Politics and truth

Thoughts on parashat Shoftim

Menachem Mirski

You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes, in all the settlements that your God יהוה is giving you, and they shall govern the people with due justice. (Deuteronomy 16:18, the first verse of parashat Shoftim)

There are three classical theories of truth that also define what truth is. The first, formulated by Aristotle, says that truth consists in conforming to reality: what is true is what is in accordance with reality. It sounds quite obvious. This definition, of course, is logically correct – it was formulated by one of the founding fathers of logic as an exact science. However, this definition suffers from one fundamental problem: to say that something is true, to confront an idea with reality, we need to know what the reality is, right? So, in order to check if something is true, we must know this reality in advance, or more specifically – the truth about it. So in order to know the truth, we must know the truth. Sounds like taken out of statements of some politicians.

The second classical theory of truth is the concept of (mutual) consistency. According to this concept, a thought, idea, or hypothesis is true if it is consistent with other theories and concepts that are commonly believed to be true. While this concept has some application (it is widely applied in science), it is riddled with problems: for example, we need to be absolutely sure that all our other knowledge, previously acquired, is true in order to conclude that the hypothesis we are investigating is true. It is enough that one element of this logically coherent puzzle is false and our entire system may fall apart like a house of cards. Obviously, one can always come up with all sorts of arguments and strenuously defend some theories until there is nothing left to defend. Moreover, the concept of consistency itself, devoid of the condition of „compliance with reality” paves the way for all kinds of bizarre theories and various, logically coherent, lofty-sounding pseudo-academic delusions that have inspired dozens of social experiments and brought poverty, starvation, wars and death to millions of people.

The third classic concept is the so-called pragmatic theory of truth. According to this concept, a thought, idea, or theory is true if it produces the effects it says it will produce. A specific version of this concept is expressed in this week’s Torah portion:

Whereupon יהוה said to me, “They have done well in speaking thus. I will raise up for them from among their own people a prophet like yourself, in whose mouth I will put My words and who will speak to them all that I command; […] And should you ask yourselves, “How can we know that the oracle was not spoken by יהוה ?” — if the prophet speaks in the name of יהוה and the oracle does not come true, that oracle was not spoken by יהוה; the prophet has uttered it presumptuously: do not stand in dread of that person. (Deuteronomy 18:17-18,21-22)

Obviously, all of this is expressed in a context that contains an underlying premise that everything that God thinks or says is true. So if a given idea comes from God, it will come true, it will have an effect in reality – it will work in practice in accordance with its intent. If, on the other hand, it does not come true, it does not act as it „should” according to itself, then it does not come from God; it is not true. According to the Torah, one should not be afraid of such an utterance or the person who utters it. (Deut 18:22) And this is a very important suggestion that can be understood in several ways, for example: such a man is not to be feared and his „truth” can or even should be ignored.

In reality, at least from a theoretical point of view, in order to get really  close to the truth, all three theories of truth above must be applied. So if, for example, we want to gain knowledge about which political party really wants our prosperity and will finally bring the 'messianic age’, and which only deceives us to use, abuse and betray us, and give us over to our enemies, we must be sure that: 1. We know the intentions, plans and competences of these people, ideally all of them, realistically – at least of their leadership (we would actually need to know the thoughts of these people, not just what they say publicly, and definitely not what other talking heads on TV say about them). 2. Our knowledge about them is logically consistent and we do not reject given information only because it does not fit into our „wishful” puzzle, 3. The ideas and plans that they implement bring the intended results (and they are the results we desire as well). However, in practice, the implementation of points 1 and 2 requires a lot of effort and is time-consuming. Therefore, living in professionalized societies, we rely on others in our diagnosis, e.g. the media to provide us with information. This, however, does not solve the problem, only moves it elsewhere: in this situation, we have to apply points 1 and 2 to our sources of information, and therefore to the media. And since the media very often says what politicians expect of them, the situation becomes a vicious circle and becomes pretty dramatic. So let’s forget points 1 and 2, and just focus on whether the given ideas bring (their intended) results – whether the things the people say bring intended and predicted by them results. This is a good sign because it means that those people are in touch with reality and are able to influence it in an intended way.

That’s basically all we can do. Everything else, especially if it sounds like nonsense – is inconsistent or out of touch with reality – is best ignored, as well as the people who utter it.

For their own good and for our peace of mind.

Shabbat shalom,

Menachem Mirski

Menachem Mirski- student rabinacki w Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, American Jewish University, Los Angeles, USA.
Menachem Mirski is a Polish born philosopher, musician, scholar and international speaker. He earned his Ph.D. in Philosophy and is currently studying to become a Rabbi at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. His current area of interests focus on freedom of expression and thought as well as the laws of logic as it pertains to the discourse of ideology and social and political issues. Dr. Mirski has been a leader in Polish klezmer music scene for well over a decade and his LA based band is called Waking Jericho.


A Manual for the Elimination of Evil and Injustic

Thoughts on Parashat Shoftim

Menachem Mirski 

Is it possible to eliminate crime from our societies completely? Or is it possible only to eliminate one type of crime, let’s say the worst – murder? It probably is possible. What about locking all the people down in prison cells, separately. Let’s construct our societies like that. It would require three social castes: prisoners (let’s say 90% of the society), guards (9%) and various administrators and rulers (1% or less than that). If any murder would happen then it would mainly happen between the rulers fighting for power between each other, who would be the only free people in this society. Murder would be a phenomenon affecting up to 1% of the population, so the murder rate would be probably much lower than in our contemporary societies. And who would care about them killing each other. They, this 1% of the population, would be probably the most hated group in the entire society.

Or maybe let’s create a better system. In the US, for example, 93% of people in prison are men. The vast majority of murderers were involved in some sort of criminal activity before. So let’s introduce a penal code according to which even the smallest crime will be punished with a life imprisonment. Let’s be generous and create a different penal code for women who are a tiny minority of all criminals, use less alcohol and drugs which directly cause a lot of violent crimes and who are less likely to be recidivists. They also do better at school, on average, and are less often homeless. There is a lot of arguments that they shouldn’t be treated as harshly as men regarding crimes.

Let’s create a social system like that. Not only murder would basically disappear but also many smaller crimes. So what’s the problem, why can’t we do that?

This week’s Torah portion starts with a call for establishing law enforcement institutions: judges (chieftains, Hebrew shoftim) and officials (Hebr. shotrim):

You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes, in all the settlements that the LORD your God is giving you, and they shall govern the people with due justice. (Deut. 16:18)

Immediately after this, the Torah points to the fundamental principles of the rule of law:

You shall not judge unfairly: you shall show no partiality; you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just. (Deut. 16:19)

Here, the Torah prohibits bribery, but the principles of a fair trial are discussed elsewhere in the Torah:

You shall not render an unfair decision: do not favor the poor or show deference to the rich; judge your kinsman fairly. (Lev. 19:15)

or at the beginning of the Book of Deuteronomy:

I charged your magistrates at that time as follows, “Hear out your fellow men, and decide justly between any man and a fellow Israelite or a stranger. You shall not be partial in judgment: hear out low and high alike. Fear no man, for judgment is God’s. And any matter that is too difficult for you, you shall bring to me and I will hear it.” (Deut. 1:16-17)

Our Torah portion for this week concludes its call for fairness with another call:

Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the LORD your God is giving you.  (Deut. 16:20)

Tzedek, tzedek tidrof… The Hebrew verb lidrof used here means to be behind, follow after, pursue, persecute, run after. Exactly, justice is something you shall pursue. Not ‘establish’. The Torah is aware of the answer I suggested implicitly at the beginning: that it’s impossible to eliminate injustice completely from the world because it would require to eliminate mercy, love, compassion and put tremendous restrictions on human freedom. God, according to the Torah, has never intended to create a world like that. Probably nobody would want to live in that kind of world except some psychopaths.

Justice is not something that can be decreed by some decree. It’s a never ending process. Injustice then is not a problem that can be fixed the way we can fix a car or airplane: by fixing a system that is working improperly. Justice in society, while being no less complex than an airplane, contains another crucial and incalculable element: freedom of human decision. This element cannot be eliminated.

Yes, some forms of injustice have been eliminated in the course of history, like slavery for example. But it hasn’t been eliminated completely – there are slave auctions in Libya, there are other forms of human enslavement that can be considered slavery – in China, for instance. Let alone North Korea where the entire society is held hostage by a group of insane despots. Nor has slavery been eliminated permanently in places where it was eliminated: there is no guarantee that when things get really bad in the world some of old practices based purely on domination and power will be reestablished, even with the acceptance of entire nations. Thus we should never take for granted what we – as humanity – have achieved.

For the same reasons – freedom of human decision and its fundamental value – neither evil nor the human inclination towards evil has ever disappeared. To get rid of (moral) evil in the world we would have to fix the so-called human nature, as the prophets believed. The Rabbinical view of yetzer hatov – the inclination for good – and yetzer harah – the inclination for evil – is more developed and more useful practically: it doesn’t claim that yetzer hara should be eliminated. According to the rabbinic view on the problem the goal is to employ those bad, impossible to eradicate inclinations, to work towards good purposes. This philosophy is not only positive; it’s also easier to put into practice, when understood properly: it can take a form of rewiring your brain in which you modify your impulses and processes they cause to work for desirable outcomes.

It’s a better approach than hating the evil and injustice in my opinion. Hating evil and injustice is ultimately about hating something in human nature. Thus it is very important to strictly define this thing that supposedly causes all the evil we fight with. It’s very important to define it precisely and make sure that this element is not something that is, in fact, essentially good, like desire for freedom, ambition or even something that is relatively good like rivalry or competitiveness. If something is relatively good it basically belongs to the realm beyond good and evil. It is more of a tool and tools tend to be useful.

We should keep all the above in mind when debating other negative social phenomena we deal with and want to eradicate, like corruption, theft, racism or prejudice. To completely eliminate them we would have to employ similar measures like those we would need to eliminate murder (but because they are lighter offenses, we probably wouldn’t have to implement them in all the realms of human life.) We cannot eliminate erroneous thinking and speaking by law not suppressing freedom of speech and thought. We can minimize it and its negative impact through proper education but only to some extent and to the extent the education we offer is correct – we also cannot completely eliminate errors from our teachings.

As I showed at the beginning, eliminating one kind of evil, one kind of injustice, here and now, would require totalitarian measures. That’s probably one of the reasons for which people obsessed with only one or two particular forms of evil or who very narrowly define what is the worst evil in the world (which often is not the worst, sometimes it is not evil at all) develop tendencies to totalitarian thinking. I believe that part of the proper attitude towards evil and injustice is be able to perceive many different kinds of evil and injustice, and to put them in some sort of hierarchy, as we do with things we consider good and just It doesn’t mean that different people shouldn’t be specialized in fighting particular forms of injustice or evil. They should. But it is also very good and healthy to see the evil, suffering and injustice you are fighting within the context of the evil, suffering and injustice other people are fighting with.

Shabbat shalom!

Menachem Mirski- student rabinacki w Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, American Jewish University, Los Angeles, USA