I was reading the Torah a couple months, well actually I read it every week as part of my Sabbath practice, but a couple months ago the Torah portion focused on bribery and stirred me to thinking (the Torah has that effect on me!). Specifically, Deuteronomy 16, sentence 19, states that “You shall not judge unfairly, you shall show no partiality; you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just.”

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This simple little sentence has a lot to say about our current political structure, wouldn’t you say? “Don’t judge unfairly.” What could that possibly mean? Well, I take it to mean that we should not judge others lest we understand the path they have walked. This speaks to me about being empathic.

What about “you shall show no partiality”? Well that seems obvious enough, if you are a judge or have a position of power that allows you to make decisions that impact others, don’t be partial. Don’t let your biases get in the way of making sound decisions grounded in the facts. But it can also be applied in more mundane situations – as a teacher, parent, friend, lawyer, etc. When I read this as applying in all circumstances (the Torah does not seem to limit its application), what I take it to mean is to find a path of compassion, look at the situation from all sides, don’t assume one person is right and one wrong. That’s rather powerful. Reminds me of Rumi’s poem:

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
 there is a field. I’ll meet you there.

 When the soul lies down in that grass,
 the world is too full to talk about.
 Ideas, language, even the phrase “each other” doesn’t make any sense.

As if that is not profound enough, how about, “you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just.”

Wow, just look at our political system today – legalized bribery in direct violation of this rather simple yet powerful message. It is hard to argue with the fact that campaign donations have “blinded the eyes of the discerning” and “upset the plea of the just” – just look at the choices politicians make after they receive campaign donations. This is to be expected really because when people give money to a campaign they are doing so with the intention of influencing the candidates and believe that they can and should be able to do just that. And in fact, they do. So nothing surprising there! Campaign donations are bribery – no ifs, ands or buts. The rich (individuals and corporations) have a huge advantage because giving lots of money hurts them less than it does those of us with a lot less money. And the more money you give a candidate, the more influence you have in how the candidate votes. Our campaign system now explicitly encourages a violation of this Biblical injunction!

I also want to acknowledge that there is plenty of more subtle bribery in our system of campaign donations and gifts to politicians. This form of bribery takes place when the candidate has to reach out to potential donors and convince them why they should support the candidate’s election or re-election fund. For re-election, the candidate reminds the potential and past funders of the ways s/he has been supporting the issues, bills and programs that the potential contributor wants. And for first time candidates, they assure potential donors of the ways they will support their interests.

In addition, the candidate or elected official, as part of the campaign process, spends time with potential donors at cocktail parties and receptions before fundraising events. These events are filled with wealthy and powerful people. During these events and by hanging more and more with a limited segment of the society, they are exposed the opinions and views of these people. The wealthy donors usually share the same worldview and have a limited understanding of the struggles and lives of the middle, working and poor classes. By spending more and more time with the wealthy, the candidate or elected official has a sense of what the “people” want but in fact are only being exposed to a very small segment of our society – namely those who are able to afford these events. When they are exposed to only one worldview or one side of the issues again and again, such exposure can easily influence (think of marketing and commercials) even the most well intentioned officials and candidates. Even if they initially had a broader perspective, over the years they end up changing their positions to be more fully aligned with their funders positions and/or they become more entrenched in their views and less open to really listen to and hear alternative perspectives. This is an insidious process, like getting under someone’s skin.

Furthermore, there is no easy way for folks without substantial money (or time) to access the politicians at small, exclusive events and the like. So the majority does not have access to the very people who are making decisions that are affecting their lives in a very dramatic way.

While a more subtle form of bribery, it is nonetheless incredibly powerful and serves to undermine the very foundations of our democracy.

I realize that for a lot of people the fact that our campaign system violates a Biblical injunction might be meaningless but the more I read the Torah the more I value the positive values it teaches. We would be doing a lot better as a society and world if we paid attention to the key principles and teachings of the Torah (many of which have become the foundation for our laws).

But either way, whether you care about the violation of the Biblical injunction or not, you cannot argue with the fact that campaign donations directly impact how a candidate votes. Fortunately, there is a solution – the first part of the ESRA–Environmental and Social Responsibility Amendment to the US Constitution. This portion of the ESRA bans all private money in elections and allows only for public funding with all candidates receiving the same amounts (and at a lower level of funding than the current wasteful spending) and requires major media to give free and equal time to all major candidates. Check it out at www.tikkun.org/esra and then talk to your congress members about it. It goes farther than any other proposals to overturn Citizens United because it bans ALL private monies, not just corporate monies. Until we stop all private money to fund elections, we will continue to have bribery as the status quo in politics and those with more money will have more influence, even if what they are advocating for is directly contrary to the well-being of the candidate’s constituencyor the planet.


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