Idealism vs. Realism: VaYera 5774

Puritans ruin everything. That, at least, is one way to summarize the spectacle of the recently ended government shutdown that brought our economy, and perhaps the global financial system, to the brink of disaster. Politicians who are unable to negotiate a compromise, and who are willing to inflict horrific consequences on the public unless they get their way, violate the social contract, causing great damage to others and ultimately to themselves. Still, people caught in a puritanical craze can find it impossible to see the implications of their own behavior. All they recognize is their own principle, and any gesture of compromise can seem like a betrayal of their most cherished values. Yankees

In contrast, consider Abraham, a man of principle, and yet one who never hesitates to engage in negotiations, fighting for the best deal possible rather than insisting on perfection. This is how I read the famous dialogue that he has with God over the fate of Sodom and Gomorra. God engages Abraham as a public defender of the sinful cities so that Abraham can demonstrate his righteous leadership, and perhaps so that God can, through an adversarial system, govern the world more justly. God doesn’t quite threaten to wipe out the cities, and certainly doesn’t state any intention to kill the innocent—read verse 21 carefully—but Abraham accepts his role as defense counsel with alacrity and masterfully reduces the liability of the sinful cities.

Abraham keeps arguing until he gets God to spare the cities if only ten righteous individuals can be found within them. Why stop at ten? Was that the best deal available? Could it be that God just decided, enough already, and walked out of the negotiations (see v.33)? But if the death of fifty innocents is unacceptable, then why should 9 or even 1 innocent death be tolerated? Why didn’t Abraham go chasing after God saying, hold on, I’m not done?! Afterwards, why didn’t Abraham complain to God about the ruined cities? What happened to the zealous defender of the innocent? 

The Sages learn court procedure from this episode. In Avot D’Rabbi Natan A (37) they discuss the virtue of letting a person finish his (or her) statement before responding. It is perfectly obvious to these Sages that God would not destroy a city with 50 saints, or even three of them, but God waited for Abraham to finish his advocacy before moving on. Bereshit Rabba (49:14) describes a more subtle process. The judge waits for the defense counsel to finish his remarks before standing to leave. This implies that the defense counsel (seneigor) controls the proceedings. Yet they note that counsel will continue to speak only until the judge stops showing favor. In other words, a good lawyer must pay close attention to the facial expressions of the judge, and try to conclude his advocacy before the judge gets annoyed. This account well reflects the approach of Abraham. While he opens with a tone of righteous indignation (Halilah lekha! Far be it from You!), he soon modulates his tone into one of realistic bargaining, and quits when he senses that the best deal has been secured for his clients.

Abraham’s approach is not puritanical, but rather pragmatic. A certain amount of innocent suffering is unavoidable in the world—nothing is perfect. But gross injustice must be fought. Abraham tacitly accepts God’s authority to draw the line between acceptable and unacceptable injustice, but he realizes that God expects him to speak up when confronted by an enormity of innocent suffering.

It is not only our representatives in Congress who should be expected to modulate between principled declarations and pragmatic deals. Every citizen is faced with challenges between idealism and practicality. Every election is an exercise in determining which of the available candidates is likely to do more good than evil in office. Beyond the ballot box, there is our role in the justice system. Anyone who has served in a jury knows that the great values of truth and justice are often compromised as the system seeks to produce the best (or least bad) results for the situation.

It is this realistic perspective that informed the responsum written by Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky for the CJLS on “Onesh Mavet,” the death penalty in American law. I have attached a final copy of his paper, which was approved on Tuesday (and for which I voted). Rabbi Kalmanofsky is clear from start to finish that the practice of capital punishment in American law is bad policy and should be opposed and eventually abolished with the activism of the Jewish community. Nevertheless, he asks, since Federal law and most states currently allow for capital punishment, what is an observant Jew to do if called upon to participate in legal proceedings that could result in an execution? May we serve as witnesses or jurors? Prosecutors or judges? As executioners? Rabbi Kalmanofsky develops a subtle argument, saying that for all of its flaws, the death penalty is a legitimate American law, and Jewish citizens may and perhaps must participate in the system of law, despite their concerns about the efficacy, fairness and justice of the practice of capital punishment. Indeed, should people of conscience recuse themselves from the proceedings, then their place may well be taken by vindictive people who are not concerned with the rights of the accused. Idealism can result in greater suffering; puritanism can pervert justice.

I supported this paper because I was convinced by Rabbi Kalmanofsky that the government has the right to impose the death penalty, and that for all our opposition to the law, recusing ourselves from legal proceedings will not benefit defendants or improve the law. That said, it is clear that capital punishment is a deeply flawed practice in America. Hundreds of people have been sentenced to death, only to be subsequently exonerated. People of color and poor people are far more likely to be sentenced to death than are the white and wealthy. The Conservative Movement has opposed capital punishment in America for decades, and I think that we should become more outspoken in our opposition. Nevertheless, should we find ourselves in the difficult position of being called to jury service for a criminal trial that could lead to a death sentence, I agree with Rabbi Kalmanofsky that we should participate in the process and advocate for the fairest application of justice possible. In this way we will become Zera Avraham, the true heirs of Abraham, the teacher of righteousness and justice.

Note: My friend Professor Lisa Gordis of Barnard College, an expert in the Puritans, corrected me for relying on the stereotype of the Puritans of New England, who apparently were not entirely puritanical, much as the ancient Pharisees may not have been so Pharisaical!


  בראשית פרק יח, יז-לג

(יז) וַיקֹוָק אָמָר הַמְכַסֶּה אֲנִי מֵאַבְרָהָם אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי עֹשֶׂה: (יח) וְאַבְרָהָם הָיוֹ יִהְיֶה לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל וְעָצוּם וְנִבְרְכוּ־בוֹ כֹּל גּוֹיֵי הָאָרֶץ: (יט) כִּי יְדַעְתִּיו לְמַעַן אֲשֶׁר יְצַוֶּה אֶת־בָּנָיו וְאֶת־בֵּיתוֹ אַחֲרָיו וְשָׁמְרוּ דֶּרֶךְ יְקֹוָק לַעֲשׂוֹת צְדָקָה וּמִשְׁפָּט לְמַעַן הָבִיא יְקֹוָק עַל־אַבְרָהָם אֵת אֲשֶׁר־דִּבֶּר עָלָיו: (כ) וַיֹּאמֶר יְקֹוָק זַעֲקַת סְדֹם וַעֲמֹרָה כִּי־רָבָּה וְחַטָּאתָם כִּי כָבְדָה מְאֹד: (כא) אֵרֲדָה־נָּא וְאֶרְאֶה הַכְּצַעֲקָתָהּ הַבָּאָה אֵלַי עָשׂוּ כָּלָה וְאִם־לֹא אֵדָעָה: (כב) וַיִּפְנוּ מִשָּׁם הָאֲנָשִׁים וַיֵּלְכוּ סְדֹמָה וְאַבְרָהָם עוֹדֶנּוּ עֹמֵד לִפְנֵי יְקֹוָק: (כג) וַיִּגַּשׁ אַבְרָהָם וַיֹּאמַר הַאַף תִּסְפֶּה צַדִּיק עִם־רָשָׁע: (כד) אוּלַי יֵשׁ חֲמִשִּׁים צַדִּיקִם בְּתוֹךְ הָעִיר הַאַף תִּסְפֶּה וְלֹא־תִשָּׂא לַמָּקוֹם לְמַעַן חֲמִשִּׁים הַצַּדִּיקִם אֲשֶׁר בְּקִרְבָּהּ: (כה) חָלִלָה לְּךָ מֵעֲשֹׂת כַּדָּבָר הַזֶּה לְהָמִית צַדִּיק עִם־רָשָׁע וְהָיָה כַצַּדִּיק כָּרָשָׁע חָלִלָה לָּךְ הֲשֹׁפֵט כָּל־הָאָרֶץ לֹא יַעֲשֶׂה מִשְׁפָּט: (כו) וַיֹּאמֶר יְקֹוָק אִם־אֶמְצָא בִסְדֹם חֲמִשִּׁים צַדִּיקִם בְּתוֹךְ הָעִיר וְנָשָׂאתִי לְכָל־הַמָּקוֹם בַּעֲבוּרָם: (כז) וַיַּעַן אַבְרָהָם וַיֹּאמַר הִנֵּה־נָא הוֹאַלְתִּי לְדַבֵּר אֶל־אֲדֹנָי וְאָנֹכִי עָפָר וָאֵפֶר: (כח) אוּלַי יַחְסְרוּן חֲמִשִּׁים הַצַּדִּיקִם חֲמִשָּׁה הֲתַשְׁחִית בַּחֲמִשָּׁה אֶת־כָּל־הָעִיר וַיֹּאמֶר לֹא אַשְׁחִית אִם־אֶמְצָא שָׁם אַרְבָּעִים וַחֲמִשָּׁה: (כט) וַיֹּסֶף עוֹד לְדַבֵּר אֵלָיו וַיֹּאמַר אוּלַי יִמָּצְאוּן שָׁם אַרְבָּעִים וַיֹּאמֶר לֹא אֶעֱשֶׂה בַּעֲבוּר הָאַרְבָּעִים: (ל) וַיֹּאמֶר אַל־נָא יִחַר לַאדֹנָי וַאֲדַבֵּרָה אוּלַי יִמָּצְאוּן שָׁם שְׁלֹשִׁים וַיֹּאמֶר לֹ אֶעֱשֶׂה אִם־אֶמְצָא שָׁם שְׁלֹשִׁים: (לא) וַיֹּאמֶר הִנֵּה־נָא הוֹאַלְתִּי לְדַבֵּר אֶל־אֲדֹנָי אוּלַי יִמָּצְאוּן שָׁם עֶשְׂרִים וַיֹּאמֶר לֹא אַשְׁחִית בַּעֲבוּר הָעֶשְׂרִים: (לב) וַיֹּאמֶר אַל־נָא יִחַר לַאדֹנָי וַאֲדַבְּרָה אַךְ־הַפַּעַם אוּלַי יִמָּצְאוּן שָׁם עֲשָׂרָה וַיֹּאמֶר לֹא אַשְׁחִית בַּעֲבוּר הָעֲשָׂרָה: (לג) וַיֵּלֶךְ יְקֹוָק כַּאֲשֶׁר כִּלָּה לְדַבֵּר אֶל־אַבְרָהָם וְאַבְרָהָם שָׁב לִמְקֹמוֹ:

מסכתות קטנות מסכת אבות דרבי נתן נוסחא א פרק לז

כיוצא בו באברהם אבינו כשהיה מתפלל על אנשי סדום אמר לו הקדוש ברוך הוא אם אמצא בסדום חמשים צדיקים ונשאתי לכל המקום בעבורם (בראשית י”ח כ”ו) גלוי וידוע לפני מי שאמר והיה העולם שאלו היו מצוין בסדום ג’ או ה’ צדיקים לא גרם בה עון אלא המתין הקדוש ברוך הוא את אברהם עד שסיים דבריו ואח”כ השיבו שנאמר וילך ה’ כאשר כלה לדבר אל אברהם (שם שם ל”ג) כביכול אמר לו הרי אני נפטר שנאמר ואברהם שב למקומו (שם שם):

בראשית רבה (וילנא) פרשת וירא פרשה מט

יד וילך ה’ כאשר כלה לדבר אל אברהם, הדיין הזה כל זמן שהסניגור מלמד הוא ממתין, נשתתק הסניגור עמד לו הדיין, כך וילך ה’ כאשר כלה לדבר אל אברהם, הסניגור הזה כל זמן שהדיין מסביר לו פנים הוא מלמד, עמד לו הדיין נשתתק הסניגור, כך וילך ה’ כאשר כלה לדבר אל אברהם, וכתיב ואברהם שב למקומו, הקטיגור הזה כל זמן שהסניגור מלמד והדיין מסביר לו פנים ממתין עמד לו הדיין נשתתק הסניגור והמקטרג הולך לעשות שליחותו, כך וילך ה’ וכתיב ויבואו שני המלאכים סדומה בערב.