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What Jewish Tradition Tells Us About Netanyahu's Gifted Cigars

Prime minister, let's start with this: Acknowledging the vulnerability of your own mind is the Jewish path to greatness.

Micha Odenheimer
Micha Odenheimer
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu smokes a cigar in Tokyo, 1997.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu smokes a cigar in Tokyo, 1997.Credit: ITSUO INOUYE / Associated Press
Micha Odenheimer
Micha Odenheimer

What is our brain like when it's high on free gifts – whether money or cigars, pink champagne or duck-hunting trips? How vulnerable are the seemingly rational parts of our brain, the decision-making centers, to “driving under the influence” of friends with benefits? Does Judaism have anything to say about how gifts affect our judgement?

With Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s tenure potentially threatened by the alleged acceptance of such gifts – along with his implicit claim that they had no effect on his decision making – these questions deserve contemplation.

It was a duck-hunting trip in 2004 that first made me realize how Jewish thinking about the mind differs from norms that some in contemporary society have accepted. At the time, the U.S. Supreme Court was three weeks away from hearing a case in which Vice President Dick Cheney had a vital interest: Environmentalist non-profits were suing to force Cheney into divulging the names of the people and companies with whom he had consulted in creating the Bush administration’s energy policy.

But this didn’t prevent Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia from accepting Cheney’s offer of a ride down to northern Louisiana on Air Force 2 for an all-expenses-paid duck-hunting expedition with Cheney and four other good ole boys.

When reporters suggested to Scalia that he might consider recusing himself from judging the case because of the trip, he was irate. The essence of his response was something like this: Did they really think that he, Antonin Scalia, towering scholar and interpreter of constitutional law, would be affected or influenced by a little plane ride and a hunting trip? How dare they impugn his reasoning and his integrity!

What a chasm separates Scalia’s attitude from that of our Talmudic sages. The Talmud in Baba Batra records a series of anecdotes about some of the greatest of rabbinic-era Torah scholars, who recused themselves from judging cases because they had benefited from one of the litigants in the slightest way.

For example, Shmuel, one of the most important of second-century sages, once traveled across a river because he had been invited to judge a case. When he arrived at the far bank, someone stretched his hand out and helped him from the boat. That hand turned out to belong to one of the disputants. Shmuel immediately recused himself, understanding that even such a simple, trivial act of kindness might influence his thinking in the case [Tractate Ketubot,105b].

In the Talmud, the greater the sage, the more deeply and humbly he understands the delicate vulnerability of the human mind, including his own.

In another story quoted in the same place, Rabbi Ishmael son of Rabbi Yose is set to judge a case when one of the disputants, who happened to be his tenant, brings him a basket of fruit. The fruit was part of their land rental agreement, and usually delivered to Rabbi Ishmael every Friday. Since court was on Thursday, he had brought the fruit a day earlier.

Rabbi Ishmael refused to take the fruit and immediately recused himself from the case, recruiting another judge to take over. Still, he listened in to the proceedings and found himself obsessively manufacturing arguments in favor of the litigant who had brought him the fruit basket. “Let the bribe-takers' bones rot,” he exclaims. “Me, I didn’t even take the fruit, and if I had taken it, it was my own fruit I was taking! Those who actually take bribes, how much more so [is their judgement affected]!”

What is surprising and significant about this story is its depiction of how Rabbi Ishmael’s judging and reasoning function, in a subconscious process, is colored and affected by even the suggestion of benefit – he can’t stop thinking about arguments in favor of his fruit-bearing tenant. Our mind, Rabbi Ishmael implies, even when it thinks it is making rational decisions, can be blindsided by our subjectivity on a subconscious level.

In a Hasidic twist on Rabbi Ishmael’s story, Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Heschel of Apt , one of the great third-generation leaders of the Hasidic movement, was sitting on a bet din, a rabbinic court, and found himself furiously thinking up arguments that would strengthen the position of one of the litigants.

He became suspicious of his own mind, excused himself for a moment, and rummaged in his overcoat, which he had hung up by the door. There he found an envelope with money inside, placed by the person whose position he had found himself energetically trying to justify. Even a bribe of which he was completely unaware – at least consciously – had affected his cognitive processes.

Integrating Jewish tradition into our thinking about politics can yield clarifying insights. Netanyahu, like Scalia, has also claimed receiving “gifts from friends” an insignificant and everyday occurrence, implying that there is no connection between the hundreds of thousands of shekels in cigars he allegedly received from Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan (or Sara’s pink champagne from the same source) and his use of precious face time with Secretary of State John Kerry in his efforts to renew Milchan’s 10-year U.S. visa.

The Jewish tradition could not more vehemently disagree, and in contemporary society, in which alliances and “friendships with benefits” between politicians and business tycoons are a matter of course, the implications are enormous. But Netanyahu, let's start with this: Acknowledging the vulnerability of your own mind is the Jewish path to greatness. And sometimes, as Freud didn’t say, a cigar really isn’t just a smoke.

Micha Odenheimer is the founding director of Tevel b'Tzedek.

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