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It's Still about Our Values

What follows is my sermon from this past Shabbat in which I discuss the Senate's report on torture.

This week we read the story of Joseph and his brothers. The brothers grow increasingly jealous of Joseph. They conspire to kill their younger brother. Then they decide to sell him into slavery. They throw him in a pit and sit down to a meal. I have been thinking about that verse: Vayeshvu le’echol lechem, they sit down to eat. (Genesis 37:25) They turn aside from their brother’s pain.

This week I sat at my breakfast table reading the newspaper. I read of the resurgence of antisemitism and the continuation of terror. I read of the tragic death of Eric Garner and the simmering tensions near my home town of St. Louis. I lost my taste for food. We must no longer turn aside from these injustices.

I read as well this week’s Haftarah. The prophet Amos declares:
Spare Me the sound of your hymns,
And let Me not hear the music of your lutes.
But let justice well up like water,
Righteousness like an unfailing stream. (Amos 5:23-24)
And I read of the Senate’s report on torture. I recalled the prophet’s message. I remembered his words: we are to live by the law—always. His words continue to ring in my ears as I read the report’s details in yesterday’s paper.

The report’s revelations are disturbing. Among the more unsettling discoveries are the following. The CIA lied to Congress and the White House, and covered up the use of these “enhanced interrogation techniques.”  That is a troubling euphemism.  Let us reflect on this: euphemisms too often mask our moral failures. "Collateral damage" actually means that innocent people have died. The report most significantly unveiled that these interrogation techniques were far more brutal and inhumane than we previously believed.

Senator John McCain, who has always been my hero on this issue, said:
I understand the reasons that governed the decision to resort to these interrogation methods, and I know that those who approved them and those who used them were dedicated to securing justice for the victims of terrorist attacks and to protecting Americans from further harm... But I dispute wholeheartedly that it was right for them to use these methods, which this report makes clear were neither in the best interests of justice nor our security nor the ideals we have sacrificed so much blood and treasure to defend… we are always Americans, and different, stronger, and better than those who would destroy us.
I recognize that some might think that we should do whatever it takes to protect American lives. I believe however that torture does not aid in our protection; it does not benefit our security. There is of course debate whether or not torture produces valuable intelligence so let’s leave that question aside and focus instead on the most important issue. The use of torture undermines our values; it undermines the laws that make this country great. We should always be animated first and foremost by our values rather than our fears. The single greatest danger of terrorism is not the loss of life it inflicts but that it will so terrorize us that we will lose our way and forget our values. So it is time we talk more about our values than our fears. That is the message of the prophets. That is the message that America is supposed to offer the world. In this instance we lost our way. That is what was revealed by this week’s news.

Let me be clear: the use of power to protect our lives and the lives of our fellow citizens is a moral imperative. But we must wield this power justly. Mistakes will undoubtedly be made; police and armies make errors. And we must then have the courage to examine our failures. To take an honest accounting of our wrongs, a heshbon hanefesh in our tradition’s language, is also a moral imperative. I reject the argument that the airing of this report makes us weaker, that it somehow endangers lives. I believe the opposite. It makes us stronger. That is the message we recount on the High Holidays. Each and every one of us can change. A community can change; a country can change. Great countries must certainly have the courage to examine their failures so that they can change and be even greater.

Soon we will be celebrating Hanukkah. Everyone is familiar with the story. But there is a dark side to the story of the light of Hanukkah. The Maccabees and their rule quickly became corrupt; they soon abused their power. They so believed they were right that they came to believe they could do no wrong; their righteous indignation in the face of all who disagreed with them, including fellow Jews, made them guilty of wrongs, and some even say atrocities. This is why the tradition argued that all must be subject to the law. Hanukkah is on one level a cautionary tale about power. That’s not how we usually tell it, but maybe we should recall that message at this moment.

In the war against terror, actually in the war against Muslim fanaticism and fundamentalism (that is the ideology we are battling), we must be on guard against losing our values. Even our enemies, when facing us in battle, even our enemies, when captured, are human beings, who are deserving of protection. Judaism teaches that all human beings are created in God’s image. We must never lose sight of this

I recognize that we are still afraid, even after all these years after 9-11. We are sometimes afraid for our lives. But we must never allow that fear to make us lose sight of the values that make us great. Even the weakest, even the most despised, and yes even our avowed enemies, are deserving of certain protections.

Amos declares:
Thus said the Lord:
For three transgressions of Judah,
For four, I will not revoke it:
Because they have spurned the Torah of the Lord
And have not observed God’s laws;
They are beguiled by the delusions
After which their fathers walked. (Amos 2:4)
Let us take our cue from the prophets. We dare not turn aside. We must restore justice to its rightful place. Only justice will protect our most cherished dreams.

Again John McCain: “But in the end, torture’s failure to serve its intended purpose isn’t the main reason to oppose its use. I have often said, and will always maintain, that this question isn’t about our enemies; it’s about us.”

There is no doubt that these terrorists are horrible and despicable people. But the law must still prevail. It is about us. It is about our values. Let us restore justice to its rightful place. Amen!

Below is Senator John McCain's speech on the Senate floor.