I am seventeen, thin, awkward and tan from a long summer spent under the hot Middle Eastern sun, picking cotton, lemons, and oranges. My friend and I have come to Israel this summer of our senior year of high school to work on the kibbutz where his great aunt and uncle have lived for over half a century. We have known each other since we were five. We are so mismatched yet also so complementary for this long summer together. He is a cool but unstable and rebellious hellion. I am a dependable but repressed and frightened mama’s boy.
Over the summer, my cool friend shows me how to play the age-old game of bargaining in a Middle Eastern marketplace. You ask the shop owner, “How much for X?” He tells you, “It costs Y.” You offer less, he either waves you off or suggests a new price. If he waves you off, you begin to walk away, or more likely harrumph away. If he offers you a price you don’t like, you try again or you walk out, once again feigning disbelief and disgust. If he calls after you, you haggle some more, you agree to a price far lower than the originally quoted price and far higher than the trinket actually costs. I have watched my cool friend engaged more than once in this contest of wills, his eyes steely with resolve, his mouth moving at the speed of light, his face showing no signs of anything but alpha male attitude.
One day, on a trip alone to the Souk, the great bazaar in the Old City of Jerusalem, I decide to copy my friend’s smooth swagger and his in-your-face style when bargaining with one of the merchants over an item in his shop. I walk into the shop, which is in the Muslim quarter, dressed in a tank top and a kippah, a Jewish head covering, both of which items of clothing I now understand may have irritated the traditional Muslim man behind the counter. I see something I like, and the bargaining begins and ends rather quickly. In the moment that we agree upon a final price, a wave of mean stupidity washes over me. I pick up my backpack and begin to walk out of the store, unsatisfied with the terms of the agreement. As I do, the merchant grabs me by the arm. He is hurting me as he growls in broken English, “You buy this, now you pay for it!” I have violated the oldest rule of trade in the world: one’s word is one’s bond, not to be subjected to last minute changes of heart.
The day will soon grow dusky, and he is not letting go of my arm. I am growing more terrified that I will end up in the back of his shop severely beaten or dead, stuffed into a throw rug. “I..I can’t pay for it, I don’t have enough money,” I almost vomit out onto the floor of his well-lit shop festooned with shiny baubles from all over the Middle East. He growls again in my face, “Then you give me something of yours instead!” I tear into my bag and pull out two tee shirts with logos on them. They are cheap junk that cannot be of any use to him, but he takes them from me. As he drives me from the store, he warns me, “Next time you come into my store, I kill you.”
In retrospect, I know that shop merchant would not have really killed me; he was just roughing me up to teach me a well- deserved lesson. My behavior was not only badly mannered and unethical, it brought a little bit of shame upon me and upon the Jewish people, which I represented by wearing my kippah. The Torah, had I bothered to read it more closely before that shopping visit, actually has something to say about my behavior in that man’s shop. Leviticus 25 warns us not to engage in onaah, wrongdoing, in our business relationships and interactions. The Mishnah and early midrashic interpretations of Jewish law preceding it distinguish between two different meanings of onaah, based upon the biblical words lo tonu, “do not wrong one another.” The first prohibits us from wronging each other in business matters: it essentially is an anti-fraud statute. The second prohibits us from wronging each other even in mere matters of how we speak to each other. Note the way in which the Mishnah brings both of these related prohibitions together, going right to what was wrong about my bizarre behavior in that bazaar in Jerusalem:
Just as wrongdoing is committed through fraudulent buying and selling, so too can there be wrongdoing through our use of words. For instance, you can’t ask a merchant, “How much does this item cost,” when you have no intention of buying it.” (M. Bava Metzia 4:10)
The Mishnah and later commentaries in the Gemara go on to give other examples of verbal wrongdoing: you can’t humiliate a penitent or a Jew by choice by reminding them of their backgrounds in order to question their equal status as Jews within the community; you don’t tell someone mourning the death of a child that the tragedy is all part of God’s plan which he or she must accept.
What is interesting about all of these cases is how they hurt the recipient due to someone’s casual and innocent – or not so casual and innocent – use of words. Each of them exemplifies the prohibition of g’neivat daat, literally stealing someone’s mind through deceptiveness, which is a sub-category of onaah. For instance, window shopping is all part of the game we play in a free market. But falsely raising a merchant’s hopes that you intend to buy his merchandise is g’neivat daat; you are making him believe that he can earn money for his livelihood by working with you. Another example: knowing a person’s background can be a helpful way to get to know and appreciate his or her journeys in life. But, highlighting that background, even if you do so to praise that person, and especially if you do so to be hurtful, is g’neivat daat; you are manipulating that person’s feelings of personal insecurity to control him or her. One last example: listening to the spiritual struggles of someone suffering great loss can help that person to heal. But mouthing theological platitudes, whether to be well meaning or to calm your own anxieties about suffering, makes an obscenity of God and religion. It, too, is g’neivat daat, for you are lying about God’s justice in God’s name to people desperately seeking God’s comfort.
G’neivat daat has been raised to a very dangerous form of gamesmanship in the political life of our times. Raising false hopes, manipulating fears and insecurities, and speaking in God’s name or acting badly with the claim of divine license have become too tightly woven into the fabric of contemporary politics. At one extreme, we are watching with a sense of almost impotent horror the genocidal politics of ISIS being fueled by an autocratic and nihilistic hatred of the other and of differences. ISIS recruits lost young people looking hopelessly for adventure and meaning; it manipulates their worst impulses and misleads them into believing that channeling their most destructive propensities into murder will bring about a messianic age. Our Western democracies do not share these warped, perverted values with Islamic extremism and terrorism. Yet, the teachings of the Talmud warn us not to become complacent and self-righteous about the durability of our own best values. G’neivat daat, deceptiveness and manipulation, are not merely bad when used in our personal lives; they are tools being used with increasing frequency by powerful leaders across the liberal, democratic West to play on our fears, play us for fools, and trap us in their political ploys. That day in the Souk, I learned that to play the game of the open marketplace, one needs to play fairly. The open marketplace of democracy is one of the great institutions by which we need to live and for which we have been willing to die. Yet that marketplace has, of late, been looking more like a brutal and lawless trap, a weapon employed by power brokers who have insidiously declared open season upon us and our best values. They are using democracy and populism to euthanize us politically. We would do well to wake up and shake off their arm twisting with vigor, before democracy gets beaten up and thrown in the back room of a merchant’s shop, gathering dust forever.