Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Mishpatim 76 – Questioning Authority

A teacher walked around a school wearing a T-shirt   with ' Question Authority ' written on it. A kid approached the teacher and asked ' Who is Authority '. It is difficult to imagine a teacher wearing such a shirt in a religious school, but it is the same message we see in the Talmud, Shevuot 31. In court, a   student thinks  that a poor person is in the right and innocent and the rich person is liable and in the wrong, but his Rabbi, the judge holds differently. He  is  told to voice his disagreement with the judge, and not remain silent.  When, according to his opinion he thinks that his Rabbi, the judge  is making a mistake he should not wait but intervene and express his opinion and of course in a respectable way.  He does not have to be concerned about his Rabbi's possible loss of esteem and respect and he should not fear any reprisals or retaliation by the rich man. He should  speak out for the sake of coming to the truth and distancing himself from dishonesty. The Talmud here is not speaking about a disagreement in learning, but in actual p'sak, how a case in a beit din, a  law court  should be judged. And it obvious that the student should question his rabbi, the authority figure when it comes socio-moral learning,   as to how the rabbi conducts himself in the world. This  is especially true where corruption and a lack of honesty is involved. 

The Talmud learns this from the verse - מדבר שקר תרחק - Distance yourself from dishonesty and untruths.  A person has to take steps to live his life in a way that he is not forced to lie or be dishonest.  Being financially independent goes a long way in helping a person's be honest and have integrity. In this area religious institutions are challenged and pressure can be brought that can make one compromise one's integrity and adhering to God's will. When one is involved in mitzvoth, good deeds, expressing gratitude , providing a livelihood for teachers and support for students learning in a Yeshiva ,  people can feel a sense of self- righteousness – נגיעה הצדקות  and justify ' cutting corners' and permitting one to be dishonest for the sake of a greater cause.  And when the cause involves a woman who is  ' perceived as an agunah', a woman who is ' chained' because he husband refuses to free her by giving her a divorce- get, and the husband is being called an evil person, a rasha, the eyes of people are totally blinded. They then  believe and act in a way that' the means justify the end. '

 In fact, after the Torah encourages one to distance oneself from dishonesty, it warns people not to take bribes. The Alter from Slabodka explains that we might expect people of lesser greatness to take bribes and certainly justify it for the sake of a greater cause, but the great people, ' gedolim', would never do such a thing. So when the Torah talks about bribery and great people --do not take a bribe, because bribery blinds the eyes of the wise and corrupts the words of the righteous -   it is not about money. The Alter from Slabodka explains that the word for a bribe – sho' chad implies that because of a favor being done to them or for some other reason, there is an oneness, a total identification with that person. This oneness and identification  prevents a person from seeing the other in a bad light and being the guilty partner.  So to identify with a woman who is having problems getting a get- a religious divorce is Ok , but this identification blinds one, and one cannot act as a judge in the dispute between the husband and wife. Each case is different, sometimes the woman is getting the worst end of the deal and it can even be a majority of cases, but sometimes the man is the more innocent party. And of course a final decision has to take into account the children and how the couple will co-parent after the divorce, so identification with either party is problematic.

Questioning and challenging authority is encouraged because it is for the sake of truth and establishing God's authority in the world and personal growth in Torah. And this process means that people have to see ' mistakes as our friends ' in the knowledge that אין אדם עומד על דברי תורה אא"כ נכשל בהם - one only really understands the words of the Torah until one stumbles, makes a mistake in them. Mistakes are also  not the problem, because the focus is on Teshuva, repenting and improving, not the falling, but getting up. People who are constantly involved in Teshuva are ready to admit mistakes and see them as a learning opportunity. In fact, it is acknowledged that great leaders are the ones who have to courage to expose their vulnerability and admit their mistakes or lack of knowledge or competence in certain areas.  The lesson - being willing and have the courage to expose one's vulnerability is learned  from Yehuda and King David.  Exposing vulnerability promotes connection and trust, the cornerstones of leadership. Great leaders welcome those who question their authority, because as the sages tell us – we learn a lot from our teachers, but the most from our students and this is not only in the intellectual and academic area but also in the area of socio-moral learning.

  Encouraging students to be more challenging also fosters connection and more respect between teachers and their students.We want students to question not only out of a desire to find out what is true but to care  and  do what is right. They should acquire the insight needed to recognize injustices and the courage needed to oppose them and be willing to take a stand.

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