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Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster Headshot

Choose Our Highest Values, Reject Fear

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What is our highest value? In Jewish tradition, two rabbis debate the question of what constitutes the Torah's most central commandment. Rabbi Akiva insists on "Love your neighbor as yourself" (Leviticus 19:18) while Ben Azzai holds that the assertion in Genesis that every human being is created in God's image, b'tzelem elohim, is more critical. The inherent sacredness of each person, friend and enemy, becomes the basis of the Jewish opposition to torture and standard by which American policies are evaluated.

But we cannot forget the importance of Rabbi Akiva's assertion that the Jewish version of the Golden Rule is the highest value in the Torah. Our own desires for safety, well-being and peace are transferred onto our fellow, sacred human beings. The rabbis stated that one good deed leads to another, and that with one act of wrongdoing, another inevitably follows. If we follow the Golden Rule, we set an example to both our friends and enemies for honorable behavior, even in difficult times. And if we treat others abominably, no matter how much they wish to harm us, then we create justifications for torture and cruelty.

When we imagine how America should treat suspected terrorists in its custody, we have to keep in mind how we would want our own troops treated if they fell into enemy hands. Indeed, a desire to keep safe our sons and daughters serving our country is one of the primary reasons that many Americans oppose the use of torture against suspected terrorists. We have already seen the effects of the photos of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo in stirring anti-American sentiment, and oppressive regimes around the globe justify torturing pro-democracy activists by labeling them "terrorists." When President Obama signed an Executive Order his first day in office making the Army Field Manual the standard for American interrogations, he reaffirmed the centrality of the Golden Rule in keep us safer.

But there are those who would jettison the Golden Rule out of a misguided concern for security. During the recent debate on the Ayotte Amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act, which would have allowed for a classified list of interrogation techniques outside the Army Field Manual, Senator Lieberman argued for terrorizing detainees. Concerned because the Army Field Manual is a public document, he insisted that for interrogations to be successful, detainees had to be in a state of fear about what might happen to them in American custody.

Senators Lieberman and Ayotte insisted that the Amendment would not promote a return to the classified use of torture because torture is illegal under national and international laws. But our recent past shows how easy it is for a new Administration to twist the law to define torture out of existence when creating extreme interrogation methods. And if those methods are classified, we as citizens will never know that torture has returned -- all in the name of frightening suspected terrorists.

A man once came to the sage Hillel and asked to be taught the entire Torah while he stood on one foot. Hillel replied: "What is hateful to you, do not to your neighbor: that is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary." Hillel understood that without the Golden Rule, all other rules lose their grounding.

As a nation, we must not lose sight of our goal of maintaining safety while promoting American values through embodying them in laws and behavior. Our country should be focused on ending terrorism, not on terrorizing others. We do not have the privilege to jettison our values in the name of safety. While Senator Lieberman has served honorably in the U.S. Senate, and is well-known for his deep and abiding faith, he is wrong to believe that our country should focus on instilling terror in others. He and others in the Senate who supported the Ayotte Amendment forget that America is made safer when America lives by the values it professes. We must inspire -- not fear in suspected terrorists but democracy, compassion and a community of nations guided by the Golden Rule.