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Contemporary Politics: Oaths Made in Vain

05/22/2013 12:12 pm ET | Updated Jul 22, 2013
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The power of speech is one of the most amazing human faculties: The great Bible commentator Onkelos (on Genesis 2:7) goes so far as to suggest that this is the defining feature of being human. How we use our speech ultimately determines what we are about.

In business, it's often said that one should "under-promise and over-deliver." This is the opposite approach typically offered in politics, which is to over-promise (and, unfortunately, under-deliver). Politicians and aspiring officeholders often make commitments that are impossible to meet.

In Jewish law, a false commitment is called a shevuat shav (a vain oath). There are four kinds of vain oaths:

  • An oath to something which is obviously true
  • An oath to something which is obviously false
  • An oath to transgress a commandment
  • An oath to do the impossible
It's the fourth category, an oath to do the impossible, that has become very common today.

Words truly matter and we must discern, when we either make a promise or consider another's promise, what is at least sincere versus what is a shevuat shav. It is not only politicians but all of us who can learn from this lesson.

Business marketing, especially in the stock market, has a particularly bad reputation for shevuat shav. We can go as far back as Chapter 2 of Charles Dickens' "Nicholas Nickleby" (published between 1838 and1839) to read of a joint stock scam in which wealthy businessmen tout the initial offering of stock (to draw unwitting victims to invest) while simultaneously planning to get out with a huge profit before the stock crashes. In the 20th century, there were more incredible promises. Carlo "Charles" Ponzi, after several small-time swindles, came upon what became known as the "Ponzi scheme," attracting investors with the promise of outrageously high returns in an unrealistically short amount of time. In reality, he used the incoming money to pay off the original investors, while taking a good deal of the money for himself. After about a year of this, he was arrested and spent the next 12 years in jail. Incredibly, many criminals have repeated this scam and found willing victims, most infamously in the recent Bernie Madoff scandal.

While business promises can ruin people financially, political promises during political crises can cost lives and influence policies for decades. When President Woodrow Wilson called for war against Germany in 1917, he made impossible promises: "The world must be made safe for democracy. Its peace must be planted upon the tested foundations of political liberty. We have no selfish ends to serve. We desire no conquest, no dominion." He later released his 14 Points for a just peace, and sailed to Paris twice to press his case.

Unfortunately, the United States had as its allies the most oppressive government in the world, Russia (still headed by a tsar and responsible for countless pogroms that killed many Jews and drove millions more to America and other countries), and the two largest colonial powers, Great Britain and France. While the tsar was soon overthrown, neither Great Britain nor France wanted to part with its colonies after the war, making a mockery of President Wilson's lofty 14 Points. French Premier Georges Clemenceau, known as "the Tiger," sarcastically remarked that "G-d has 10 commandments. Wilson has 14." In America, the popular entertainer Eddie Cantor drew tremendous laughter at the Ziegfeld Follies when he made fun of Wilson's trips to Paris: "Presidents may come and presidents may go, but Wilson does both!" The public derision contributed to a lengthy period of isolation throughout the next two decades, and delayed the American reaction to the later rise of fascism in Europe.

More recently, the Bush administration made absurdly optimistic predictions about the Iraq war. Asked in February of 2003 how long the Iraq war would last, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said: "It could last six days, six weeks. I doubt six months." In March, Vice President Dick Cheney added: "Weeks rather than months." The war lasted eight years and cost about $800 billion, with thousands of casualties, and undoubtedly contributed to Democrat Barack Obama's two presidential election victories.

Economic crises have also contributed to over-the-top promises. Republican Herbert Hoover was considered an expert in business when he ran for President in 1928, claiming that unemployment was "widely disappearing": "We in America today are nearer to the final triumph over poverty than ever before in the history of any land." In October 1929, in response to instability on Wall Street, Hoover said: "The fundamental business of the country ... is on a sound and prosperous basis." Four days later, the stock market crashed, precipitating the Great Depression. In spite of this, Hoover continued to insist that things would work themselves out. Throughout 1930, he maintained that business had turned the corner and that the worst of unemployment would be over, comments that were adapted by the media to "Prosperity is just around the corner." As the Depression worsened, the promise quickly became a joke, with particular jabs from popular composers. For example, in his Pulitzer prize-winning 1931 musical, "Of Thee I Sing," George Gershwin wrote a satirical song, "Posterity Is Just Around the Corner." Even the usually upbeat Irving Berlin, who had lost a fortune in the Wall Street crash, turned a cynical eye to the President in his 1932 musical Face the Music: "Mr. Herbert Hoover says that now's the time to buy, so let's have another cup of coffee, and let's have another piece of pie!" In the meantime, people did die of malnutrition and an entire generation suffered psychologically from the fear that their savings might disappear at any moment. Ultimately, the Democratic candidate won each of the next five presidential races.

Needless to say, Americans do not have a monopoly on false political promises. Tens of millions of people have died in wars in which their leaders promised centuries of glory, and their only legacy was the destruction of their own countries as well as other lands. During the Cold War, there was no world war but there were many economic disasters caused by false promises. In the "Great Leap Forward" of 1958-1960, Mao Zedong promised to jump-start Chinese industry and agriculture in an effort to beat both the Americans and the Soviets, with whom he had grown progressively more hostile. Small communes were set up throughout the countryside, and 600,000 "backyard furnaces" were set up to make steel. However, these tiny furnaces proved useless, as they could not generate temperatures high enough to make high-grade steel, and they sucked up so many agricultural and industrial resources that mass starvation resulted. The "Great Leap Forward," in retrospect, proved to be the "Great Collapse," with a terrifying number of needless Chinese dead. It took China years to recover.

Sometimes a promise can seem ambitious in one era and ridiculous in another. Democratic President John F. Kennedy, in a speech to Congress in May 1961, pledged to land a man on the moon before the decade was out. The idea fit in with American youthful idealism as well as with the bipartisan ethos present in government during the Cold War, and the technology was in the works. In July 1969 the United States landed the first man on the moon during the presidency of Republican Richard Nixon. On the other hand, during the Republican presidential primary campaign in 2012, Newt Gingrich said that if he were elected, there would be a manned moon base in operation by 2020. However, most scientists immediately scoffed at the possibility and others saw this as a self-serving attempt by the candidate to appeal to the Florida space industry, questioning how a candidate who proposed cutting the budget could justify tens of billions of dollars of additional expenditures. Gingrich was soon out of the campaign.

Today's political promises and their lack of fulfillment are not as catastrophic as in the past, but there are some that deserve attention. In 2008, candidate Barack Obama promised to close the Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba, to add 5 million new jobs in clean energy enterprises, to end foreclosures, and to keep unemployment under 8 percent with a stimulus plan. While President Obama has faced unprecedented opposition (including hundreds of filibusters from the Republicans in Congress) that pushes for incredibly high tax breaks for the wealthy, cuts for poverty programs and ludicrous claims that these will create rather than destroy the job market, many critics argue that Obama has not done enough to counter the opposition. For example, while the unemployment rate fell to 7.6 percent in March 2013, it was mostly the result of 500,000 people dropping out of the work force. Today, the labor participation rate is 63.3 percent, the lowest since 1979. This cannot be seen as a promise fulfilled, and should not be permitted as the "new normal."

There are those who maintain that you have to make impossible promises in order to get elected or stay in business. However, we should always ask whether a promise is at least plausible or whether it deserves to be denounced as a shevuat shav. An informed market and an informed electorate, with real accountability for those who keep and fail to keep their promises, are the way forward for a just and prosperous society. The Torah teaches us not to publicly set false expectations for personal gain. We should take this lesson to heart in our personal lives and raise the bar in our public discourse.

Rabbi Dr Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder & President of Uri L'Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V'Aretz Institute and the author of "Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century." Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America."

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