April 15, 2024
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April 15, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

In a Blue Bloods episode, Tom Selleck in the role of New York Police Commissioner Frank Reagan, must confront a good friend on the force, anxious for a promotion, and who once saved his life, but has been cooking the books in order to improve the statistics for fighting violent crime in his precinct. In a painful exchange the Commissioner reminds his former friend that “in the end all we really have is our word.” It is a moral exhortation that can be generalized onto so many of the landscapes we inhabit in life. The matter of truth telling and its sorry absence has become especially manifest of late in the controversies that revolve around investment banking in the aftermath of the Madoff scandal and other gross misrepresentations of key information that deeply impact the commonweal.

In recent days the conversation over the power of words gone awry has been swirling around the matter of Brian Williams’ false reporting. Add to this the bad science awhile back of a British scientist who used a sample of a mere twelve patients to claim a correlation between vaccination and autism, only to aggravate and add to the number of parents opting out of this well-proven means of preventing deadly childhood diseases; the results of which in no small measure have blown into a current public health crisis.

The issue at hand is how people in positions of influence intentionally subvert and supplant the truth for “shock and awe” and career advancement. Such ill-gotten gain not only stains the fields of scientific inquiry, investment banking and media outlets but shakes the fundamental value of trust which when broken is mighty hard to regain. If one looks to the realm of moral thinking and our time-honored Biblical foundations one core issue emerges, the absence of which seems to undergird such egregious behavior. When the Torah writes in Vayikra 19:14 that “one should not place a stumbling block before the blind” it is hardly speaking of placing a boulder in front of someone walking with a white cane. Rather it is declaring in no uncertain terms an injunction against providing bad advice to an unsuspecting person, particularly if the said advisor or expert in that field stands to benefit from the other person’s error. Jewish law also refers to any behavior that misleads or misrepresents the real facts as “g’neivat da-at,” literally misappropriating knowledge; and by extension sees it as an abdication of the moral imperative for “honest weights and measures.” We can only lament how little currency is given today to these key concepts, instead adversely at play in so many areas of human endeavor, from the board room and laboratory to the halls of government.

Why and how have we become a society rife with lies and deceit; the result being much disquiet and suspicion lurking in all corners of our existence? Who and what can we trust? And deep layers of cynicism often cloud efforts to ameliorate this sad state. As we have now reached what might be seen as a serious nadir and tipping point might it be possible to address this menacing societal ill? Could it be that absent from our educational system especially in the formative years is a good dose of moral education? Too much focus is placed upon “teaching to the test” than upon the textures of life’s landscape and the challenges of moral rectitude. We score students on standardized tests but not on standards for just living. We teach plenty of Halacha but do we teach enough halicha? Great emphasis is placed on the STEM subjects, which are no doubt necessary in our society’s quest to compete for and in global markets. But what of the ROOT values of Responsibility and Obligation toward others, Oversight of society’s moral compass and finally Trust through truthfulness? After all, “chotmo shel HaKadosh Barukh Hu emet”?

There is something still refreshing, even uplifting, in simple acts of grace and goodness. Consider the following lessons from Ming and Manny. Ming is a waiter at a kosher Chinese restaurant in Queens and Manny, an immigrant from El Salvador, is a parking garage attendant in lower Manhattan. Both work for modest wages. When someone gave Ming a tip equal to half of the total tab he returned a good portion of it, insisting that it is wrong to take advantage of unusual generosity. And when I tried to tip Manny twice for both taking and later bringing back my car, he refused the second portion, citing lessons he learned in Church “back in his country.”

So why must scientists lie in order to make news? And why must a seasoned news anchor conflate the facts for special effect when the news has enough drama to draw in viewers? While the Rabbis in the Babylonian Talmud speak nobly of those who “acquire their place in eternity” with one brief act of goodness and grace, the opposite is tragically true as well. I am not advocating for a world of perfection as life by all accounts is not rehearsed and can only be played out in real time. We do not walk on velvet and I have long decried many of the “zero tolerance” policies that wound and mar the lives of too many essentially good people. The mistakes we rue are instead those that come not from a slip or unintended slight but from awareness and premeditation. Were there more Ming’s and Manny’s who are mindful of the need for “honest weights and measures” and would be loathe to place that stumbling block before the less informed and unsuspecting, perhaps some would look more closely into the camera while others would rather perish than publish bad science.

Rabbi Lawrence S. Zierler is both a clinical counselor and bioethicist and has also served as pulpit rabbi, Jewish communal executive and educator.

By Rabbi Lawrence S. Zierler

 

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