Political Correctness


If one weighs with weights that are deficient by the standards agreed upon in his locality, or measures with a measuring vessel deficient by the agreed standards, he violates a negative commandment, for Scripture states (Vayikra 19:35), ‘You shall do no unrighteousness in judgment, in length, in weight, or in measure.

– Maimonides, Mishneh Torah

“Political correctness” does not have an exemplary history.  In the middle of the past century, it was, according to Wikipedia, “…associated with the dogmatic application of Stalinist doctrine…”  Hardly a ringing endorsement.  Its use now, as part of our toxic political discourse, is generally used as a club with which to hammer the opposition.  Although used most against “liberals”, the truth is that political correctness is difficult to define, as it almost always resides in the eyes of the user.

To more conservative commentators, “political correctness” covers nearly every perceived weakness of a more liberal worldview.  To those same liberals, the use of the term by conservatives is “code” to paper over fairness and decency.  After all, discourse we now consider “wrong” –  use of the “N-word”, derogatory words to describe or characterize Jews – was once normal and acceptable until, that is, someone identified it as “politically incorrect” even though it was not called that then.

Our tradition is very clear as to the respect and decency that is to be afforded all people. 

Our concern, however, is that the desire to be “politically correct” has gone overboard; that we no longer defend who a person is but we now find ourselves in an environment where demands are made that we also defend whatever anyone might think or claim for themselves; that we might also be called upon to implicitly or explicitly defend behaviors that the Torah deems wrong.

This is not consistent with our tradition. 

Our tradition teaches that every human being, created in the image of God, deserves compassion and sensitivity.  But as our code of behavior makes clear, not every form of behavior should be granted that same consideration. 

This is certainly true when it comes to matters of sexuality.  God makes clear in the very first parsha of Torah that He created man, and he created woman, and He ordained the institution of marriage.

In matters of Torah, the changing perspectives of society and culture have no bearing on what is right and wrong. 

Sensitivity and compassion, yes. 

Approval, no.

Hosea’s last verse, which Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai used to teach his lesson for all time, begins with the words, mi chacham, Who is wise?

The Malbim teaches, “A person is capable of achieving understanding in many areas through his own intelligence. However, when dealing with matters beyond human comprehension, he must first acquire the necessary wisdom and only then can he deepen his understanding through his logical prowess…”  His insight applies particularly to the knowledge of the ways of Hashem, along with matters of Godliness.  So, Who is wise? He who has acquired the wisdom of Hashem’s ways, and can thereby build upon that wisdom to achieve understanding.  This teaching makes clear that, when it comes to matters of Godliness, the very notion of “political correctness” is irrelevant. 

The accusation of and shield of “political correctness” has created an environment in which there is fake news and fake facts.  There are numerous examples of how this has poisoned the political discourse and caused people to be fearful of speaking out.  It is madness when more than three-quarters of all babies born in Detroit are born to unwed mothers, yet it is “politically incorrect” to suggest that there is something wrong with this!  It is frightening when a high school in California recently sent five students home from school for wearing shirts displaying the American flag on Cinco de Mayo.  And for Chris Matthews of MSNBC to suggest that it was “racist” when conservatives used the term, “Chicago” borders on malpractice.  In such a damaged environment, it is easy to reduce Godliness to just another “talking point”. 

But as history and tradition has taught us, Godliness is not so easily diminished by the whim and foolishness of man.

Not long after a recent conversation about the perils of this “politically correct/incorrect” environment we live in, I returned to my study of that particular day’s Daf Yomi  which had, for the previous few days, devoted several Talmudic dapim to the many halachic details to assuring honest weights and measures. 

The Torah commands the need for the absolute accuracy of the scales and all their components so there could be no doubt about honest dealings in commerce between man and man.  The Talmud elaborates on the essential need for such accuracy and honesty.  R’ Levi suggests that the punishment for dishonest weights is even more severe than for  illicit relations; that stealing from humans is worse than stealing from God [from Hekdesh].   

The Torah is clear; there can be no compromise in these matters.  Among the many details taught on the Daf (Bava Bathra 89), is the instruction not to use scales made of wood, lead, or other metals (for they corrode or become sticky with grease – affecting their accuracy).   We learn that the utensil used to flatten off the top of the materials being weighed should not be too hard or too soft, along with other detailed instructions – all to guarantee that no one ever be cheated.

After elucidating these instructions, we hear uncertainty from the greatest scholar of all, Rabban Yochanan be Zakai.  Having these teachings, should he actually teach them? “Woe unto me if I teach it to them and woe unto me if I don’t teach it to them.”  In other words, in teaching these things, he might very well reveal the “tricks of the trade” – which dishonest people could then use to cheat more effectively.  But in not teaching these things, dishonest people will believe the talmidei chachamim, the rabbis and religious teachers, are ignorant about thievery and dishonesty – that is, that they know nothing about contemporary issues!

So, the Talmud asks, What did R’ Yochanan ben Zakai actually do.  Rav Shmuel bar Yitzchok teaches that R’ Yochanan ben Zakai did teach all of the passages detailing the various methods of weights and measures.  He did not hide God’s word simply because the ramaim might glean untruths by evaluating truthfulness. 

Recall, R’ Yochanan was not only the greatest of scholars but he was also a successful businessman.  He knew there were those who would use any opportunity to cheat but he was not concerned about being “politically correct” (for, after all, today’s ramaim are those who seek to be politically correct at the expense of truth, honesty, and morality).  R’ Yochanan spoke truth honestly and forcefully. 

Certainly it was as difficult for him to do so in his time as it is for us in ours.  Why did he do it?  Where did he find the courage?  Rav Shmuel bar Yitzchak suggests the answer.  Because the last verse in Hosea’s impassioned prophecy balances blunt judgment with love and mercy.  “For the ways of HaShem are straight; the righteous will walk with them and sinners will stumble over them.”   From this, R’ Yochanan taught that God’s absolute truth must be revealed without hesitation or fear.

There is no political correctness in Torah.  Teach Torah because the “righteous will walk with them.”  The righteous need to know the truth if they are to do right.  The righteous want to know God’s will.  And, as for the “sinners”, they “will stumble over them”.  The sinners will always find new ways of thievery.  Their sinfulness should never be an excuse for withholding God’s Torah.

As Jews, our tradition and God’s teaching command that we speak out.  Marriage is between man and woman.  Other forms of union can be described in many ways – but not as marriage.  Ish is ish.  Isha, isha.  Man is man.  Woman, woman.  No political movement can change that.  No governmental law or edict can compromise that.

Terrorism is terrorism.  A murderer is a murderer.

Our tradition teaches compassion and sensitivity to the person, not the act.  Many factors and variables contribute to the people we become.  Children are abused.  Families are dysfunctional.  There is alcohol and drug abuse.  Terrible, terrible things.  But they do not excuse behavior that God condemns. 

R’ Yochanan’s lesson is not just about weights and measures, it is an eternal lesson to be applied to all situations – the world’s righteous, even in silence, deserve and need to hear truth while the cheaters and charlatans will inevitably stumble, truth or no truth. 

Those who seek only “political correctness” are uninterested in God’s truth. 

R’ Eliezer of Beaugency teaches of Hosea’s statement, “The wayward see the ways of Hashem as being the source of their downfall, for their sole interest in life is fulfilling their whims and desires, and the ways of the Torah stand in their way.”  R’dak elaborates, “The stumblers say there is no mesader u’manhig ha’olam (Godly law and order) and there is no absolute yosher so they follow their hearts’ whims and desires.

“They will fail and will be lost.”

R Yochanan be Zakai taught truth to power and, in doing so, saved the Jewish nation in the midst of destruction and hopelessness. 

To teach or not to teach?  The answer is clear.  We must always teach Torah truth.  Teach to those who will hear and, for those others, those who will stumble, they will find their equally stumbling and lost “leaders”.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.