No More Free Passes
A couple months ago Sam Harris, the prolific neuroscientist, author, and philosopher was featured in an intense debate with the creator of the Dilbert comics and vocal Trump supporter Scott Adams. The debate was centered around Trump’s character and whether or not he is morally fit to lead our country.
Sam Harris argued that from Trump’s track record in both his business and personal life, there is no reason why anyone should trust him, as he has continuously proven to be of low moral character. Adams replied that if anyone’s life was analyzed with as much depth as the media has done with Trump, they would also find themselves constantly at the center of a national firestorm.
In the last few months, it seems as if every famous man from Hollywood to politics is involved in some type of sexual scandal from the past. It has gotten so bad that I have began to see bumper stickers that read “Anyone who has not committed sexual assault 2020”.
What does this say about our society, when it is no longer surprising to hear that yet another leader or influencer of our nation has committed some terrible act earlier in their life?
The fundamental problem seems to be the way that we treat famous and successful people in giving them multiple free passes simply because of their status. Every time that one is able to get away with an atrocious act, the chance they will continue to act in this way simply increases.
Just last month, three UCLA basketball players were caught stealing from a few different stores in China on a school trip (a crime that easily could have landed them multiple years in prison, or at the very least expelled), and, after Trump pleaded with the Chinese government to release them, their big punishment was having to sit a few games on the bench. If we are talking about them learning their lesson, the only lesson that they should learn is that as long as they continue to be good at basketball, they can get away with pretty much anything.
One of the central ideas of the Torah and the linchpin of western morality is that people should be judged equally regardless of status (Ex 23:3, Lev 19:15, Deut 19:13). This idea can only arise from the premise that all people are created equal (Gen 1:27) bound up within the framework of ethical monotheism. If there is one God that is infinitely greater than any human, then all symbols of status and wealth are rendered equally meaningless when compared to this infinity. God therefore acts as the moral imperative or foundational belief that allows for the argument that people actually deserve to be treated and judged equally.
This analysis of Biblical ethics is also able to shed light on another important, but often misunderstood institution of lex talionis ((the law of an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth, etc). While the idea of an “eye for an eye” (Lev 24:20) was actually first conceived of in the Code of Hammurabi (written hundreds of years before the Torah), it was the Torah that ensured that this law would apply across social and political statuses, by claiming that there should only be one manner of law for the citizen and stranger (Lev 24:22).
There is a lot of misunderstanding regarding this law. When many hear of it, their gut reaction is that this practice is fundamentally barbaric and they may recall the misquoted Gandhi statement that “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind”. Now this sounds nice, but we need to contextualize what a law like this would have actually meant for the ethics of its time.
First, it is important to consider that this law limits the punishment that one can receive from an action, regardless of the status of the man on the receiving side of the act. For instance if a peasant blinds a rich man, whether by accident or on purpose, the rich man cannot demand that he be put to death; rather the most he can demand is a reciprocal punishment. This understanding has actually caused some scholars to argue that the verse should be translated “only an eye for an eye”. This law again points to the conclusion that the eye of a poor man is just as important as the eyes of the rich.
Furthermore, this law prevents individuals with a higher social or financial status from getting away with evil acts by simply paying it off. Since it was common practice in ancient Mesopotamia to only fine someone for purposely inflicting physical damage, it created a system where the rich could go around abusing their workers, enemies, and fellow citizens, simply because they had enough money to pay for it. This law basically says that there is no real monetary compensation for taking out one’s eye (or any other physical injury), thereby stopping the practice of the financial elite being able to get away with these acts.
The ancient Israelites understood that in order to establish a lasting society, people needed to be judged equally. All throughout the Bible we see leaders getting punished and rebuked by others, and status (whether one is a king, prophet, or priest) is never taken into account.
I believe that the array of recent scandals is more reflective of our tendency to overlook the wrongdoings of people in positions of power, than simply a reflection of what happens when the average citizen is closely scrutinized. The only way to fix this problem is for citizens and organizations alike to stop giving powerful people a multiplicity of free pasees. If anything, a person who is a political or iconic leader should be acting in an exemplary way rather than in immoral one.
This is just another way that the moral principles and system created by ancient Israel continues to ring true deep into modernity and how studying these laws in depth can change the way that we view our world today.
Have something to add? We'd love to hear from you. Please comment below to share.
What is the Jewish view of the death penalty? See answers from Orthodox, Conservative and Reform rabbis here.
If you have a question about Jewish values that you would like to ask rabbis from multiple denominations, click here to enter your question. We will ask rabbis on our panel for answers and post them. You can also search our repository of over 700 questions and answers about Jewish values.
For more great Jewish content, please subscribe in the right hand column. Once you confirm your subscription, you'll get an email whenever new content is published to the Jewish Values Online blog.