Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Pledge

Reading In My Father’s Court by Isaac Bashevis Singer, stories the writer recalls of his father’s Beth Din or rabbinical court, an ancient Jewish institution, blending court of law, synagogue, house of worship and psychiatrist’s couch where Jews would come to settle disputes and get advice, I was struck by one particular story called “The Oath,” which seemed to me both warning and lesson.

In the first paragraph, Singer proclaims that his father would open each Beth Din proclaiming his opposition to the taking of oaths. I was sitting in my study, legs stretched on my chaise, looking out through the screen at my perennial garden, daylilies at their height of mass and color, pale yellow, tangerine, scarlet, heavy on their slender stalks, at purple coneflowers, petals thrown back, dome shaped cones like noses sniffing the sky. And beyond the garden a single lobster boat fished on the high tide. “No oaths,” I said silently.

For at that moment, John Boehner was negotiating with his recalcitrant representatives, all of whom had sworn an oath, not to God, not to our country, but to an organization called Americans for Tax Reform, controlled by a single man, Grover Norquist. And that oath? No tax increases under any circumstances. And I couldn’t help wishing that Singer’s father, that old rabbi long dead was the man leading the House of Representatives instead of John Boehner.

And why was the rabbi against oaths? Because we cannot trust our memories, and; therefore, we must not swear to what we believe is the truth. As we all know, truth is elusive. Take three people to the scene of an accident, and each will give a different version of what he or she has seen.

One day a woman and a group of men came to the rabbi’s Beth Din, the men accusing the woman of swindling. As the argument grew more and more heated, the woman cried and screamed her innocence. Suddenly, she opened the Ark, took hold of the Torah, that most sacred of scrolls, and swore she was telling the truth. All in the room were shocked into silence. Months later, the woman returned to confess to the rabbi that she had sworn falsely and that she wished to repent. I lifted my eyes from the page. The woman had fooled me, too. I’d thought she was innocent. She’d bullied me, bullied the rabbi, bullied the three men, and I said to myself: “Isn’t that what’s happening right this minute in Congress?”

In a recent article in the New York Times, Frank Bruni states that all but 6 of the 240 Republicans in the House, along with 2 Democrats have signed Norquist’s pledge. Bruni also says that Norquist uses the pledge like a hammer, vilifying pledge resisters during their primary campaigns. Let’s take Norquist out of the picture for a moment in order to concentrate on our 236 Representatives who took that pledge. They are no better than the woman in Singer’s Beth Din swearing falsely on what they cannot know. Their job is to legislate, that is to make or pass laws, yet, they have chosen to bully the opposition, leaving no room for negotiation. Compromise is intrinsic to a functioning government. If these 236 House members don’t understand this, they don’t belong in Congress. If only, like the woman in Singer’s story, they would confess. If only, they would repent. If only, they would govern.

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