Thursday, February 7, 2013

Mishpatim

Remember when the pooper-scooper law was introduced? I still recall when Mayor Koch z”l advocated for it. He said, “If you’ve ever stepped in dog doo, you know how important it is to enforce the canine waste law.” No one thought then that people would willingly clean up their dog’s poop or that it would be commonplace to see dog walkers carry plastic bags with them. New York led the way for the rest of the country.

Sometimes laws can change the way people behave. Governments can in fact legislate change. That of course is the philosophy that gives rise to the current mayor’s attempt to forbid big gulps.

Although these examples seem trivial, there is a direct line from these laws to those in this week’s Parashat Mishpatim. Long ago the Torah revolutionized the thinking about laws. It taught that it is possible not only to forbid wrongs but also to legislate good. In this week’s portion we read for example, “When you encounter your enemy’s ox or ass wandering, you must take it back to him. When you see the ass of your enemy lying under its burden and would refrain from raising it, you must nevertheless raise it with him.” (Exodus 23:4-5)

Can there be a better example of the attempt to use legislation to raise our humanity and make us do good? In certain circumstances, namely when an animal is suffering, you must put aside the differences even with your enemy and lend a hand. The Torah does not say that we must love our enemies, but we are sometimes obligated to transcend these differences and together relieve suffering.

Mayor Koch had his failures, most notably what hindsight suggests was too slow a response to then emerging AIDS crisis, but he certainly believed that government can change us, can lead us, can create laws that will make us better, that can make our society more just. Mayor Bloomberg agrees with this as well. Democrat and Republican philosophies believe this. Libertarian thinking does not. And Judaism holds that premise to be false. Our tradition believes that we require laws to lead us to change—not always, but often. And we are therefore better for it. And even more important, our community is better for it.

It is of course true that laws can be coercive and at times, as in the case of Bloomberg’s recent attempts, patronizing. But we should not reject the entire enterprise simply because of these negative feelings. As a counterbalance to these downsides we must foster open critique and perhaps even skepticism in the face of governments’ laws. Nonetheless we should also remind ourselves that more people doing more good is our shared goal and a just society our dream. And legislation can help us realize that vision.

Can laws answer all our problems and compel people only to do good and not bad? Of course not. But I reject the conclusion that we should therefore do nothing. However imperfect I affirm the attempt, if for no other reason than this is also the attempt of my tradition.

This is what I learn from our Torah portion. This is what I glean from Ed Koch’s legacy.

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