Posts on the topic of "Ethics"
There's good news and bad news from the Norwegian justice system.
The good news is that terrorist mass murderer Anders Breivik has been pronounced guilty of the brutal bomb and gun rampage that left 77 people dead last year – mostly kids at summer camp.
The bad news is that Breivik has been sentenced to a grand total of 21 years in prison. His incarceration will be in a three-room cell with a TV, exercise room and Ikea-style furniture.
This is shocking.
Although the sentence can later be extended (21 years is the maximum sentence allowed by Norwegian law, except for war crimes and genocide), given the beastly, premeditated, cold-blooded nature of the crime, justice has clearly not been served.
So what were the folks in Norway thinking over there? Before we Tweet our outrage and move on to the next piece of news, perhaps we should look a bit deeper and try to understand what might be behind this Norwegian system.
I believe the reason for our adverse reaction is because the American penal system is based on "punishment": Commit a crime, and you will suffer. But in Norway and other "progressive" countries, the purpose of incarceration is geared more toward rehabilitation – treating the psychological dysfunction which spurred the crime.
As Max Fisher reports in The Atlantic
The pleasant-sounding experience of being in Norwegian prison isn't some sign of Scandinavian weakness or naïveté; it's precisely the point. A comfortable cell, clean and relaxing environment, and nice daily activities such as cooking classes are all meant to prepare the criminal for potentially difficult or painful internal reformation. Incarceration, in this thinking, is the treatment for whatever social or psychological disease led them to transgress. The criminals are not primarily wrongdoers to be punished, but broken people to be fixed...
Here's the tough thing about restorative justice: it works, as long as you don't consider retribution to be its own inherent good. Despite the lighter sentences, restorative justice systems seem to reduce crime, reduce the cost of imprisoning criminals, and reduce recidivism... Proponents, such as University of Oslo professor Thomas Mathiesen, say it's better for society overall because it isn't about "revenge, but sober, dignified treatment."
In this instance, Breivik is an unrepentant murderer, and although the system maintains hope that he will come to his senses and reform, if he doesn’t, the sentence will be extended and he will likely remain behind bars for a lifetime.
Although one case cannot be compared to another, it is interesting to note that this rehabilitation approach – as opposed to the punishment system that Americans are used to – is discussed in the Torah.
The Torah prescribes that when one commits an act of theft and cannot repay, he must become a servant to the one he victimized. Though at first glance this might sound oppressive, it is anything but. The Torah (Leviticus 25:43) declares: "Do not oppress him" – a directive to treat the thief with utmost dignity and respect. Specifically, the thief cannot be given any demeaning jobs, and the master must provide high-quality food and accommodations – to the extent that if only one portion of food or one pillow is available, it goes to the servant.
Hence the basis of the Jewish "rehabilitation" model: By placing the criminal into a family atmosphere, he is exposed to a healthy environment of caring and sharing. For a thief, who displayed a stunning lack of respect for others and their property, this is a powerful mode of rehabilitation.
Of course, details of the Jewish method differ widely from what is practiced in Norway today (the Torah example refers to theft, not mass murder), and there is no question we should be justifiably outraged at Breivik's light sentence and comfortable conditions.
So before you press the comment and express outrage that Aish.com is condoning the Norwegian decision… No – we are not condoning it. We condemn the heinous crime, and we are outraged at the Norwegian system that is giving a mass murderer comfortable treatment. We are simply saying that we can learn something from all this. Let's appreciate that in the criminal justice system, there can be room for a lofty belief in the power of a human being to reform and rehabilitate.
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Last Thursday night, some Jewish teens were hanging out in Jerusalem looking for trouble. Emotions escalated and they viciously beat some Arab boys, leaving one in critical condition.
I, as well as the entire State of Israel, am outraged. Rabbis, educators and politicians across the spectrum have denounced this vile act. A special police committee is investigating, arrests have been made, and those responsible will assuredly be punished to the full extent of the law.
The Jewish people pride ourselves in being different. Violence is not the Jewish way – especially not targeting someone due to their nationality. This troubling incident indicates that we are not doing a sufficient job educating our children in the ways of tolerance.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu forcefully declared:
"This is something that we cannot accept – not as Jews, not as Israelis. This is not our way; this goes against our way, and we condemn it in word and deed. We will quickly bring to justice those responsible for this reprehensible incident.
"We say as clearly as possible: The State of Israel is a democratic and enlightened state in which when we come across acts such as these, the entire state and all of its leaders come out together against such phenomena, and we will continue to do so. This is what makes us unique in the environment around us and this will continue to make us unique. I hope that one day our environment will change as well. But we will be persistent in our complete opposition to racism and violence."
On the flip side, the fact that all sectors of Israeli society have so strongly condemned this outrageous act shows that even in our errant moments, our moral compass remains acute.
As Ruthie Blum writes in Israel Hayom, a society is not judged by immorality in its midst, but rather by the response of its leaders, educators and the general public to it.
Blum compares the current crime to another lynch that took place in October 2000, when two Israelis took a wrong turn and ended up in Ramallah by accident. A mob of 1,000 Palestinians attacked – choking, stabbing, disemboweling, and setting the Israelis on fire. One of the murderers proudly stood at an open window and displayed his bloody hands to the cheering crowd. In the aftermath of the lynch, the Palestinian Authority made no arrests, and uttered no condemnations. (Indeed, Palestinian police helped facilitate in the lynching, and the Palestinian Authority's primary concern was to prevent video footage of the atrocity from getting into the hands of Western media outlets.)
This is no way justifies or excuses Jewish acts of violence. Yet can we see the difference?
Palestinian society today is rife with rhetoric that vilifies Jews and encourages murderous violence against them. Suicide bombers are elevated to the pinnacle of Palestinian society – lionized with poems and immortalized with dozens of schools, roads and sporting events named in the bombers' honor. In a popular Palestinian children's program, a Mickey Mouse look-alike calls on children to "annihilate the Jews" and "commit martyrdom." Ahlam Tamimi, the woman who helped carry out the gruesome Sbarro Pizzeria bombing in Jerusalem that killed 15 civilians and wounded 130, is treated like a rock star in the Arab world.
These are just a few of the thousands of examples.
To make matters worse, the Western media downplays it all: The New York Times characterized Palestinian calls to genocide as merely an "insult to Jews" ("Hamas's Insults to Jews Complicate Peace Effort," April 1, 2008). And the Christian Science Monitor quoted a Palestinian TV director that encouraging kids to jihad "isn't for teaching hate. It's for teaching children to think in the right way, to socialize them in our culture's way of life." ("Hamas's Approach to Jihad: Start 'em Young," August 20, 2007)
For peace to exist, all parties need to accept the idea of tolerant, peaceful coexistence. A sincere condemnation of violence is a crucial first step.
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My dear friend Harve Linder in Atlanta has done it again: found a deep Torah message in the headline news. The definitive Penn State investigation report was released just as we were reading the Torah portion of Pinchas, creating an amazing juxtaposition.
Recall the scene: A young graduate student walks in and sees an unspeakable incident taking place. What action does he take? Does he shout at the aggressor to stop it? Does he run out seeking help? Does he call either campus or local law enforcement officials? The answer to all these questions is "no."
Instead, he seeks out his leader, the head coach. But the coach himself doesn't know what to do. So nothing comes of it, and no one involved does the right thing for the victim, for future victims, for the university. The end result is that the abuse continues, people lose their jobs, others will go to prison, the university is harmed, and an extraordinary legacy forfeited.
Let's compare this to events in the Torah. An audacious sex crime has taken place, and a young man, Pinchas, witnesses the incident. He is incensed and knows the appropriate response. Yet before acting, he goes to the leader Moses for guidance. But Moses himself does not know what to do. And here our tales substantially diverge: Pinchas does not wait around for an investigation. He does not allow a conspiracy of silence to blanket the incident. No, he acts swiftly, precisely, and in accordance with the law. He stops the act, sends a clear public message, and ensures there are no future victims.
This is not to suggest that the Penn State graduate student should have become a vigilante, circumventing the courts. But he did lack Pinchas' passion and total commitment to doing the right thing. A bit of righteous indignation would have been well-placed, propelling him to cut through the layers of bureaucracy and malaise.
The Torah instructs us to act whenever danger is present: "Do not stand idly by your brother's blood" (Leviticus 19:16). We cannot wait for political posturing, for committee debates, or approval from public opinion. We cannot allow cover-ups and conspiracies of silence to develop. We must consistently do the right thing. Sometimes the proper action is not obvious. Even Moses occasionally forgot. But we have to learn the parameters, consult with our leaders, and act with confidence and determination. Only then will we fulfill our role of tikkun olam, and ensure there are no future victims.
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The big news in Israel last Thursday was the Madonna concert attended by 40,000 fans in metropolitan Tel Aviv. Because this was the opening gig of her new world tour, media coverage was vast and global.
Welcome to Israel 2012.
Nineteen years ago I authored an op-ed in the Jerusalem Post entitled, "Madonna: Do We Really Wanna-Be?" It coincided with the pop star's first-ever concert in Israel.
At the time, Madonna was pushing the limits of public lewdness: promoting her album "Erotica" and a book entitled simply, "Sex."
My article bemoaned how Madonna's very un-Jewish values were being imported into Israel.
Jewish communities throughout the ages have always stood against such behavior. The Jewish people are the inventors and leading exporters of core human values such as dignity, modesty and discretion.
Israel in particular is a living workshop where lofty Jewish ideals can become reality. We have built our land so beautifully and have achieved so much. But to chase after the lowly elements of Western society? Is this the expression of "light unto the nations?" Is this the culmination of 2,000 years of struggle and suffering? Is this what IDF soldiers died for? Is this being "free in our land?"
Not so long ago Israeli society still held itself to a higher standard. In the 1960s when British rock legend Cliff Richard performed in Israel, parents protested the negative effects of the raucous atmosphere. No, I’m not a prude. But the point is that Israel – the model of morality for world Jewry, and the model for all humanity – had drawn a line.
Achad HaAm called Israel "the historic center of a roving spiritual idea." When Madonna kicks off her world tour and the world watches so closely, we have to wonder: Is this really what we want them to see?
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I heard this inspiring story from my dear friend Jonathan Rosenblum.
Rabbi Avraham Ginzberg immigrated to the United States prior to World War II. He became involved in fundraising for a yeshiva, and in the course of these activities met a number of wealthy individuals.
One woman was so impressed with Rabbi Ginzberg that she included him in her will ― to the tune of $250,000. For Rabbi Ginzberg, who had a large family to support, that money was a huge financial relief. But Rabbi Ginzberg insisted that since he had met this wealthy woman as a representative of the yeshiva, the money rightfully belongs to the yeshiva, not to him.
When Rabbi Ginzberg's son heard this, he objected, pointing out his father's vast ongoing personal expenses. The son took upon himself to ask the great Rabbi Moshe Feinstein for a ruling.
Rabbi Feinstein said: Since the will named Rabbi Ginzberg specifically ― not the yeshiva ― the money does in fact belong to him.
The son raced home with the good news. When Rabbi Ginzberg heard, he erupted in joy.
"I am a man of modest means and I could never imagine being able to donate a quarter-million dollars to a yeshiva. But now that the money is rightfully mine, I can finally fulfill that dream!"
And with that, he promptly wrote a check to the yeshiva for $250,000.
This story highlights a sensation that only a lucky few enjoy: Working for an organization that likewise represents one's greatest personal aspirations. In this case, Rabbi Ginzberg was getting paid… for doing what he himself was willing to pay for. What a marvelous inspiration.
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In the seminal film Wall Street, Gordon Gekko declared: "Greed is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed… has marked the upward surge of mankind."
This week in a New York Times op-ed, an "anti-greed" crusader by the name of Greg Smith announced his resignation from the financial giant Goldman Sachs. Smith, whose clients had a total asset base of more than a trillion dollars, describes the firm's practice of "persuading your clients to invest in the stocks or other products that we are trying to get rid of because they are not seen as having a lot of potential profit." In other words, Goldman Sachs cares more about making money from its clients than making it for them.
Irrespective of whether the allegations are true or not, I don't know why we should find this surprising. When I hire a lawyer to represent me in a damage lawsuit, I am aware that he is primarily representing his own interests (profit, professional reputation, time constraints) than he is representing mine. In politics, too, the vast majority of elected officials are "looking out for number one," often at the expense of their constituencies.
Back to the financial sector. Capitalism is a wonderful institution. It improves the quality of life by fostering competition and yielding advances in many fields. Without competition we would be at the mercy of monopolists that would stifle progress and incentive for personal reward.
Yet let's be clear: The goal of capitalism is to make money. Period. Of course, many "capitalists" are caring, ethical human beings. But those values are distinct from the pure pursuit of wealth. And in a myriad of cases, the two goals will conflict.
That is why, if left unrestrained, many will choose the route of pure profit. The result, as we have tragically witnessed, is greed, corruption, and an erosion of trust that prevents the building of a fair and harmonious society.
The Jewish ideal ― built-in to Jewish law ― is that commerce must be balanced with genuine care for others. For example, the Torah (Deuteronomy 19:14) forbids a merchant from lowering his prices to the extent that it is not feasible for the competition to remain in business.
The Torah's goal is to create a just and compassionate society. Economic progress? Yes. Cutthroat competition and working against the interest of your own clients? No.
Maybe it's time to launch a Torah study revolution over on Wall Street.
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In various conversations I have about Judaism, the discussion often gets stuck on one basic point: How do we know we have a soul?
The answer, I believe, is quite intuitive. Imagine a hungry wolf and a piece of meat. The wolf will do whatever he can ― even injure other wolves ― to get that meat. For an animal, there is no concept of altruism, of "Let's stand in line," or "Perhaps that other wolf is more hungry than I," or "Maybe there are handicapped wolves back at the camp." None of that.
Some people argue that we do see animals "doing kindness" ― e.g. taking care of their young. But that is just another survival instinct. Just as animals run from danger, so too survival instincts often manifest in protecting young and in forming social groups. But altruism will never override an animal's survival instincts.
Indeed, a study of chimpanzees showed that while chimps exhibit group cooperation, when it comes to helping those not in their group, they inevitably choose the selfish option. The experiment demonstrated that "chimps don't share the same concern for the welfare of others as do humans, who routinely donate blood... volunteer for military duty, and perform other acts that benefit perfect strangers," said Joan Silk, an anthropologist at UCLA.
A soul, on the other hand, has higher needs ― love, meaning, justice ― that often run contrary to survival instincts. For example: On a pure survival level, if I have a thousand dollars, it's in my best interest to keep it for myself. To go ahead and give that away to a stranger on the other side of the world is actually contrary to my survival instinct, since reducing my resources increases the chance of becoming destitute myself.
So what does all this have to do with a soul? It is the nature of all living beings ― both humans and animals ― to seek pleasure. If we decide to give charity or help a poor person who doesn't have food, even if that means going hungry ourselves, that's a form of pleasure. There are many stories from the Holocaust of people who gave their morsel of bread to somebody else. That's the human being going beyond the "bodily pleasure" of a wolf and connecting to the altruistic giving that characterizes God.
As Rabbi Noah Weinberg zt"l points out in his classic essay, "Five Levels of Pleasure," to maximize our pleasure in life, we need to make wise choices of what pleasures to seek. Pizza on the beach is nice, but it's not the ultimate. Caring for others, or making a difficult decision to do the right thing ― these are high-level pleasures, unique to the human being.
That, in a word, indicates a Divine soul.
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Of the six closest Super Bowls of all-time, the New York Giants have won three of them, and this year was spectacularly close. But the real buzz in the news grinder is M.I.A.’s finger malfunction. The rapper’s impromptu salute during the halftime show has got the Parents Television Council and others up in arms about indecency during family programming.
I'm not a TV watcher, but something tells me that children today are exposed to a lot worse than an errant finger gesture. Of course, this doesn’t mean that watching an episode of Glee will turn a child into a social delinquent. But in Judaism we have a saying: “You are what you see.” Images that enter the mind have a lasting effect – at the least, subconsciously desensitizing us to whatever “indecency” we’re exposed to.
And yes, it can escalate. In the Aish.com article, “The Truth about TV,” Rabbi Lawrence Kelemen cites research that posits a clear correlation between the viewing of “indecencies” like violent crime, drug use, marital discord – and the rate they occur in the real world.
Mussar, the Jewish character-building system, speaks about the idea of Shmirat Einayim – lit: “guarding one’s eyes.” When it comes to inappropriate images, we have the ability to make a choice. Just because something is out there (think of an Islamic beheading video) doesn’t mean we have to watch it.
Making discriminating choices is a value – a skill, actually – that we need to teach our children. And the need for this is growing, with the increasingly constant bombardment of images and information on the Internet, billboards and smart phones. Rabbi Noah Weinberg zt”l offers some practical tools here.
Maybe this Super Bowl incident will draw much-needed attention to what seems to me a genuine educational priority for today.
P.S. Now is a good time to say "hats off" to Rabbi Yaacov Deyo, who invented the concept of SpeedDating in 1998 while teaching at Aish Los Angeles. SpeedDating has garnered dozens of TV and film mentions over the years. On Sunday, before an audience topping 100 million, SpeedDating made its Super Bowl debut in this hilarious commercial for e-Trade.