Ranking Ranked-Choice

Your four-man chaburah is making a siyum and you’re ordering a large pizza. The eatery offers toppings but only on the entire pizza. You like onions and are sort of okay with peppers, but you can’t stand mushrooms. Yanky loves them, though, and Yudi likes them somewhat. Shimmie’s a pepper guy and ambivalent about fungi. Complicated, no? Your first choice would be onions-only, but, to prevent the dreaded mushrooms, you’d compromise and allow peppers. Deliberations ensue, an agreement is reached, and the pie is delivered. Mazel tov.

Most political elections are so much easier. A simple majority rules; the candidate garnering the most votes is the winner. Even if no one wins a majority of votes. Even if a sizable minority loathes the winner. Even if other candidates were “spoilers,” having had little chance of winning but having siphoned votes away from a more popular candidate.

And then there is “ranked-choice” voting, a.k.a. “instant runoff” or “tiered” voting.

That system allows voters to rank their candidates – to choose not only a favorite, but second or third (or more) choices. When the votes are counted, a candidate earning more than 50% of the votes is the winner. But if no candidate achieves a majority of votes, the ballots get re-counted, this time, with the votes of those who selected the last-place candidate as their top pick counted as votes for their second-choice candidate.

If there still isn’t a 50%-winning contender, the process continues until someone amasses a majority. A majority-backed (or, at least, majority-acceptable) candidate will thus emerge as the winner. The system is arguably more democratic and unarguably less expensive that holding separate runoff elections.

Several American cities have adopted ranked-choice voting over the years. San Francisco used the method for its recent mayoral race, and New York City is considering putting the measure on the ballot for municipal elections.

Last week, Maine became the first state to use ranked-choice voting on the state level. Mainers may be especially sympathetic to the ranked-choice system, as, in both 2010 and 2014, outgoing Republican Governor Paul LePage, who has come under fire for racist and obscenity-laced statements, was elected without having won a majority of the votes.

Tallying and re-tallying votes is time-consuming, but even a pizza, after all, can’t be rushed. But, while the results of the Democratic gubernatorial primary (in which no candidate won a majority) have, at this writing, not yet emerged, one Maine ballot measure passed, with 54.2% of voters approving: To continue ranked-choice voting.

It’s a choice that seems to make sense. It may confuse some voters conditioned to the standard “the one with the most votes wins” system, require more research on the part of voters (not a bad thing, actually, that) and take longer for results to be reached. But when candidates who haven’t been chosen by a majority of voters can win office, it only aggravates the political polarization of society.

Ranked-choice voting can even actively achieve the opposite, bringing adversaries to cooperate with one another. Two of the seven Democratic rivals in the Maine governor’s race actually campaigned together. In a joint video, Mark Eves and Betsy Sweet noted that they are competitors, but agree on most issues. “You can vote for me first and Betsy second,” Mr. Eves says, with Ms. Sweet adding, “Or me first and him second.” Now when’s the last time we saw something like that?

Ranked-choice voting might even be an enticing, if far-off, option for our national elections. (Australia and Ireland have used the method for years.) Were the system to be used in primaries, the results of individual states’ primary elections might well be different from what they would be under the current system. And ratification of the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (NPVIC), under which a state pledges its electoral votes to the national popular-vote winner, would also arguably make presidential elections more reflective of the electorate’s will.

President Trump, for instance, lost the national popular vote and received less than 50% of the vote in six of the states he won. Both Mr. Trump and his rival Hillary Clinton, moreover, were very unpopular with a large number of voters. A late Gallup poll before the election rated their unfavorability quotients at 62% and 57% respectively.

Had the NPVIC been in effect and ranked-choice voting used by the states, the election could well have had a different result.

Whether that scenario makes one wistful or relieved, though, the ranked-choice approach is an intriguing idea for Americans to explore.

Calmly and judiciously.

Maybe over pizza.

© 2018 Hamodia

Klal Yisrael Matters

A “scandalous letter” in the files of Israel’s official rabbinate “reflects ignorance,” delivers “a severe blow” to Israel’s relations with Diaspora Jewry and “abandons the religious system in Israel to haredi hands.

Thus spake Assaf Benmelech, whose organization, “Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah,” seeks to promote “open and tolerant discourse” within Orthodoxy.

Indeed.

Mr. Benmelech, a lawyer, is representing one Akiva Herzfeld, who was ordained by the “Open Orthodox” institution Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (“YCT”) and whose certification of a woman’s Jewish status was rejected by the Israeli Rabbanut.  The letter at issue, he asserts, based its rejection on the rabbi’s affiliation with “modern Orthodoxy.”

That assertion has led to loud criticism from America, where the official Israeli rabbinate is being characterized as maintaining a “blacklist” and bowing to what one critic called “the more extremist elements among them” – the dreaded chareidim, of course.

Mr. Benmelech’s characterization of YCT as representative of “modern Orthodoxy” does a grave disservice to Jews and institutions that have worn that latter label for decades.  The movement with which the lawyer’s client is affiliated has indeed tried of late to shed its titular skin, exchanging “Open” for “Modern.”   But (to shamelessly mix wildlife metaphors) the leopard has not changed its spots.

The “Open Orthodox” movement, whatever it calls itself, is, simply put, not Orthodox at all. That is to say that it is theologically indistinguishable from the early Conservative movement, which at least had the honesty to admit that it was a new, divergent, endeavor.

The Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah has declared the movement “no different than other dissident movements throughout our history that have rejected [Judaism’s] basic tenets.”

For its part, the Rabbinical Council of America does not accept YCT’s rabbinic certifications as credentials for membership; neither does the National Council of Young Israel.  And Roshei Yeshivah at Yeshiva University have likewise rejected the appropriateness of “Orthodox” as descriptive of YCT.

The movement and its supporters’ prevarication is evident too in the use of the word “blacklist” to describe what is, in the end, a simple insistence on standards.  Medical students who have not demonstrated the knowledge or ethos needed to earn their accreditation have not been “blacklisted”; they have simply not made the grade. And if a medical association considers a particular medical school to be deficient in its training of doctors, the school’s degrees will not be recognized.  It hasn’t been “blacklisted”; it has simply failed to meet the required standard.

And so, the Israeli rabbinate has every right – and responsibility – to reject the credentials of those affiliated with YCT. Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt”l – whose teshuvos are duly cited by YCT leaders when they feel something in the Gadol’s decisions comports with some position they espouse – was clear that a mere affiliation with the Conservative or Reform movement invalidates a rabbi’s ability to offer testimony (Igros Moshe, Yoreh Deah 1:160).

Over most of Jewish history, individual rabbanim’s testimonies were all it took to establish Jewish credentials, and geirus and gittin overseen by a beis din were not generally challenged.

There were days, too, though, when halachah-observant Jews could judge the kashrus of a processed food by just reading the ingredients.

Today, though, Jewish life is more complicated.  Food products contain a laundry list of obscure colorings, flavorings and preservatives, from a multitude of sources.  That’s why kashrus organizations were established, and why they are necessary.

“Rabbis” today, too, have different ingredients and come in different flavors. If halachah is to be respected, standards are not only important but an absolute necessity.  At least if Klal Yisrael matters.

Tragically, in America today, there are, in reality, a multitude of “Jewish peoples,” born of the variety of definitions here of “Jewishness.” What is called “Jewish religious pluralism” has yielded an irreparable fracture of the American Jewish community. Innocent people, due to non-halachic conversions and invalid gitten, have become victims of the “multi-Judaisms” American model.

That disastrous situation is largely not the case today in Israel, due to the single standard upheld by the country’s rabbinate, no matter how imperfect the institution’s bureaucracy  may seem in some eyes.  Were things otherwise, the largest Jewish community in the world, the one residing in Eretz Yisrael, would be as divided and incoherent, chalilah, as the American one.  The maintenance of halachic standards are what have prevented that frightening scenario.

Hamodia readers know that, of course. But our fellow American Jews need to realize that – if they truly care about Klal Yisrael – they need to move past umbrage-taking and political positioning and confront the Jewish future with honesty.

© 2018 Hamodia

Optics and Essence

While Democrats and Republicans were trading verbal punches – and misinformation –about immigrant children last week, an adult immigrant riveted the attention of a crowd, and then the world, as he saved a child’s life.

Mamoudou Gassama, a 22-year-old Malian Muslim who, via Libya, took a perilous boat journey to Italy, and from there traveled to France, had been sleeping on the floor of a migrant residence in Montreuil, outside Paris, sharing a cramped room with six others and unable to work legally.

He has legal immigrant status now, though, and a potential job with the Paris fire department, after he saw a four-year-old boy hanging from an apartment building balcony railing in Paris and, in a feat of bravery, mettle and physical prowess, clambered up four stories, pulling himself from balcony to balcony until he reached the child, grabbed him, and pulled him back to safety.

The incident reminded some of the actions of another Malian Muslim immigrant to France, Lassana Bathily, who hid Jewish customers from an active shooter in a refrigerated room at a kosher grocery store during the January 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris.

The partisan spat on these shores concerned, in part, the separation of illegal immigrant children from their parents.

Some liberal activists tweeted photos of detainees at the U.S.-Mexico border in steel cages, including one of a cage occupied by young boys, and blamed the Trump administration for breaking up immigrant families.

As it turned out, though, the photos were from 2014, when Barack Obama was president.

Among those who gleefully pointed out the error was President Trump. But he erred himself in a subsequent tweet exhorting his followers to “put pressure on the Democrats to end the horrible law that separates children from there [sic] parents once they cross the Border into the U.S.” 

There is no such law, and the policy of separating children comes, in effect, from current administration policy, which automatically considers all who cross the U.S. border to be violators of criminal law. Under U.S. protocol, if parents are jailed, their children are separated from them. As to the 2014 photos, they were of children who arrived at the border without their parents.

Immigration, particularly for us Jews, is a fraught issue. There is understandable fear of arrivals from majority Muslim countries that espouse rabid anti-Israel and anti-Semitic attitudes. And yet, on the other hand, immigration to the U.S. is overwhelmingly from Mexico, China and India. And most of us American Jews are ourselves descended from relatively recent immigrants. Can we refuse others seeking opportunity, and often refuge, in our country?

Thoughtful Jews, I think, have two issues here to consider: The optics and the essence.

By optics I mean: What do we want recent immigrants and potential immigrants, legal and undocumented, to see? Jewish hands raised in a gesture of “halt!”, or extended in welcome? Yes, there may be incorrigible bad apples among potential immigrants (like there are among citizens). But there are many more wholesome imported fruits, even exemplary people like Messrs. Gassama and Bathily.

Does being a vocal part of the anti-immigration, deport-the-undocumented political camp offer any practical gain, beyond garnering the appreciation of alarmists and xenophobes? And does that gain, such as it is, outweigh the potential achievement of good will from immigrants, current and future?

And by essence I mean whether immigration is itself something positive, and whether undocumented immigrants should be regarded with sympathy or suspicion.

The threat of immigrant terrorists, so often raised in the debate, is largely a dark fantasy. The libertarian Cato Institute informs us that, based on the record, the chance of an American being murdered in a terrorist attack caused by an illegal immigrant is 1 in 10.9 billion per year. Yes, billion. Fears matter, but not as much as facts.

All that said, when it comes to how to regard immigration, reasonable people can disagree.

But all of us might consider the recent words of National Review senior editor Jonah Goldberg, a writer whose conservative credentials are beyond challenge.

“Of course,” he wrote, “there’s a kernel of truth to both sides’ awful shouting points on immigrants, but they crowd out the greater truth: Most immigrants, even those who are in the country illegally, aren’t animalistic members of MS-13… Neither victims nor villains, they are human beings desperate to make the most of the American dream as they see it.”

It’s possible that Mr. Goldberg has gone soft.

But maybe he just doesn’t see traditional conservatism as incompatible with compassion.

It’s not.

 © 2018 Hamodia

Human Uniqueness

In the course of a public roundtable discussion about immigration and crime, a few days before Shavuos, President Trump made a comment that provoked some outrage.

“You wouldn’t believe how bad these people are,” he said, about certain illegal immigrants. “These aren’t people, these are animals.”

The president was immediately assailed for what critics assumed was a crass dehumanization of foreigners. Stress on “immediately” and “assumed.”

Because had the critics taken the time to examine Mr. Trump’s comment in its context, they could have based what comments they had on facts, not assumptions.

But, no doubt recollecting some of presidential candidate Trump’s harsher campaign declarations about Mexicans, Muslims and others, some of those who see him as a danger to democracy didn’t look at what he actually said but, rather, chose to suppose.

“We are all G-d’s children,” scolded House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum declared that “Stalin, Mao, Hitler and Pol Pot all called their opponents ‘parasites’ or ‘vermin’ or ‘animals’.  Dehumanization is what you do to unwanted social groups before killing them.”

The Trump-Hitler comparison became a meme of the moment in certain parts of the social media planet.

The president took delight in exposing the overreaction, since his “animals” comment was clearly made with reference to violent criminal elements, some of whom have committed unspeakable acts of murderous, cruel violence. Earlier at the event, Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims had referred to the violent criminal gang MS-13. While the gang started in Los Angeles and includes many American citizens, its members are ethnic Central Americans, and the need to prevent suspected members from coming across our border illegally is a no-brainer.

But I still have an objection to the president’s characterization of violent criminals.

It’s unfair to animals.

My family has played host at various times to a goat, an iguana, assorted rodents and a tarantula.  (Witnessing the large spider’s shedding of its skin to emerge with a new, radiant one is an unforgettable experience.) I exult at watching the inhabitants of my aquarium (we recently welcomed new brood of baby guppies and mollies – mazel tov!), and the birds, squirrels and deer that pass our way are always appreciated.

I recently watched a carpenter bee excavate a perfect circle on the underside of the wooden maakeh on our deck, knowing that she will abruptly turn at a right angle to continue her tunnel horizontally, and create a tunneled-out bedroom for her progeny.

The wonders of the world Hashem created are ceaseless, and the amazing behaviors of the countless creatures He placed on earth, if viewed with honest eyes, must astound.

And each of those behaviors is ingrained in the species. To be sure, some are violent; Tennyson’s observation of nature’s being “red in tooth and claw” holds true. But animals who kill do so for food or survival, and act out of instinct, not as a result of choice.

Unlike humans, who can never be deemed innocent of horrific crimes on the claim that they were compelled by their nature. The specialness of the human lies in his ability to resist base inclinations, to use the astonishing gift we have been given: free will.

Calling a human who has made a choice to act cruelly or to wantonly maim or kill others an animal does an immense disservice to the animal kingdom, whose members do what they do because it is their immutable nature. And, worse, it subtly muddles the meaning of the outrage we should feel at human acts of violence or cruelty.

We live in times when some contend that there is no qualitative difference between an animal and a human being, that we are as hard-wired and predictable in our behavior as any lion, tarantula or carpenter bee. The upshot of that view is a world where there is no more meaning to right and wrong than there is to right and left.

That amoral philosophy stands in the starkest contrast to what the Torah teaches us: We are not animals but choosers, owners of our actions.

President Trump was riffing, of course, not philosophizing, at the recent public roundtable. And his point, no matter how one may feel about immigration policy, wasn’t to sow hatred for foreigners, much less to dehumanize any “unwanted social groups before killing them.”

He was just trying to express the depth of his contempt for people who have made the choice to profit from the torture and murder of others. The truest description of such people, though, isn’t “animals” but “choosers of evil,” something more heinous by far.

© 2018 Hamodia

Gentlemen, Sling Your Mud!

Winston Churchill famously cited the sentiment that “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

Indeed, while majority rule might in fact be the best system, it can’t be denied that democracy, for all the happy results it has delivered, has also birthed some horrific offspring. It was a popular vote in 1932 that made the Nazis the largest party in the German parliament. And lesser evils have been offered up by majorities in many countries since.

And even leaving aside that a body politic can include majorities with malevolent inclinations, the fact that money seems so crucial to political campaigns’ successes – that, in other words, enough partisan, prejudiced advertisements can effect victories – is itself a major chink in democracy’s noble armor. If large numbers of people are susceptible to the sort of inducements that convince people to buy a particular brand of perfume or beer, what does that say about the electorate’s intelligence?

And then there is a particularly disturbing ailment that seems to have broadly infected political advertising, at least in these United States.

I have in front of me, as I write, two pieces of glossy campaign snail mail ahead of the June 26 Congressional primary election, each from a Republican candidate. (I’m a lifelong registered Republican, thus their vying for my vote.) Candidate A cites Candidate B’s conviction a while back for tax and employment-related offenses, and his flyer bears the large legend “THE RISE OF THE CORRUPT CONVICT CONGRESSMAN FROM THE DEPTHS OF THE SWAMP.”

The other flyer, from the fellow referred to in those all-caps, sports its own capitalized declaration, that a vote for his opponent “IS A VOTE AGAINST PRES. TRUMP” – a most awful insult in my Staten Island district. And, amid other opprobrium, that the other guy “CO-SPONSORED 2 LIBERAL AMNESTY BILLS.” For shame.

The latter candidate also elsewhere slurred his opponent with a truly dreadful insult (children, please stop reading here), coyly suggesting that people vote for “[Candidate A] – Democrat for Congress!”

Before Shavuos, in the West Virginia Republican primary, one candidate, though unsuccessful in his bid, issued a campaign spot accusing “Swamp Captain Mitch” – that would be Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who is married to a Chinese-American woman – of having gotten rich off of his “China family,” and creating millions of jobs for “China people.”

We are greatly relieved that no Jew people were involved.

Negative campaigning, of course, is nothing new. Although candidates didn’t do active campaigning in those days, during the lead-up to the 1800 presidential election, Thomas Jefferson’s camp accused President John Adams of having a “hideous… character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.” In return, Adams’ men called Vice President Jefferson “a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.” Adams was labeled a fool, a hypocrite, a criminal, and a tyrant, while Jefferson was branded a weakling, an atheist, a libertine, and a coward.

But, at least over more recent campaigns, mudslinging has been on the rise. In every presidential election cycle from 2000 to 2012, campaign advertising was for the most part more negative than in the previous one.

As Mitchell Lovett, associate professor of marketing at the University of Rochester once explained, “It stays around because it works.” Were I a tweeter, that observation would merit an all-caps “SAD!”

As anyone involved in marketing or advertising knows, repeated exposure of a message leads people to accept it as fact. Whether or not it happens to be.

Combine that with an actual fact, that most people know very little about politics – only about two thirds of people can name their state’s governor, about half know that there are two U.S. senators from their state, and less than half can name their congressional representative – and it’s not hard to imagine how democracy might yield disaster.

I’m not advocating, any more than Churchill was, some other system of government. But each election year I wonder what would happen if candidates for office were limited in what their campaign literature and ads could say, if the only information permitted was about the merits of the candidate, not the failings of his or her opponent.

Campaign seasons, in that fantasy world, would be more enlightening and less misleading. But they would also be less interesting, or, at least, less entertaining.

Which is why that scenario isn’t likely to ever become reality. The electorate, I suspect, wouldn’t stand for it.

© 2018 Hamodia

Checking Out… and Checking In

Dr. David Goodall is no longer with us.

The 104-year-old scientist travelled to Switzerland from his home in Australia last week, weary of life and in a wheelchair, but not otherwise disabled or seriously ill, and ended his life. Assisted suicide is legal in the Australian state of Victoria, but only, to Dr. Goodall’s vexation, for the “terminally ill.”

In Switzerland, though, anyone of sound mind can opt to dispatch himself, and Dr. Goodall was assisted in his suicide plans by the groups “Lifecircle,” “Eternal Spirit” and “Exit International,” all dedicated to helping people achieve their demises. A representative of the latter group accompanied him on his trip.

Exit International also, it was reported, launched a funding campaign to help upgrade the scientist, presumably at his request, to business class.

That last, seemingly irrelevant, detail got me thinking. A man is done with the world, about to end his life. But he’d like more legroom.

At first thought, hey, why not? But on second one, his preference struck me as oddly relevant to the issue of assisted suicide itself, which has been legalized in several states, and which a bill before the New York State legislature proposes to do in the Empire State.

Needless to say, we must oppose such “progress.” While it is hard to argue against personal autonomy, permitting people to enlist doctors to end their lives opens a Pandora’s box of horribles.

Among them, as my Agudath Israel colleague Rabbi Mordechai Biser recently testified before the New York State Assembly Health Committee, are pressures patients would feel from doctors or family members to choose suicide; the inequalities of health care delivery systems that tend to discriminate against the poor, handicapped and elderly; the psychological vulnerability of the severely ill; and the risk of misdiagnoses.

He also spoke of “the historical disapprobation of suicide… one of the pillars of civilized societies throughout the generations”; and noted that, in many cases, better treatment of pain or depression could dissuade a patient from seeking death.

All true, of course. But I find myself pondering… that business class upgrade. I think it signifies – at least in this case – an attitude about life that is the antithesis of the Jewish one.

I remember once being asked by a reporter about Judaism’s stance on a certain “woman’s right.” I explained that Judaism isn’t about rights, but responsibilities. There could be no more basic a Jewish truism, of course, yet the reporter found it astonishing, admitting that she had “never thought of life that way.”

I tried not to let my own bewilderment at that statement show, but the fact that so fundamental a Jewish concept had been eye-opening to the reporter was, well, eye-opening to me.

It shouldn’t have been. The operative principle of so many people’s lives today is the pursuit of possessions, comforts and, yes, rights. They ask not, to paraphrase JFK’s speechwriter, what they can do with the gift of life, but rather what the gift of life can do for them.

And so a man about to end his life is understandably concerned, even until that end, with extra legroom. Chap arein.

Rav Noach Weinberg, zt”l, once recounted the saga of a young Jewish man who, in a swimming accident, became a quadriplegic.

The handicapped man had told Rav Weinberg how the first twenty-odd years of his life had been  spent enjoying athletics, and how his fateful accident had seemed at the time more devastating than death.

Now he was hampered by his condition not only from swimming but from so much as scratching an itch on his own. He could not even, he discovered, kill himself, which he desperately wanted to do. And no one would help him achieve his desire.

Frustrated by his inability to check out, he was forced, so to speak, to check in – inward, to a world of thought and ideas. Pushed from a universe of action, he entered one of mind.

If his life is indeed now worthless, he reflected, then was swimming and scratching literal and figurative itches really all that defined its meaning before?

That question led him to the realization that a meaningful life is independent of a physically active one. And he was led, in time, to his forefathers’ faith. Later, he mused that his paralysis had been a gift; for without it he would have remained a mere swimmer.

Dr. Goodall never realized what the ex-swimmer did about life, and was gratified to be able to spend a few of his final hours in business class.

© 2018 Hamodia