Justice, Justice You Shall Pursue

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
March 11, 2016 / 1 Adar II, 5776

Two fast days on the Jewish calendar are approaching, the Fast of Esther, and Fast of the First Born on Erev Pesach. 

The Fast of Esther falls on Wednesday the 23rd, and ends when we begin our celebrations that evening. We fast on that day in commemoration of Esther’s fast when our people were endangered by Haman’s machinations. A solitary woman thrust into a position to save an entire population. She fasts in prayer and preparation. We fast to recall her bravery and sacrifice.

The Fast of the First Born will occur on Friday April 22nd, after morning minyan. This fast is particularly  poignant to me, as it parallels the tenth and most deadly plague in Egypt when every non-Jewish first born was killed. In compassion for the terrible price that our freedom from tyranny entailed, first born children (or their parents on their behalf) traditionally fast all day up till the seder. It has been customary for someone who has studied a full Jewish text to complete it on that day. Such a siyyum, as it is called, cancels the fast for anyone present. I’ve been studying Rambam’s Laws on Matzoh and Chametz and I welcome all you first borns (and anyone else) to join us. 

It has been a sad and tough week for our congregation. At least two of our own have lost their jobs. Three have lost their lives, a number of people are critically ill. I know our hearts and prayers are directed to these families. It seems that in communities, deaths tend to cluster together. I don’t have a good scientific or statistical explanation for why that should be, yet the spiritual reason indeed seems to be that in some inextricable way, we are connected. Connection implies responsibility.

We are a village, and it’s one of the reasons that the Torah has urged for justice to be blind (mishpat echad y’hiyeh l’chem Lev 24:22). Injustice, or letting the ends justify the means, unravels the social fabric. The pain of one tends to hurt many–in couples, in families, in cities and in national election cycles.

One of the features of Judaism that I hold dear is the rigor and precision of our code of law–we take justice very seriously. The halakhah argues out social issues and ethical quandries with marvelous sensitivity, depth and nuance. Sometimes its answers are clear cut, other times, precedent can only map out avenues of inquiry for us to investigate.

On Saturday after services (1 pm), and on Sunday at Men’s Club (9:30 am), I’ll be sharing with you some texts that address issues about privacy and security. While I believe our Jewish sources favor privacy over security, especially in cases that are not absolutely certain, it is also true that a well-intentioned reader might come to a different set of conclusions.

Often when I teach, I try not to impose my own perspective, because after all, the role of teaching is to inspire another person to think. Good teaching challenges, but it does not dictate. Additionally, teachers must be as open to having their views changed as their students are. But I do enter this issue with a strong bias, and in this case I feel it is useful and proper to be transparent. After all, it is when we have strongly held commitments that we often let our passions control us.

In the issue of security versus privacy, especially as it plays out in the case of the FBI versus Apple, my current understanding favors privacy. Since we will primarily endeavor to understand what the Jewish laws says on Saturday and Sunday, I thought I’d share three extra-halakhic concerns that color my thinking on privacy and security:

  1. Fear in contemporary society is rarely rational or statistically relevant. Our brains were wired to respond to fear in a very different time and setting. Encountering a lion in front of us should activate our fight or flight mechanisms. The danger there is real and present. But if we find ourselves responding in the same way when we see a house cat, we know our wiring got crossed. So too if we find ourselves agitated seeing a picture of a lion. In today’s world, people are chronically stressed from exactly these sorts of miscalculations. Statistically, the average person’s risk from terrorism is remarkably small. I believe the more ancient parts of our brains responsible for responding to risk are ill-suited for contemporary times, and that we need to wait for our rational minds to catch up to our faster knee-jerk fear reactions.
  2. I’m one of those who falls into the statistical minority I mentioned above. I am a terror victim. Hebrew University, where the attack occurred, was a highly locked-down facility. High fences, check points, every back pack and bag checked every time we entered campus. Scanning wands. What I learned rather intimately is that the university expended tremendous resources to keep us safe, and still there were limits to what the school could do to prevent a determined terror cell. That means, especially when there are competing values (freedom, privacy) which will definitely and measurably suffer, and an unknown and small measure of safety that may or may not be gained, I want to protect those values of privacy and freedom. They also require and deserve security. They also keep us safe.
  3. In the particular case of Apple, I only see downside for the values of liberty and privacy and it is much harder to discern a certain gain from the FBI’s fishing expedition. If there was someone else helping the San Bernadino terrorists. If information about that person is only recoverable from one particular Iphone and can’t be determined in any other manner. If the potential accessory to the crime has the means and will to commit another act without revealing themselves through other data trails. There are too many ifs, whereas the loss of privacy seems much more definite to me. In human history, any weapon we have invented eventually gets used. If computer code exists for cracking Apple’s defenses, history argues it will be used again. It wasn’t that many years ago that we learned the government tracked every single phone call that every one of us made. License plate readers already track increasing numbers of Americans.

If we are all connected, if we are indeed a village, our religion would seem to argue that we have an obligation to protect one another from ourselves. FROM OURSELVES. Knowing everything is not something that is good for governments or individuals. In a society in which the ends justify the means, there can never be an equal application of justice for all–only equal tyranny. But come on Saturday and Sunday. Learn some texts, decide for yourself.


Rav D