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Peter J. Rubinstein
A Moral Plumb Line

Peter J. Rubinstein  |  October 23, 2004

Throughout the city this month sermons will be delivered in churches, mosques and synagogues based on the prophetic notion of Amos that there is a moral plumb line by which we need to measure ourselves. The notion of the plumb line was offered by Amos as a moral countermeasure to the strict applications of law by which improper behavior could be excused as legal.. We know so very well, in matters of law there is sufficient wiggle room that permits us to defend behavior which does not meet the standard of decency.

That was Amos’ dilemma. Within the strictures of commanded behavior people were bringing their proper sacrifices as instructed and they were meeting the standards of commanded treatment of the poor. They were not putting stumbling blocks before the blind. They were leaving the corners of their fields unreaped. They were not gleaning their harvest but they were leaving it for those who did not have food.

But for Amos it was not enough. The poor were not being helped out of poverty. The poor were not being given a voice in their society. And Amos believed that there was absolutely no way to sufficiently legislate proper moral behavior.

Amos believed that obeying the commandments did not equate with the pursuit of justice. Amos believed that law and moral precept were not always equivalent and that at times sometimes legalisms were an excuse for self-righteous wrong-doing.

This is Amos’ metaphor “This is what God showed me: God was standing on a wall and was holding a plumb line. And the Lord asked me ‘What do you see, Amos?’ ‘A plumb line’ I answered’. And God declared ‘I am going to apply a plumb line to my people Israel. I will pardon them no more’.”

This notion of a moral plumb line has been adopted by the Partnership of Faith, an organization here in NYC organized and comprised of those of us serving larger congregations in this city. We have come to believe that Amos’ metaphor of the moral plumb line is a proper model by which we and our society need to measure ourselves.

In part the Partnership hopes “to address the issues of poverty and injustice in housing, medical care, and hunger as these matters are connected to public policy, the widening gap between rich and poor. We are concerned about the allocation of national and local revenues and the ethical climate of both business and government. Thus we have called ourselves to talk to promote a reconsideration and return to a moral way of conduct less determined by the application of law and driven more by a pursuit of righteousness.

It does not escape us, for instance, that even according to our government’s definition of poverty, the number of those under the poverty line in our country is over 34 million is increasing by almost 2 million people a year. We define poverty as a family of four with an annual income under $18,660. Of those, 14 million are children. Many experts say that were we to add in those who during a year were living at any time below the poverty line the number of poor would be over 70 million people, a quarter of our population.

And as we well know, the increased cost of health-care makes the situation more dire. It is reported that “Employer-sponsored health plans covered 1.3m fewer Americans last year than the year before. State governments are strapped for cash; as a result child-care assistance is being cut back.”

Now, we are well aware of the use and misuse of statistics especially in the midst of political campaigns but this is not a partisan issue. The dramatic increase of American citizens in poverty, not to mention the poor throughout the world and the riveting disparity between the haves and the have-nots in our own country is our responsibility. The loss of health care protection, the application of a new standard of proper behavior and responsibility to fellow citizens who, though working, still need to come to our own feeding program and programs like it because their salaries cannot support a decent life in our city, this is our collective responsibility.

Ultimately, the measure we need to use is not one of statistics and charts. It is the measure of a moral plumb line. Do we believe that we are behaving well, as individuals and as a society? Would we, without qualification, proclaim that we have done our very best to raise up those who are trapped in an economic circumstances and a social environment which destines a group of citizens to poverty and suffering?

As in personal behavior, so in public policy, we should apply a moral standard which compels us to take a measure of how we are doing. For the Jew, it is not sufficient to obey commandments. Ultimately, the measure proclaimed in the Torah and by which we measure ourselves on Yom Kippur when we stand together and alone before God, is “Are we living and behaving with holiness as the plumb line in our lives? Are we morally straight in our own eyes and before God?

We have much work to do together.

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