Thursday, January 1, 2009

Vayigash: States of Emergency

All theocentric systems of thought have taken strong exception to any political philosophies that espouse strict command economies and major social engineering as prominent features of their programs. Witness, in the past century, major religions’ unbending opposition to Marxism. To be sure, the coummunist regimes’ avowed atheism played a major part; but even if they had been less militant in their godlessness, the opposition would have been nearly as unyielding.

Yet this weeks parsha, continuing from last weeks, details how Yosef, by now the almost sole source of law in Egypt (Pharaoh seemingly playing a W. role to Yosef’s Cheney), institutes an absolutely draconian command economy whereby first the money, then "moveables", and then the real estate of the Egyptian population come under the exclusive ownership of the Pharaonic regime. (All Egyptians were circumsized; all were reduced to some version of vassalage--while their offer to become actual slaves was not effected, there was a wholesale population transfer to diminish any feeling of land ownership.) Ostensibly, as I mentioned last week, this attempt to force equality on the entire population was intended to make life easier for Bnei Yisrael when these laws were to become applicable only to them. Alas.)

From the text, we can’t directly ascertain the Torah’s attitude toward this political system. In fact, it stands to reason that, in theory, the Torah might not find Yosef’s dictatorship particularly problematic, especially as it strongly favors monarchical governments, and furthermore, holds up unquestioning obeisance to a monarch as a paradigm of Avodas Hashem.

Moreover, there are other parshiyot that better lend themselves to discussions of whether Judaism favors a free market over a command economy (Behar and Bechukosai, especially) and the perils of social engineering (the story of Migdal Bavel in Noach).

I offer that, similar to what I said last week about taking advantage of ethno-political tensions for Jewish benefit, that sometimes what may not be the “best” solution may be the only solution. At the time of Yosef’s ascendance, the world was about to be plunged into its greatest economic and agricultural crisis. The Torah presents all of Yosef’s executive orders as specific responses to the increasing state of emergency.

Moreover, the fact that the Torah details how Yosef’s policy only became more incrementally draconian as the situation got worse, indicating that the socio-economic systems being implemented were far from the optimum.

My interpretation is that, on occasion, there might be something even less praiseworthy than exploiting socio-political tension. It’s the introduction of a “state of emergency” and its attendant decrees in cases where there may be none.

Anyone who has been the beneficiary of a Orthodox Torah education and is familiar with its interaction with the contemporary world at large is all too familiar with the incessant kol korei from pulpits and classrooms about the various spiritual state[s] of emergency that exist[s]. “Things have never been worse.” One wonders whether to apply Rambam’s dictum regarding the mitzvah d’oraisa of prayer applying only in crisis, but since everyday life is ipso facto a crisis, the mitzvah applies daily; or, whether one applies Reb Nachman Breslover’s adage that if you say “things can’t get any worse”, they do. (Murphy had nothing on Reb Nachman.) Alan Dershowitz’ "Tsures Theory of Jewish Survival”—that Judaism can only thrive in perpetual crisis, and that it finds itself in a worse crisis when there is less of a crisis, such as in contemporary Ameriocan society—further illustrates this dilemma.

I am not going to dispute the degree of crisis that does or does not exist ona hashkafic level. There is certainly enough of a crisis on a purely existential level (although whether that is actually any worse now than previously is also arguable). I will instead provide a few examples of why using a Crisis Hashkafa as an educational tool, if not a paradigm, can ultimately be destructive. One is Biblical, the other is more current.

The Gemara in Chelek relates how King Hezekiah instituted possibly the most compulsory system of education in Jewish, if not all recorded, history: he stuck a sword in the doorway of the beis medrash, saying “Anyone who doesn’t learn Torah will be run through with the sword.” The results, in his day, were immediately beneficial: everybody—including and especially children—knew halacha backwards and forwards. However, when his son Menashe ascended to the throne twelve years later, thirty-three years of the most widespread debauchery and bloodshed yet in Jewish history commenced. One can discern a correlation between the two when one remembers that Chizkiyahu’s policy was in response to an immediate and grave crisis: the imminent Assyrian invasion. Whether the policy was continued following Sancheriv’s defeat is not recorded; what is evident from the historical progression is that the continuation of a policy designed from crisis mode is unsustainable, and even its proper application can have unwanted effects later.

The second involves a speech I heard from prominent frum attorney Ban Brafman, famous for representing hip-hop artists and chareidim in legal difficulties. (I had to mention both; they both wear black hats.) He addressed the discomfiting phenomenon of very public criminal cases then pending against visibly fervently Orthodox Jews, some of whom he had been called to represent. Musing aloud at what their motivation might be, he offered that, in the “old country” where the authorities—both local and national—were usually openly anti-semitic, there existed a “sate of war” whereby a degree of subterfuge in dealings with the world outside the shtetl was condoned if not outright encouraged. Unfortunately, he offered, this attitude did not change when the setting changed, despite Rav Moshe Feinstein’s explicit characterization of the US as a “malchus shel chesed”. The very public chillulei Hashem that have resulted do not have be elaborated further, the secular media’s ostensible anti-chareidi bias notwithstanding.

To paraphrase Reb Nachman, if you keep saying it’s an emergency, then you’ll get an emergency.

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