Friday, March 18, 2016

Stop the Witch Hunt against Prominent People

By Rabbi Yisrael Rosen 
Dean of the Zomet Institute

"When a Nassi sins" [Vayikra 4:22]. "This is related to a concept of joy – Happy is the generation whose Nassi (leader) takes the trouble to atone for his unintentional sins, all the more so will he regret his sins what were done on purpose." [Rashi].

Witch-Hunting of Prominent Figures

One affair follows another, all in the subject area of "harassment," and the media (both broadcast and internet) are having a field day. Not only have they been provided with a juicy source of ratings, which they eagerly pass on to our eye and ears – the media have taken upon themselves the multiple roles of judgement, meting out punishment, and sometimes even burial. This phenomenon typically takes place when a known figure is slated for promotion or an important new job in his or her career, or is being considered as a candidate by a placement committee with the job of suggesting alternatives for filling a high position. And that is the perfect opportunity to draw out past sins and to attempt a "knockout." This phenomenon includes not only accusations of "harassment," but also other subjects – such as violation of building codes, hiring illegal foreign workers, falsifying financial declarations, and so on. Those who like sensational revelations or who pursue "shaming" and faults of others spend their time locating and exposing sins and disgraceful conduct, and they carry out slanderous investigations of prominent figures and candidates for leadership. I strongly feel that we have gone too far, and that this witch-hunting has become a national sport which must be curtailed.

I must admit that writing about this subject is not easy, out of the fear that I will be accused of supporting sinners and having too forgiving an attitude towards public figures. It is quite probable that "women's rights organizations" will come out against me in droves. Actually, this is the opposite of the truth: My main claim in this column is that equality must be preserved in this realm too. Just as the media does not involve itself and does not report or discuss rumors of sins by unknown people in the markets or other simple folk, it should act in the same way towards prominent figures, both those who occupy high offices and those who are merely candidates for such jobs.

Let me clarify this for my readers. Everybody knows very well that "exposures," slander, reports of "complaints," and involvement in rumors are a form of punishment, usually too difficult to bear. Who gave the media the authority to judge a person and also punish him or her? I have faith in the justice system, and as long as a person has not been convicted of a crime with disgrace there is no reason – and in fact it must be forbidden – to pile on more and more punishment. And this is doubly so for punishment that results from rumors, giving fodder for the hungry media and providing evidence for a field trial.

Prominent Figures who Carry a Pack of Vermin

In addition, I will make some declarations that are not "politically correct" in today's world. In Jewish tradition a person is not prohibited from holding a public office, in executive and not an educational role, even if they have repugnant and faulty acts in their past, no matter how serious they were. A long list of ministers and leaders of the State of Israel, from Moshe Dayan to Bibi Netanyahu, with many others that I will not list here, were not perfect in the past in matters of sexual conduct, to put it mildly. As far as I am concerned, even somebody who is not an outstanding model of virtue or ethical behavior can be capable of serving the public with great skill, and there is no reason that his or her talents should be lost to the public. The search for "moral purity" by placement committees and the media obsession to provide them with the most blemished possible information do not stem from pure motives and are not based on objective criteria of values or a belief in the high value of ethics (something which is as far removed from the media as the west is far from the east). The main motive for all of this activity today is that the media has been transformed from "watchdogs" to "wolves on a hunt."

Our sages have taught us, "A leader should not be appointed for a community unless he has a pack of vermin hanging from his back. Then, if he becomes light-headed, he can be told: Look behind you." [Yoma 22b]. There are many explanations for this surprising declaration. However, one thing is certain: We are not frightened away by leaders who are not morally perfect. I want to emphasize again – this refers to executives and not rabbis or educators (or figures prominent in cultural matters?). Because of their roles, they must indeed be outstanding figures, models worth emulating.

The Power of Repentance

There is one more very significant point that I want to make with respect to the current practice of burrowing into the past of prominent figures and rejecting them for public office. The Jewish outlook gives great emphasis to the elements of regret, contrition, and repentance. In fact, one of the most respected acts in education is confession – starting with a king and leading even to such a person as Yinon Magal. (I know, I can just see the raised eyebrows at the juxtaposition. No! I did not say that these two are comparable!) And while we are at it, it seems to me that when Bibi Netanyahu was not too ashamed to admit a fault he was forgiven.

The power of repentance and atonement is found deep within this week's Torah portion, in the quote at the beginning of this article. "When a nassi sins." The sensitive ears of the sages saw this as a positive event: "Happy is the generation whose Nassi takes the trouble to atone..." Of course, the applause is not for the sin but for repentance and atonement. Commentators have noticed that "three terms are used for sinners – ' Ki' (it happens), 'im' (if), and 'asher' (when). For an individual the word 'ki' is used: 'When it happens that a soul commits a sin' [Vayikra 4:2]. For a number of people, the word is 'im' – 'If the entire community of Yisrael sins' [4:13]. For the leader, 'asher' is used – 'When a nassi sins' [4:22]. 'Ki' stands for a higher probability than 'im,' and 'asher' is a higher probability than 'ki.' A leader who rules with pride in his heart will surely commit a sin, and therefore it is written 'asher' with respect to a Nassi." [Kli Yakar].

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