Immoral Compass

Jewish Light Editorial

Torture represents one of the basest forms of conduct we can engage in as humans. So are there times it’s okay as Americans? As Jews?

The recently released Senate Intelligence Committee report on Central Intelligence Agency activities has overwhelmed us with its graphic depiction of shocking treatments. Not only of high-value terrorist targets, but of those for whom the CIA had little if no evidence of complicity in 9-11 or other planned attacks on the United States.

We certainly can’t slam the door shut on the issue the way former Vice President Dick Cheney attempted to do on “Meet the Press” over the weekend. In talking about the report, Cheney suggested that torturing innocents is justified to prevent potential attacks. And he essentially validated the actions of the CIA based on the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel memo in 2002, even though much of that content was repudiated two years later.

Cheney tried to argue his way into a justification that if the government has approved an action, it cannot comprise torture. But this is Orwellian at best, and lies in the fallacious assumption that a government decision cannot be wrong.


It’s of course an incredibly tough issue when the threat of a great harm looms large. After all, if one knew for sure in advance that torturing one guilty person would absolutely save thousands or millions of lives, would not the equation be easier to solve for many of us?

But it’s not so in reality. Intelligence leads to an arrest, but we don’t always know the complicity level of the accused, we don’t know what they know or don’t know, and we don’t know what will extricate information that they may or may not possess. And there’s plenty of data suggesting that torture methodologies aren’t effective in extracting the essentials that could head off future bad acts.

Even though thoughtful deliberation from a moral perspective might not yield firm answers in every instance, we must start there so that we are aware of the difficult and critical balance between individual and societal rights.

Under Jewish law a rodef is a “pursuer,” someone who is threatening the life of one or more persons. The law allows, even obligates, Jews to save an intended victim from murder by a rodef. Under some interpretations, then, there are circumstances when it’s both appropriate and necessary to extract information, to treat a person with knowledge of plots and bad deeds as a sort of surrogate rodef, to save others’ lives.

Much has been written about the subject, and there are no easy answers. Several Orthodox rabbinic scholars have weighed in on the matter in recent years, as have those from other Jewish groups like Rabbis for Human Rights, the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly and the Union of Reform Judaism. Some attempt to strike a balance and others assert categorial refusal to acknowledge any legitimate use of torture.

It would be hard to take the information rendered in the CIA report and accept those practices under any circumstances. The lack of oversight, review, ethics and application of any human decency whatsoever appears to have been blatant and consistent.

What is harder to say is that there is no possible circumstance under which any single tactic could be used. To make the most preposterous argument in favor of the most atrocious conduct: If a nuclear weapon were about to go off and a convicted felon were  known to have the code to disarm it and was known to have given information in the past when physically subjected to such heinous tactics, would you say no to using extraordinary methods?

Such a situation may occur in a television potboiler but virtually never in real life, thus illustrating how narrowly our decisions in this area must be drawn. For if we follow the slippery slope of the CIA and allow what appears to be the cavalier use of subhuman practices to become the norm, then we’re acting with the same paucity of moral depth that defines enemies of civilized society.

Eric Garner and Ferguson are symptoms of a deeper problem

By Suzanne Feinspan

WASHINGTON — I sat down earlier this month to write about what happened in Ferguson. As I began to write, there was no doubt in my mind that there would be a “next time” as soon as we hit the next news cycle, if not sooner.

Then I heard the news that the New York City police officer responsible for the death of Eric Garner would not be charged. I was struck by the fact that I could write this article every day and just leave a blank spot to fill in a new name.

This is not just about Michael Brown or Eric Garner. These cases are not anomalies but symptoms of something much deeper.

We have a system in this country that lets some get ahead while keeping others in the cycle of poverty. We see this play out in the disparities in educational opportunities available to low-income African-American students compared with middle-class white students. We see it in who can buy a home and what kind of mortgage options are available to them. And we see it in the unequal application of drug laws that send huge numbers of black men to jail for drug crimes committed in nearly equal numbers by white individuals. These are just a few examples from a much longer list.

As Jews, we have in recent history benefited greatly from a system that has actively held down our black brothers and sisters. The G.I. Bill and the various programs enacted under the New Deal helped many white Jews 

move into the middle class while either explic- itly or in application excluding many African- Americans.

I say this not to impart guilt upon those of us who benefited, but as a reminder. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously said, “There is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings, that indif- ference to evil is worse than evil itself, that in a free society, some are guilty but all are responsible.”

Jewish-Americans are responsible for understanding how the systems that helped us advance also prevented so many others from doing the same. We must understand how these systems played a role in perpetuating racial and economic inequality, to bear wit- ness, and then to act for change.

Many people have told me that they are out- raged but simply don’t know what to do. We cannot allow ourselves to be paralyzed by the sheer size of the problem, to simply express our sadness and outrage until it passes through the media cycle. Inevitably there will be another “next time” until we as a society fix the larger system that allows the injustices to occur.

At AVODAH, we have been discussing an idea and recently put a name to it: Tikkun Ma’arechet, repairing the system. This frame- work is vital because the injustice we are see- ing is the result of intersecting systems in our society that are badly in need of repair. A bro- ken system has provided many Jewish- Americans with privilege and power. We have an opportunity to use that same power to fix it.

What is our role in that repair? Here’s a start:

Have hard conversations with the people we care about. Race and economic inequality are emotionally charged issues to discuss. It’s easy to disengage when someone disagrees with your perspective or says something offensive, but those are the moments when we must dig deep and continue the dialogue. Take a deep breath. Acknowledge your feelings of frustration, anger and impatience. Think about how to make these issues connect on a personal level. But above all, keep talking. If we only talk to those who agree with us, we won’t be able to move things forward. And remember that having these conversations is not a natural ability; it’s a vital skill that is honed over time.

Support work to address the systemic issues. There are many in the Jewish commu- nity and beyond who are already engaged in Tikkun Ma’arechet, but it isn’t glamorous work. They need to know that others support them and believe in their vision. These organi- zations need volunteers, they need people to show up and speak up, and they need support to grow their work to be even more impactful.

Learn about being an ally. While we have a role to play, it isn’t always about standing in front, especially as people with privilege. It’s less important to lead on everything than to show up and be supportive. Listen to the sto- ries of people most affected by racial injustice and understand those stories as lived experi- ence, even if what you hear challenges your own perspective.

Pace yourself, but start marching. Ethics of the Fathers teaches us that we are not expect- ed to complete the task, but neither are we free to desist from it. The work of Tikkun Ma’arechet is not something we will complete in our lifetimes. But we must begin, and begin now. Lives are at stake today, tomorrow and the day after. We cannot stand idly by.

Our work must continue until there are no more “next times.”