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by Yitzchok Adlerstein
Date: December 26, 2000

As America labored through the birth pangs of a new presidency, much of the world laughed. Compared to our difficulties, even mad-cow disease became sufferable. Contemplating the political shenanigans that might block Benjamin Netanyahu's attempt to unseat Ehud Barak, a veteran Israeli columnist wrote, "What are we, America?"

If the world hasn't changed much, sooner or later someone will argue that all this mess was the fault of the Jews. When this happens, we should accept responsibility, rather than issue shocked denials.

What others mocked and derided, America should consider her proudest moment. When the chad dust settled, America had a new president-elect. Troops were not necessary to maintain order. The market did not plummet. The basic features and structures of government survived unchanged. Stand-up comics were the ones most impacted by the waiting and indecision, their repertoires greatly enriched.

It wasn't always this way. The bloodiest battle of the eighteenth century took place during eleven years of mutual slaughter, as Europe sought to name a leader for one of its least important members, in the War of the Spanish Succession. France's five Republics lurched between unwieldy and unworkable constitutions, even when it wasn't beheading its monarchs. Modern Italy has changed governments more often than calls for a recount in Miami-Dade.

Americans voted twice. On Election Day, they went to the polls to choose a president. In the weeks that followed, they voted for the manner in which to resolve painful national differences. The first balloting may have been inconclusive; the second was a resounding victory for Law as the Great Decisor.

The epilogue to Paul Johnson's History of the Jews is an encomium to the gifts we bestowed upon humanity. "To them we owe the idea of equality before the law, both divine and human."

No one was above the scrutiny of the ancient Jewish law - not nations, not kings, not Moses himself. This notion alone was a sea change for civilization. There were more gifts waiting in the full flowering of Jewish law in the millennia that followed.

Jewish law embraced every area of human interest. There were no questions that the Law could not ask, and it unfailingly yielded answers.

The answers did not always have immediate and compelling appeal to every citizen. But every individual understood that the system of Law was the most trusted way to navigate a world that would always include uncertainty and ambiguity. "Let the law pierce the mountain!" thundered the Talmud. Jews learned that only G-d could know what "really" happened, who "really" was liable or innocent. A kosher diner could usually not know what "really" had gone into the dish before him. The law determined whether the contents were permissible or not. Who could tell which of two litigants, each pressing a claim without accompanying evidence, was "really" correct? The law taught people that carefully reasoned mechanisms of presumption and procedure could disentangle the two sides. Mortals would have to satisfy themselves - whether in religious law, business practice, or interpersonal relationships - with legal, rather than factual, realities. The law showed itself capable to protecting both principle and practicality.

The law not only provided answers to specific questions, but afforded a place of refuge when there were no answers.

Americans did not riot in the streets demanding an unobtainable "fairness" and the sanctity of every vote. They understood that human effort is forever flawed, and that the Law must decide how much error can be tolerated. They had little problem accepting that an indeterminate election should be decided by either a Florida legislature or a Florida judiciary, and patiently waited for the US Supreme Court to choose between two competing readings of the Law. They understood that the law was binding even when it seemed vague, or even undiscovered. The system of Law itself could be relied upon to provide a path to a final resolution.

The whole drama might have been called "Abaye and Rava Go to Washington," starring the two paradigmatic Talmudic sparring champions. For millennia, Jews sought the counsel of Jewish legal experts for every personal and communal concern. They asked all kinds of questions, but they rarely sought out merely the personal wisdom of the one they queried. Instead, they wanted to know what the Law said. No matter that there was much truth to the old saw, "two rabbis, three opinions." The Law could tolerate different readings within its chambers. Jews understood that personal, domestic, and national tranquility depended upon listening to its many voices, rather than the meretricious song wafting from other precincts.

With no country of her own and almost always lacking the methods of enforcement available to agencies of government, the Jewish nation found loyalty to the Law within her soul, maintaining discipline and creating common purpose that knew no geographical boundaries. It took the rest of the world a long time to catch up. Perhaps, during the hard centuries of her exile, more of her neighbors were watching and learning than she thought.

So make my day. Blame it on the Jews. I, for one, will not protest.


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