Ode to the West Wing

TV offers a lesson in religion and politics.

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Reprinted with permission from Clal - The National Jewish Center for Learning. Provided by the Berman Jewish Policy Archive.

A few years back at an inter-religious conference in Jerusalem, I heard a well-known Jewish political pundit, and former Reagan administration official, attempt to argue that the Bible "talks about responsibilities, but not rights"--the demand for "rights" by various aggrieved factions being a particular bugaboo of conservatives.

Unfortunately for him, the next speaker was an Orthodox rabbi, who gently but devastatingly listed a number of "rights" bestowed on various groups and individuals by the rabbis quoted in the Mishnah and Talmud, including the rights guaranteed a bride by the traditional Jewish wedding contract.

To me the exchange was a clear demonstration of the danger of relying on "the Bible" as an expression of the Jewish way, a tendency that is too often but not exclusively seen among Jewish political conservatives.

Torah & Capital Punishment

That's why it was refreshing to see a popular television drama offer a Jewish perspective on a political issue that captured the depth and nuance of what we call "Torah." On the NBC series The West Wing, set in a fictional White House, President Josiah Bartlett (Martin Sheen) is under pressure to commute the death sentence of a murderer convicted under federal narcotics law. The inmate's lawyer begins a last-minute, full-court press on the president's staff, going so far as to contact the rabbi of White House Communications Director Toby Ziegler (the marvelously kvetchy Richard Schiff).

In a Saturday morning scene set in a synagogue, Ziegler is summoned to the White House at the same moment that the rabbi starts a sermon inveighing against the death penalty, saying "vengeance is not the Jewish way." The next day the rabbi and Ziegler sit in the sanctuary and debate the death penalty, while a female cantor practices a lofty Hebrew song ("do it for the sake of Your Name").

Ziegler reminds the rabbi that the Bible supports the death penalty: "The commandment says 'thou shalt not murder,' not 'thou shall not kill.'" The rabbi in turn quotes the Bible on the stoning of wayward children, its tolerance for slavery, and the ban on homosexuality. On these issues, like capital punishment, "the Bible is wronghttp://mjlcms.atypica.com:8080/cms/wysiwygedithandler," says the rabbi, and it is up to each generation to apply--and change--its lessons according to the moral tenor of the times.

Later, in an exchange with the president, Ziegler elaborates on the rabbi's argument. Yes, the Bible sanctions vengeance and the death penalty. "But the rabbis couldn't stomach it," says Ziegler, and they imposed a series of restrictions on courts that made it all but impossible for the state to take a life.

He didn't quote the Talmud, but the screenwriter clearly had in mind the famous passage that "A Sanhedrin [the supreme rabbinical court] that puts a man to death once in 7 years (Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah says 'Or even once in 70 years') is called a murderous one." (Mishnah Makkot 1:10)

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Andrew Silow-Carroll

Andrew Silow-Carroll is a newspaper editor and widely published writer on contemporary Judaism.