should be able to decide on the basis of performance, who to retain and who to fire[ii]. I once suggested that Jewish schools have an external committee to oversee them. The wife of the head of a cluster of religious institutions that might be affected by my proposal, angrily asked me “would you like to have someone looking over your shoulder?!” Yes, I replied, I would be very happy to be held accountable for my level of performance against objectives that I had some say in formulating. Still regrettably, there is reluctance to adopt the highest standards of governance in some religious institutions.

Jewish sources point to both greater or lesser requirements for accountability. We have the example in a mishna of the priest entering the temple treasury who was forbidden to have a hem in his clothing so that no one would suspect that he stole anything[iii]. He was even required to have someone talk to him as he went in to ensure he could not put any coins in his mouth[iv]. Yet the concern in this Mishna seems to be less about ensuring honesty and more about removing suspicion. 'Lest he become poor and people will say that he became poor as punishment for stealing...lest he become rich and people will say that he became rich from the temple treasury'. This concern with suspecting the innocent is also expressed in the principle that “one who suspects the innocent, is punished with lashes on his body[v]”. Yet, the conclusion of the Mishna is the principle that a person must (be seen to be) fulfilling his obligations by the people just as one must fulfil his obligations by God.

We have two very different priorities here, maintaining a positive view of public servants and keeping them honest. In the code of Jewish law, this tension plays out in differentiating between someone who is deserving of public trust. In his/her case the community must not make calculations with the one in charge of charity ...because they do it in (good) faith[vi]. It is merely “good to for them to give an accounting, this is with the upright...if someone is not “Kosher”, or has been appointed through intimidation and strength, they must give an account”[vii].

The case of Moses, supports both perspectives. He saw fit to commission an audit of his spending of communal funds. “These are the accounts of the tabernacle (temporary desert temple), the tabernacle of testimony that was commissioned by Moses, the work of the Levites by the hand of Itamar the son of Aaron the Cohen”[viii]. One way of reading this text is that Moses initiated an Audit but had Itamar do the audit[ix]. Although Moses was a treasurer on his own he called others and calculated by their hand as it says, these are the calculations by the word of Moses, (that is) by the word of Moses (but) by the hand of Itamar”[x].

This reading is at odds with the understanding that the meaning of “by the hand of Itamar” is that he was the one managing the work[xi] and therefore responsible for the accounts that would be audited. Not only was the “Auditor” very close to the work itself, he was also the son of Aaron, the brother of Moses, the nephew of the person seeking the audit! It would seem to be a bit less than a fully independent Audit[xii]. This would be consistent with the view of accountability as a method of removing unjustified suspicion rather than addressing substantial concerns. While the collection of charity needed to be carried out by two people, even two brothers were allowed to collect it[xiii]. 

Perhaps also reflecting the conflicting considerations about accountability, we have the odd situation that while the silver is fully accounted for in terms of what it was used for[xiv], this is not the case with the gold[xv]. A range of explanations are given for this difference. The silver is detailed because at this point its use was complete, but some gold was still going to be used in the creation of the priestly garments[xvi]. Alternatively, the silver was contributed by all the Jews as a compulsory contribution, so an audit was needed, while the gold was given by wealthy generous people who did not care about an audit[xvii].  A third view is that the silver was easy to audit and also easy to become the subject of suspicion as it was used for only two things and both were visible, while the gold was spread among many objects[xviii]. All of these approaches are plausible if we see the audit as managing perceptions about people we have chosen to trust rather than  keeping people honest.

It is also significant that according to some view the Audit was undertaken in response to the rumour mill. Moses heard the Jews talking about him behind his back... they were saying “look at his neck, look at his thighs, (how fat they are), he eats from the Jews, he drinks from the Jews” and his friend replies, “the man that controlled the work of the tabernacle, you don't think he will be rich? When Moses heard this he said, “by your life, when the tabernacle is finished I will make a calculation with you.[xix]

In the process of the Audit, there appeared to be a discrepancy between the income and expenses in relation to the silver. Moses is relieved and elated when the forgotten 1775 shekel are discovered, having been used for to make the silver hooks on the pillars [xx]. “immediately,  Moses gave 15 praises to the Holy One Blessed Be He, these are in Yishtabach (the morning prayer), song, praise etc. corresponding to these are 15 times the word “Blessed” in Baruch She-amar (also in the morning prayer) and 15 Vavs in Emet Vyatziv, true, and upright[xxi]...The word Vav in hebrew is the name of a letter that means “and” when used as a prefix but also means  hook, the discovered missing item that enabled the accounts to be reconciled.  

Those of us who are privileged to serve the public, deserve fair reward for our efforts not scorn and innuendo, equally we must do our part to earn and keep the trust of the people we serve.   

[i]     Numbers 32:22, this principal is also applied to the handing out of jobs. Moses tells the Jews, see God called, by name, Betzalel (to be chief architect and designer of the tabernacle)…when Moses came down he told the Jews, this is what God told me…they asked and who will do all this? They started to find fault with Moses and said, God did not tell Moses to make the Tabernacle through Betzalel, but Moses himself appointed him because he is his relative, Moses; a king, Aaron his brother, high priest, his sons, vice Cohanim, Elezar the prince of the tribe of Levi, the sons of Kehot (the clan or extended family that Moses was part of), carry the tabernacle (eg. It’s holiest objects) and (now) this one, controls the work of the Tabernacle…Moses said I have done nothing from my own mind, only God has told me, and he shows them, see God has called by name, Betzalel (tanchuma, cited in Studies in Shemot, Exodus, Nehama Leibowitz)
[ii],8599,2053510,00.html, Joe Klein in Time magazine,24/2/11 “New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has been trying to negotiate a deal whereby layoffs, if necessary, would not be made on a last-hired, first-fired basis. "So you'd rather have them lay off the more experienced teachers?" a Wisconsin teacher asked me. No: teachers should be hired and fired and paid according to their ability. "But who judges that?" the teacher asked. Their employers do, I replied. The teacher scoffed; the idea that school principals should be able to decide who should be part of their workforce seems incomprehensible to most teachers — and yet that sort of accountability is at the heart of any system that aspires to excellence.”
[iii]  Talmud Shekalim, (mishna) 8a, similar laws in Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah, laws of Tzedakah, 257:1
[iv]   Talmud Shekalim 9a
[v]    Talmud Shabbat 97a, Yoma 19b
[vi]   Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah. 257:2
[vii]  Rema comment on Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah, based on the Tur
[viii]          Exodus 38:21
[ix]   Nachshoni, Y,  (1988), Studies in the Weekly Parsha, Sh'mos, Artscroll, p. 607, based on the Midrash that follows.
[x]    Shemot Rabba 51:1,
[xi]   Rashi on Exodus 38:21, “By the hand of Itamar”, he was the one who was appointed over them to give to each family the work that was for them.
[xii]  Although one meaning of the Mishkan of Testimony is that God testified that all was in order with the accounts, which is the best clean audit one can get.
[xiii]          Tur Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah laws of Tzedoka 256
[xiv] Exodus 38:27-28
[xv]  The text dealing with the audit of the gold (38:24), tells us the amount collected but gives no details about what it was used for. Rashi and Rashbam, assert that the gold was audited, but give no explanation for the absence of detail. 
[xvi] Klei Yakar on Exodus 34:1
[xvii]         Rabbi Yonoson Eybshutz, cited in Nachshoni, Y (1988), Studies in the weekly Parsha, Sh'mos, Artscroll, Brooklyn, p.  606
[xviii]        Lvush HaOrah,
[xix] Old Tanchuma 4, cited in Torah Shlaima, Vol 23. p.55
[xx]  Tanchuma 7
[xxi] Daat Zekainim Ubaalei Hatosafot on Exodus 38:21

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