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When the Law Conflicts with Your Core Values

As a citizen and a rabbi I hold the obligation to abide by the law in the highest regards. However, at times the law (Jewish or civil) stands in conflict with one's core values. This is one of the reasons that the law constantly changes as our ethical standards shift. The Torah readings of this season recount the story of the Exodus. The story has many heroes, but the first heroic act was the act of disobedience. When the Pharaoh decreed that the Hebrew newborn males should be killed, the midwives, Shifrah and Puah, refused to do so and kept the babies alive. I am writing this article just before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day. In his day, the law in some states contradicted the ideal of equality held by most Americans. MLK broke the law, as did Rosa Parks, and today they are rightly perceived as American heroes.  

Perhaps because of the time spent thinking about the biblical issues of civil disobedience, I have been deeply bothered by the death of Aaron Swartz, the 26 year old computer prodigy, internet pioneer and political activist, who took his own life on January 11th. While Aaron wrote openly about his depression, his suicide was most likely a result of the overwhelming stress he was under due to his legal troubles. Aaron Swartz hacked into MIT’s computer network and downloaded almost 5 million articles from the shared, digital journal storage library, JSTOR. He did this because he was fighting to keep the information on the Internet open and accessible to all. As a result of his actions he faced up to 35 years in prison and a million dollar fine.  

When I mentioned to Gali how bothered I was by Swartz’s death she half teasingly commented that my strong reaction was related to Aaron being Jewish, as implied by his name. I did not completely deny it. We are wired to feel stronger kinship toward members of the groups we belong to. That's why we are proud when an American we have never met, wins a gold medal, and are ashamed when a Jew engineered the greatest ponzi scheme in history. I remember feeling similar sadness when the British Jewish singer, Amy Winehouse, died at 27. But the Jewish identity of the two young people counts for only a small part of my sympathy. It has much more to do with the loss of young life, a sense of a "waste" of an enormous talent, and a feeling that their death was avoidable.     

You see, Aaron Swartz was not a regular criminal. Yes, he broke the law, and yet I find it hard not to sympathize with him for two reasons: the kind of felony he committed, and the way he was treated. I personally do not condone Swartz's actions but at the same time we must remember that he didn't hurt anyone and even the prosecutors admitted that there was no intention of receiving any personal gain from it. JSTOR, the alleged victim of Swartz's actions, refused to press any charges against him and urged the prosecution not to seek a criminal case. JSTOR stated that they share many of Swartz's open-access ideals and made 4.5 million journal articles available for free online. 

The other aspect of the story that alarms me is the lack of compassion shown by the prosecution. Their job is to protect the law (that was written in 1986 and is in a desperate need of a massive update to meet the meteoric technological advances since). But the zeal with which they handled Swartz should be saved for real criminals and not for idealist political activists. When Swartz's lawyer warned them (as did his father pleading with MIT to join JSTOR and help his son) that this stress made him a suicide risk their response was, "put him in jail, he'll be safe there".    
The convoluted debate on copyrights versus freedom of information on the web is not going away anytime soon. Both sides make compelling arguments. Aaron Swartz broke the law out of a sincere conviction that he did it to promote and defend the core values of our country. We should all educate ourselves about the details of this important issue and decide for ourselves whether or not we agree with Swartz’s actions. But no matter where we stand, we must respect him, as a selfless honest guy who gave all he had to fight for his beliefs.  

As you know, observance of the Torah, the law, has always been the corner stone of Judaism for over 3,000 years. Nonetheless, the Talmud teaches us (based on Psalm 119:126) that there are times when the only way to serve God the right way is to go against the Torah, to break the law. Without this principle, the rabbis (as well as modern scholars) tell us, Judaism would have frozen and disappeared. We survived because we knew that in order to build something stronger, to adapt to new situations, we ought to break the old rules. Sometimes it is the only way to progress and move forward.  

Rabbi Alon Levkovitz 

Wed, December 2 2020 16 Kislev 5781