Do The Ends Justify The Means?
It's unfortunately very easy to get into the mood for Tisha B'Av this year. Aside from all the external threats to Israel and the Jewish People, and the rise and legitimization of antisemitism, there are also serious problems and dangers caused by Jews. There's the group of academic Judaic scholars who whitewash the threats posed by Hamas and others and condemn Israel's actions to defend its citizens. And here in Israel, the political internecine strife has reached disturbingly extreme levels. But before elaborating, I would like to first discuss the question of whether the ends justify the means.
Twenty-eight years ago, during a Yiddish shiur at my yeshiva gedolah in Manchester that I couldn't understand, the Rosh Yeshivah suddenly inserted the English phrase "the ends don't justify the means." This took me by surprise, because only the previous week it was parashas Toldos, in which Yaakov lies in order to get Eisav's brachos. I asked the Rosh Yeshivah about it and he explained that the means were not wrong, as Yaakov didn't lie; "truth" is whatever is the right thing to say, not whatever is accurate. Shortly afterwards I moved to a yeshivah in Israel, where the Rosh Yeshivah told me that of course Yaakov lied. He added that the ends do indeed justify the means, as we see from the principle that you can break Shabbos to save a life, and in the verse and principle Eis la'asos l'Hashem, heferu Torasecha.
This left me very perplexed. But after a lot of further thought and analysis, I realized that the entire concept is misleadingly phrased. It's more precise to phrase the question as "Does the attainment of high priorities justify overturning low priorities?" And the answer to that question is that in theory, absolutely, but in practice, it's often very difficult to implement, for several reasons.
First of all, if we're discussing mitzvot, then it's not necessarily obvious which things are a high priority and which are a low priority. As the Mishnah states, Be as careful with a lesser mitzvah as with a greater one, since we do not know the reward for each. How exactly does one weigh Shemirat Shabbat against Bein Adam LeChavero?
Second, there could be all kinds of other priorities that one is not taking into account. In particular, the very act of overturning any priority is one with potentially very damaging consequences, because it has desensitized one to overturning priorities! Suppose one tells a lie for a noble purpose. This may sometimes indeed be permissible and even obligatory, but it should not be overlooked that the cost is not a one-time act of dishonesty; it's a general weakening of one's commitment to the truth. This is not to say that it is necessarily wrong; it is just to stress that the cost-benefit analysis may not be as it first appears.
And then there's a third reason why it can be problematic to overturn low priorities for the sake of higher ones. Sometimes, achieving goals take on a significance which leads people to forget about the reasons why they were important to begin with. The pursuit of these goals leads to rationalizations in which a true evaluation of priorities gets shunted aside. This is something that is being tragically played out in Israel.
The Bibi Bloc, consisting of Likud, Smotrich's party and the charedim, proclaim that the Bennett-Lapid government is a "dangerous Leftist government which will harm Israel." They proclaimed that their single overriding goal to bring down the government. And because they defined "bringing down the government" rather than "protecting Israel's interests" as the goal, this became a way to rationalize causing all kinds of harm.
First, they voted against the Citizenship Law - the very law that Likud itself originally instituted for reasons of national security. They gleefully joined forces with the Arab Joint List to actively enable countless thousands of Palestinians to obtain Israeli citizenship (some of whom likely do so in order to make it easier to carry out terrorist attacks). For the sake of the goal of weakening a government that is harmful to national security, they harmed national security.
When I wrote about this a short while ago, some Bibi-fans claimed that this wasn't actually what happened; that the law which they opposed was a changed and harmful law. This happens not to be true. And another event last week proved beyond all doubt what is happening.
When, God forbid, a woman is assaulted, any DNA from the attacker is held as evidence for three months, after which it is disposed of. The government proposed a bill to ensure that all samples would be stored permanently. This is particularly important because sometimes it can take a while for victims to summon the courage to come forwards. Such a bill is of obvious importance, and has absolutely no downside whatsoever. And yet it was voted against by all 51 members of the Bibi bloc.
There wasn't even any attempt to claim that there was any innate reason to vote against the bill. It was simply done because of a policy of opposing whatever the government proposes. In an interview, Likud MK Miki Zohar said “It is a pity that I had to oppose, it is a very important thing. But there is something more important than anything – that the State of Israel be led by people fit to do so.”
It is a tragic, insane situation. 51 MKs, representing right-wing and religious communities, vote against national security, against protecting women from rapists, all because it's more important to save Israel from a "dangerous" leadership! Is there no point at which it becomes apparent that the opposition are themselves the ones inflicting the actual harm?
(Sadly, this craziness is also beginning to affect the government coalition. In response to the Bibi bloc voting against government laws out of spite, some coalition members have decided to do the same to bills proposed by the opposition.)
There's nothing wrong with harshly criticizing and opposing those that you believe to be wrong, but it gets to a point where it becomes a matter of partisanship and tribalism rather than genuinely trying to fix society. Two thousand years ago, the Jewish State was destroyed because different groups of Jews were so obsessed with defeating other groups that they were driven to betray their own morality and harm their own cause. We need to put the brakes on this behavior.
If you'd like to subscribe to this blog via email, use the form on the right of the page, or send me an email and I will add you.