Dignity and sincerity: The scriptural call in the Kavanaugh moment

The principle that one must treat a person as a person, not an object, has many scriptural wellsprings. None is more powerful than the principle, “Love your fellow as yourself.”

A STATUE of Martin Luther King. Many Jews supported the Civil Rights movement in the US (photo credit: REUTERS)
A STATUE of Martin Luther King. Many Jews supported the Civil Rights movement in the US
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The debate over Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the US Supreme Court is now behind us. For some time to come, we in America will continue to sift through what has taken place, reflect on it and consider the damage that this process has wrought. As we do, we must confront the troubling fact that, when we most needed to consider evidence regarding Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s allegation that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her, the debate brought forth a profusion of distractions, distortions and excuses – to the point that we as a nation essentially saw two different hearings. What our shared conversation urgently needs is a voice that can disperse this fog and enunciate our values. And since these issues span the domains of the political-legal and the cultural-moral, we need a voice that can speak to both.
The recent American figure who best did so was Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He played this role, among other ways, by drawing on scripture to speak to his listeners with all the firepower with which scripture spoke to its original audiences and on through the ages. Although our discourse today lacks a personage like King, what we still possess is our national culture, the sum of all the traditions and texts of those who live here. Those traditions and texts still call to us. They call out two principles in particular for our moment: we must treat others as people, not objects; and we must believe sincerity over contrivance.
The principle that one must treat a person as a person, not an object, has many scriptural wellsprings. None is more powerful than the principle, “Love your fellow as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18; all translations mine unless otherwise noted). What exactly does it mean to love? The Talmud offers a crucial definition: “All love that is dependent on a thing [or: object], if the thing ceases, the love ceases,” i.e. is false. “And love that is not dependent on a thing, it will not cease for eternity,” i.e. is real and worthy. “What is love that is dependent on a thing? This is the love of Amnon and Tamar. And what is love that is not dependent on a thing? This is the love of David and Jonathan” (Pirké Avot 5:16).
Amnon, in 2 Samuel 13, rapes Tamar. He treats her as an object in the most total way; he transgresses utterly the demand to treat her as a human being, created in God’s image (Genesis 1) and thus possessing innate qualities such as autonomy, feelings and dignity. The narrative describes Amnon’s actions as “abuse” (2 Samuel 13:22, Robert Alter’s translation). By the starkest of contrasts, it is respecting and honoring those innate qualities in a person — it is treating her or him as a human being — that is the foundation of real, worthy love. And the Hebrew Bible’s and the Talmud’s word choice insists that our treatment of each other go beyond respect and indeed constitute love, or, as one might loosely translate for a political-legal context, empathy. Those who treat people as objects show that when it comes to such respect and empathy — key judicial, as much as personal, attributes and duties — they fall significantly short.
Meanwhile, there are those who accept the horror of Ford’s allegation, but deny that Kavanaugh was a perpetrator. It is too easy to leave this case as one of “he said, she said,” with nothing more to be said. In cases like these, whom do we as a society believe?
Here, too, scripture calls to us. Consider another Biblical figure: Hannah. When she goes to the sanctuary to pray for a child, she is in “bitterness of soul” (1 Samuel 1:10) and “a bleak-spirited woman” (1:15, Alter’s translation). She at the same time “is speaking in her heart” (1:13) – but significantly, the kind of “heart” that speaks in sync with “soul” and “spirit.” Hannah exhibits, in one word, sincerity. Sincerity is a key sign that someone’s account of the facts should be believed. The Bible sharpens this point by showing that 1) Eli the priest at first does not believe that Hannah is truly in the sanctuary to pray, taking her for a drunkard; 2) Eli listens to Hannah and changes his mind; and finally 3) God answers Hannah’s prayer (verses 13-20).
By contrast, from the lead-up to Noah’s flood in Genesis to Jeremiah’s censures of false prophets, the Hebrew Bible features numerous examples of the word “heart” without accompanying words like “soul” and “spirit.” “Heart” in these contexts entails base appetites and self-invented thoughts and schemes that contravene veracity and ethics: in sum, contrivance.
What we have just experienced as a nation is not a case of “he said, she said,” but one in which we must seek to know when sincerity spoke and when contrivance spoke, and then choose accordingly which voice to believe. This Biblical framework goes beyond that still-undying waters-muddying commonplace and confronts us with the question: What are he and she saying, and how are they saying it?
The Bible’s emphases on treating a person as a person and not an object and on believing sincerity over contrivance seem almost self-evident. But as we know from the American Declaration of Independence, the “self-evident” is not the obvious until people listen to it and act.

The writer is a student at New York City’s Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, whose mission is to train “rabbis who are open, non-judgmental, knowledgeable, empathetic,” and committed to “Orthodoxy [as]… a movement that expands outward, non-dogmatically, and cooperatively, to encompass the needs of the larger Jewish community and the world.” Previously, he worked in law and politics, including for Senator Richard Blumenthal, at the Israeli Supreme Court, and at the UN International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague.