Avodim hayyinu l’Pharoh b’Mitzrayim

So the Bush Administration is supporting the anti-gay marriage FMA on the almost certainly false claim that otherwise the Full Faith and Credit clause will convert the decisions of the Massachusetts Supreme Court into a nationally binding mandate to recognize same-sex unions. And the right-wing media are loudly cheering for Gibson’s Passion, with its blatantly anti-Semitic retelling of the Crucifixion wrapped in a pornography-of-violence package.

I wonder whether, now that their own oxen are being gored to right-wing applause, conservative Jews and conservative gays will reflect on the extent to which “conservatism” as a political practice in American (as opposed to the conservative strand in political thought represented by Burke, Hayek, and Oakeshott) turns out to embody a willingness — and sometimes a gloating eagerness — to stomp on the out-groups.

[That’s much less true of libertarians, with the sole — but not unimportant — exception that libertarians are usually willing to allow “market forces” and “free private choices” to stomp on the poor. The President’s decision to make the FMA an issue in the coming election will create some agonizing choices for libertarians.]

One common, and not discreditable, reaction to being treated badly is to resist, seek revenge, and vow that no one is ever going to have the opportunity to treat you that way again. It’s natural enough to generalize from oneself to a group: for a Jew, say, to resent mistreatment of Jews even if he’s not personally damaged.

But the larger generalization — from rage at being mistreated to the sense that mistreating people, and especially the vulnerable, is wrong — seems to be less common. (Wesley Clark’s claim during his campaign that concern for the unfortunate is the common core of all the great religions was edifying, but I doubt it was entirely accurate.) However, that generalization does seem to be characteristic of Jews, which is one of the things that make me proud to be Jewish.

The willingness of Jews to stand up for vulnerable non-Jews, which I had always attributed to centuries of being the out-group, turns out on closer examination to be quite deeply rooted in the religion.

Last week in the faculty Torah study group at UCLA — which has been fighting its way through Deuteronomy at the rate of about four verses a week for the past decade — we were examining Deut. 24:17-18:

Thou shalt not pervert the justice due to the stranger, or to the fatherless; nor take the widow’s raiment to pledge.

But thou shalt remember that thou wast a bondman in Egypt, and the Lord thy God redeemed thee thence; therefore I command thee to do this thing.

A quick check with a concordance showed that the formula: “Do X, because you were slaves in Egypt and the Lord redeemed you” occurs five times in Deuteronomy, in each case following a commandment about dealing fairly with the vulnerable.

[The first occurrence — in the Ten Commandments, after the commandment about keeping the Sabbath, seems, at first blush, to be an exception: what has the Sabbath to do with the downtrodden? But the full text (Deut 5:12-15) provides the answer:

Observe the sabbath day, to keep it holy, as the Lord thy God commanded thee.

Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work; but the seventh day is a sabbath unto the Lord thy God, in it thou shalt not do any manner of work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, nor thy man-servant, nor thy maid-servant, nor thine ox, nor thine ass, nor any of thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates; that thy man-servant and thy maid-servant may rest as well as thou.

And thou shalt remember that thou was a servant in the land of Egypt, and the Lord thy God brought thee out thence by a mighty hand and by an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord thy God commanded thee to keep the sabbath day.]

That, then, is the deeper meaning of the first phrase in the answer to the Four Questions at the Passover Seder: “Avodim hayyinu” — “We were slaves.”

It seems, if you think about it, a rather remarkable assertion to put at the very center of a celebratory feast. What other group, instead of boasting about being nobly born, makes a fuss about being descended from slaves, and then personalizes it so as to say that everyone present was a slave until redeemed?

But linked to the commandments in Deuteronomy, that phrase comes to mean: “We were slaves” and therefore must never, never, ever act like slaveowners. That makes sense of the empirical link between Judaism and liberalism.

No, there’s no reason to think that the “liberal” viewpoint on any given policy issue is superior to the “conservative” one. With respect to crime, which is my own study, I’d have to say that the liberal tendency over the past half-century has mostly pointed toward the wrong answers, though the conservative tendency hasn’t noticeably pointed to the right ones. Nor is it the case that all claims made on behalf of vulnerable groups are justifiable claims, or even that satisfying those claims will in fact be good for the groups in question.

But I’d still rather start with a political philosophy consistent with “avodim hayyinu” than with one rooted in the impulse to defend the power and wealth of the wealthy and the powerful, and to demonstrate — as, for example, Rush Limbaugh, Honorary Member of the House Republican Class of 1994, does so amusingly to his millions of listeners — that despised groups are really despicable.

After all, you don’t have to be Jewish to recognize the basic principle of karma yoga: What goes around, comes around.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

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