Crazy election 2000 offers enduring lessons about laws

Attempting to learn something from an experience is a quintessentially Jewish pursuit. And the long, strange trip of Election 2000 has been quite an experience. So the question occurs: Might recent events on the national political scene hold any lessons for American Jews?

One rather straightforward candidate for a message in the muddle is something famously stated by no less a Jewish source than the Talmud, though it is applied there in a somewhat different context: Individual acts, even those that may not seem terribly significant, can turn out to be crucial.

The tractate Kiddushin quotes a text regarding not politics per se but the not unrelated realm of sin: "A person should always see himself as if he is half meritorious and half guilty [i.e. possessing an equal number of merits and demerits]." And, the text continues, one should view the world as likewise "in the balance" so that one's single good deed — or, God forbid, sin — could seal not only his own fate but that of the entire world.

And so, the saga of the farmishteh Floridian ballots should certainly serve to remind us that our every act — our votes, yes, but everything else as well — do indeed count for something, and may even end up counting for much, much more than we may ever have imagined.

There may be another lesson for us Jews, though, in the Tallahassee turmoil.

A thought: Considering the pitifully small differential in the popular vote, couldn't much trouble and time have been saved had it just been decided to count only it, disregarding the electoral college tally? Or, alternatively, wouldn't it have made more sense to have simply held a new election? Or at least a runoff between the two main contenders?

Those ideas likely occurred to many citizens, but none of them represented a feasible approach, of course, for one simple reason: the law.

Because ours is a nation of laws, including laws about elections. And while those laws may allow for things like recounts and even court challenges, they simply do not permit ad hoc revisions of the electoral process.

Well, just as America is a county of laws, we Jews are a people of laws: the laws of our common religious tradition, the Torah. And while individual Jews may not always comprehend the wisdom in the details of every particular law, we must place trust in the system and realize that undermining it threatens the Jewish people no less than subverting American jurisprudence would threaten the social coherence of the republic.

To be sure, laws are subject, within certain parameters, to interpretation; and how they are applied can depend on particulars of time and place. But just as average citizens are not equipped to interpret or apply fine points of American law, individual Jews are not qualified to render decisions of Jewish law. Scholars well versed in the legal methodology and precedent literature — and sincerely pledged to interpret, not recraft, the law — are the ones capable of applying it. The rest of us have only two options: to accept their rulings or abandon the very concept of the law.

And while human-crafted laws, no matter how venerable, are ultimately vulnerable — even the U.S. Constitution can be changed if the popular will is there — rarely are established systems of law amended. As to Jewish law, more than 3000 years of Jewish tradition has taught that the Torah is entirely impervious to "improvement." Its Author, after all, is no mere founding father but Founding Father.

So we Jews might do well to consider events of past days not only for their inherent import but for what they serve to remind us of about ourselves. And if election 2000 should leave us with a legacy of thoughts about the critical nature of laws, then — at least from a Jewish perspective — it will have been a very enriching experience indeed.

Rabbi Avi Shafran
Rabbi Avi Shafran

Rabbi Avi Shafran serves as director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America, a national Orthodox Jewish organization