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Rav Holder: The Attorney General Channels the Rabbis

Marjorie Yablon
November 17, 2014
by Marji Yablon Eric HolderEVALUATIONS OF ERIC HOLDER’S PERFORMANCE as U.S. Attorney General began appearing online moments after he announced, in September, that he’d be leaving that position. Front-page print assessments followed. It wasn’t pretty. When his nominated successor is confirmed by the Senate Judiciary Committee and Holder actually steps down, it’s going to start all over again. So far, the euphemistic adjective generally chosen to describe his legacy: “mixed.” Meanwhile, the modifiers that have flashed through my mind have included “rabbinical” and “Solomonic,” followed by an expression used often in rabbinical teachings: “In the blink of an eye.” Criticisms toward Holder include that he went too far (as when his department seized phone records from the Associated Press) and not far enough (as when that same department did not bring criminal charges against any Wall Street or bank executives for causing the economy to tumble). But in the area that perhaps matters most to him — civil rights — Holder has achieved, with poetic simplicity, a feat that earlier had seemed impossible. Like most ingenious ideas, the tendency is to respond, “Duh,” because it’s so simple. Yet no one from a think tank, brain trust, or academic stratosphere had come up with it. AS AN INTRODUCTION TO THAT SOLUTION, another similarly simple one: About a dozen years ago, shortly before Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater ended his tenure at the Conservative synagogue Ahavath Israel in Kingston, New York, to take up his current post in Pasadena, California, he led a vigil on the eve of the saddest day of the Jewish year, the fast day of Tisha B’Av. A slew of bad events are said to have occurred on that date, including the destruction of both temples in Jerusalem and the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492. The list continues up to the Holocaust and beyond. We sat on the floor in low light. But the study materials the rabbi distributed did not dwell on the obliteration in ancient times of both the first Temple and of the rebuilt Second Temple, nor on the current inaccessibility of the Temple Mount to Jews, for prayer. (At that holy place for at least three religious groups, including Muslims, Jews, and many Christians, prayer is currently permitted only for Muslims, under the protection of the Israeli government, in an attempt to head off violence. Part of that violence might come from Jews toward Jews; the most observant fear that other Jews entering the area could inadvertently enter the space of the Holy of Holies, which, in the days of the Temple, was open only to the Cohen Gadol, the high priest — and even for him, only on the Day of Atonement.) The study materials we received in Kingston on that annual day of heartbreak spoke of a solution — a remedy could take hold in the blink of an eye. The blink of an eye! In the near darkness, we learned that the solution to all of that past injury to hearts, souls and bodies was this: Everyone should share the spot. I know. The protests to this are, in a nutshell: “Yeah, right. Everyone would find that to be suitable within their religious dictates, and they’d be perfectly willing to cross paths and set schedules in peace. Tell me another one!” Yet that’s the solution. It’s there for us, if we want it. Now go and study. ERIC HOLDER WAS IN A FAR BETTER POSITION to solve his particular puzzler than a modern would-be peacemaker at the Temple Mount quoting Rodney King. Holder had clout. Still, the same problem he’d experienced as a Superior Court judge in D.C. — having no discretion in sentencing for many drug offenses — had persisted through his nearly six years as attorney general. Laws on the books dictate that when someone is convicted of possessing more than a specific amount of drugs, the judge has no leeway; a particular minimum sentence must be imposed. Never mind that it’s now very clear what the loathsome financial and moral results can be, or that hardly anyone likes those laws anymore. There they are. Tough on crime in cases involving violent repeat offenders, Holder felt differently about less-threatening lawbreakers — those using, for instance, even perhaps selling, to support their habits — for whom prison was no solution. And he was far from alone. As a judge, he’d actually watched juries rebel. Aware of the consequences to defendants, some were refusing to convict minor offenders, regardless of the evidence. With a lifelong and career-long hope that he could make improvements in the area of civil rights, Holder saw how mandatory sentencing was filling the prisons with the poor and minorities for relatively minor offenses, and was decimating individual lives, families, and the future. When he knew that his tenure, and with it that of his clout, was coming to an end, he did the simplest thing: He instructed prosecutors, in their documents prepared for the court, not to mention the amount of drugs found with the person arrested. That’s all. Simply don’t mention it. In that little corner of reality, if it isn’t reported, it doesn’t exist. WHICH REMINDS ME OF A RABBINICAL SOLUTION to the challenge of resuming sexual relations after a woman’s period of menstruation ends. That’s supposed to occur a specific amount of time after blood was last seen. However, the rabbis, and surely numerous Orthodox couples, asked: What’s to happen if it all seems to be gone, the wait is over, and suddenly, a pinpoint of red is spotted in the underwear? Despite impressions to the contrary and even attitudes among some (but far from all) ultra-Orthodox groups, Jewish written and oral law encourages procreation, considers a life of celibacy unnatural, defends a woman’s right to sexual fulfillment (she can divorce her husband in its absence), and considers lovemaking a holy act especially suitable for shabes. For such a religion, surely a dot calling for a magnifying glass, a dot that might or might not be blood, should not have such power. Has a solution been found? It has. And it can solve everything in the blink of an eye: Don’t look. If you don’t see it, then in your world, it isn’t there. There’s good reason why, among Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox women, sales of black underwear are brisk and rabbinically sanctioned. Scoffers might call Holder’s solution just another example of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell — except that virtually everyone wants it. They’re all on the same side, looking for a way out. Cynics could emphasize that Holder’s change regarding sentencing covers few cases. It does nothing for those already convicted and imprisoned. What’s more, Holder’s control extends only to federal cases. As opposed to the two million housed in local and state prisons, only 219,000 are held in federal prisons. (A side note: With 5 percent of the world’s population, the U.S. is responsible for 25 percent of the world’s prisoners.) Again, probably unintentionally, Holder appears to have adopted a Jewish outlook directly from Pirkei Avot, within the Mishnah: “It is not upon you to finish the work, but neither may you desist from it.” In fact, by serving as a test run, a showcase of what little harm and what massive good to lives and pocketbooks such a change can accomplish, and how much more it could do if extended to the state level, Holder’s effort may eventually bring us to a tipping point at which policy will change across the board. ​For pilgrims so close and yet so far from the Temple Mount, for couples in their bedrooms, and for defendants in court, such solutions essentially create an alternative universe in which we all get along and pinpoints of red, or exact amounts of drugs, do not exist. As the saying goes: “The possible we can do immediately; the impossible might take a little longer.” But the seemingly impossible? That, perhaps, in the blink of an eye. Marji Yablon has worked, on staff and freelance, as a journalist, lyricist, performance storyteller, and videographer, on topics including the prisons, Judaism, alternative health practices and the environment.