Sunday, January 24, 2016

Gerry Who? / Parshat Yitro 2016-5776

Eldridge Thomas Gerry was the fifth vice-president of the United States. He served under President James Madison. If you have never heard his name, that’s could mean that you weren’t on your high school’s It’s Academic team. Neither was I. But even better known than Mr. Gerry is a political practice bearing his name that is damaging the democracy we enjoy in this country: gerrymandering. Manipulating the boundaries of congressional districts through (too often politically motivated disingenuous) re-apportionment in order to assure that one political party or the other will “own” a district may have created some majority-minority districts, but in recent years it has stifled what should be the inherent dynamism of a democracy. In 2012, Democrats won 51% of the popular vote for House representatives countrywide, but secured only 46% of the seats; gerrymandering played a significant role. Take Illinois’s famous 4th District, pictured here above. The creative people who engineered this one had to include part of highway I-294 to make it contiguous and ensure it would remain solidly in the hands of the Democrats. Similarly Maryland’s 3rd District, left, meandering lazily like a river through three counties and Baltimore City. 

Or consider Pennsylvanias 12th District (below right), a Republican stronghold (below—can you tell which is the map?).

This country is dotted with such districts: North Carolina’s 3rd, California’s 7th, New York’s 12th, Texas’ 19th, or any of a great many congressional districts through the country. Gerrymandered districts is the shrewd creation of politicians who have a very different conception of leadership than you probably do: Rather than going out and winning votes and serving their constituents, they redraw districts so that they can choose their voters. (Check out this video for a good laugh, and Jon Stewart’s take, as well.) Who’s serving who here? Coupled with the massive influx of special interest money into politics and the repeated failures of campaign reform, it is not surprising that we have a largely dysfunction political system and fewer and fewer people are choosing to participate, as evidenced by lower voter turnout. People are feeling increasingly disenfranchised and we are all suffering from a paucity of genuine leadership.

The Israelites, newly freed from slavery in Egypt, are running into leadership problems, as well. They, too, feel disenfranchised. Moses is at wit’s end. He has survived the desert, Pharaoh, plagues, Pharaoh’s army, the Sea of Reeds, and even Amalek. Now Moses faces what may be his greatest challenge yet: leading the Israelites. Fortunately, his father-in-law, Jethro, comes to meet him and, seeing the confusion and disarray entailed in trying to adjudicate the needs and conflicts of 600,000 people, he tells Moses:

The thing you are doing is not right! You will surely wear yourself out—and these people, as well. The task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone. Now listen to me. I will give you counsel, and God be with you! You represent the people before God: you bring the disputes before God, and enjoin upon them the laws and the teachings, and make known to them the way they are to go and the practice they are to follow. (Exodus 18:17-20)

Jethro tells Moses that his job description is to be the intermediary between the people and God concerning God’s expectations for them. Moses, however, is attempting to do far more: he is trying to serve as judge of their disputes with one another. No, no, Jethro says, this is far too great a burden for one person to shoulder, even Moses. The people are not being well served.

You shall also seek out from among all the people capable men who fear God, trustworthy men who spurn ill-gotten gain. Set these over them as chiefs of thousands hundreds, fifties, and tens, and let them judge the people at all times. Have them bring every major dispute to you, but let them decide every minor dispute themselves. Make it easier for yourself by letting them share the burden with you. If you do this—and God so commands you—you will be able to bear up; and all these people too will go home unwearied. (Exodus 18:21-23)

Jethros response to Mosesconundrum of leadership was not democracy, but Torah reminds us of something that is easily forgotten in the power and money battles that dominate the American political landscape. Jethro instructed Moses that the criteria for choosing leaders ought to be their qualities of character: they must be honest and trustworthy, and dedicated to serving the people. Do these sound like criteria that would serve us well, and far better than that of powerhouse fundraising, the #1 criterion these days?

Gerrymandering is not illegal. The goal of creating majority-minority districts and districts with like concerns may well be legitimate in some instances, but we see little of that today. What is more, drawing districts is a complex issue and there is no simple (nor even complex) mathematical algorithm for doing it. (Try out the Redistricting Game.) In June 2014 the Supreme Court  uphold the constitutionality of the independent redistricting commission of Arizona, providing hope that we could move to a strategy for drawing congressional district lines that is not flagrantly partisan. If we can recognize the effect of extensive gerrymandering in corroding the democratic nature of our political system and skewing elections even further toward the poles of power and money and away from the pillars of character and ideas, there is hope we can move toward a system that allows more access to the political process. Hopefully, we the voters will then be able to give due consideration to candidates’ character and vision.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman