Thursday, March 19, 2009

Season 1, Episode 14: "Take This Sabbath Day"

Plot summary
: After the Supreme Court refuses to stay the execution of a Federal prisoner convicted of killing two drug kingpins, President Bartlet must decide whether or not to commute his sentence in less than 48 hours, so he calls upon his sagacious childhood priest for guidance. Meanwhile, even Toby feels the heat over the controversial issue when he hears a sermon on capital punishment from his rabbi. Elsewhere, a hearing-challenged, combative campaign manager begs for an audience with the President when her Democratic congressional candidate has purposely been underfunded by his party before the upcoming election to unseat an incumbent.

Click here to watch "Take This Sabbath Day"

Av --

Separating my personal beliefs versus how I objectively view this episode is not going to be easy, but I'm going to try. You see, growing up Jewish, especially Orthodox, seeing people who looked like us on TV or in movies was quite the pleasant surprise. Hey, that guy's wearing a kippah! That girl's speaking Hebrew! Those people are davening! (That guy's orchestrating a major financial scam!) As I got older, my reactions went from being excited to see religious Jews portrayed on TV to a variety of emotions raging from slightly annoyed to quite furious at the inaccuracies of the portrayals, often occurring in the most minor - and therefore easily researched - ways. Recently, my enjoyment of good episodes of various series, including "The Sopranos," "Grey's Anatomy," and "Curb Your Enthusiasm," has been compromised due to my negative feelings about seeing someone I should be able to relate to quite viscerally but feel I have nothing in common with. Anyway, seeing a rabbi on screen espousing that the Torah is "just plain wrong by any modern standard" is bothersome, though in defense of Sorkin, he didn't make it up - he got it from his own rabbi. So while my initial reaction was to criticize Sorkin for using this episode as a podium for his own beliefs about the relevance of biblical law in modern times, I think it's the concept that this can be - and very much is - a rabbinical position that bothers me, not the implausibility. The true implausibility is seeing David Proval, "Sopranos" gangster, with a kippah on his head, saying, "vengeance is not Jewish."

Where was I? Oh yes, separating personal beliefs versus an objective position. Sounds like a Bartletian dilemma of the highest degree. You knew right from the get-go this was going to be an issue episode, an Important Episode, from the lack of "previously"'s, a move only repeated twice more during the series. And as it became clear this was a death penalty episode, I became skeptical that they were going to go the route of a typical "here's one side of an issue, here's the other" episode. But I credit Sorkin for three things. 1: He managed to find a storyline to make capital punishment, usually a state issue, a White House one. 2: He completely accepted as valid being in favor of the death penalty, despite it not being the position of the administration. (Understandably, he didn't seem as compelled to do the same for gun control.) 3: Most importantly, he didn't make the episode about which side is right in the death penalty debate; the real issue at play was how the people in the White House could reconcile their own opinions and religious beliefs with the will of the American people and the constitutional responsibilities of the president.

The relationship between the death penalty and religion - at least through the lens of this episode - is fascinating. Yes, the origins of capital punishment are biblical. Yes, the founders probably had God on their minds when they instituted the death penalty in America. (Okay, they were more likely just bringing along laws from the old country. But those founders probably took it from the Bible.) But just because it has religious underpinnings ("We don’t execute people on the Sabbath") doesn't mean it's automatically archaic. A logical, judicial argument could be made for "Eye for an eye," a point driven home when we see Charlie, a young, educated and (presumably) liberal guy, tell Bartlet he'd execute his mother's killer himself, given the chance. The 71% of Americans cited by Bartlet who support the death penalty could support it for any of a number of reasons. And the 29% who don't could oppose it for the same amount of reasons. Just ask Joey Lucas: "The state shouldn't kill people." In Bartlet's case the reason that stands tallest is executing someone (or, in his case, not stopping an execution) violates his religious beliefs. (Credit Sorkin for a fourth thing: creating a liberal president heavily influenced by religion.) While it was certainly an issue he struggled with mightily, I think not staying the execution is more in line with his presidential philosophy: "It’s helpful in those situations not to think of yourself as the man but as the office." While we've discussed the issue of electing a man to the office in part based on belief in the person and his own judgment, it's certainly extremely difficult to defend said judgment if it's done in the name of religion. Which is why, to be honest, I had a hard time seeing where Toby came from. I get Sam - he was coming from a moral, classic liberal approach. (And personal; he was trying to help his friend in the public defender's office.) But Toby, who understands the concept of public opinion better than anybody? I can't believe he legitimately tried to sell the president on a decision that would cause a hellish political fallout. (Though I did appreciate his more Talmudic, nuanced approach to the issue.)

In the end the issue that loomed largest for Bartlet seemed to be how to do something he felt he had to do, be it out of respect for the office or for political expediency, or both, despite it amounting to a personal violation of his religion. Though it was a bit harsh, I respect Father Cavanaugh (Karl Malden was the best-used guest star to date) using a classic parable in calling Bartlet out on his purported annoyance in having received no wisdom from God. From the second Bartlet got back from his trip and had this issue on the table he knew what the decision would boil down to, and deep down he always knew what he was going to do. In the end, he had to take a hit personally, leaving him with nothing to ask for but forgiveness. I'll say this: ending an episode with "Bless me father for I have sinned" sure packs a powerful punch.

-- Binny


Binny --

The issue of the death penalty in the realm of Jewish law is certainly a thorny one and one that for me, this episode brought to the forefront. As the episode reveals, the Bible's position on capital punishment is unequivocal, calling for its implementation to punish murderers and adulterers, as well as those that violate the Sabbath. Yet, for centuries, the Rabbis implemented restrictions and rules on the criminal justice system that were so severe that the prospect of the death penalty ever actually being imposed were so minute that the Talmud tells us that a court that implemented the death penalty once every seventy years was considered harsh. Maimonides taught us that "it is better and more satisfactory to acquit a thousand guilty persons than to put a single innocent one to death." Today, it is the official position of both the Reform and Conservative movements to oppose the death penalty. Indeed, even the Orthodox Union in its Summary of Standing Policy Decisions supports “efforts to place a moratorium on executions in the United States and the creation of a commission to review the death penalty procedures within the American judicial system.” Therefore, it is fairly obvious that while the Bible’s inclusion of capital punishment is indisputable, the Jewish position on the death penalty has evolved over the years to the point that the prevailing view is to oppose it rather than to support it. Whether this is because of the reason Rabbi Glassman gives (that the thinking of the Torah, which possibly “reflected the best wisdom of its time,” is “just plain wrong by any modern standard”) or because of the reason Toby gives (the rabbis “couldn’t stomach it”) probably depends on who you ask, but I am sure that just as many, if not more, people would cite the former reason (in explaining their positions on other issues, as well) as would cite the latter.

However, while the import of Jewish law may have been the aspect of the episode that I found most interesting, it is by no means what the episode is about. As Toby points out, declaring “vengeance is not Jewish” as the solution to the problem is not satisfactory because “for one thing, neither is the president.” Watching the president grapple with this moral dilemma was fascinating because in a series that has so far often highlighted the tension between idealism and pragmatism, seeing the usual policy-based idealism be replaced by a higher sense of idealism (faith), yet ultimately still be trumped by the political pragmatism that wins elections was somehow shocking and predictable at the same time. More interesting was watching the contrast in moral certainty in the final scene between Father Cavanaugh (“‘Vengeance is mine,’ sayeth the Lord.” You know what that means? God is the only one who gets to kill people…That was your way out”) and Bartlet (I’m the leader of a democracy, Tom. Seventy-one percent of the people support capital punishment. People have spoken. The courts have spoken.”) It’s not hard to see why one went into the priesthood and the other into politics. (And did you notice that he abides by the president's request to call him "Mr. President" until he can no longer hold back his disappointment and with his last line of dialogue asks, "Jed. Would you like me to hear your confession?")

From an ongoing storyline perspective, however, the most striking thing about this episode is the staff’s building frustration with the president. Early in the season, we see Bartlet lambasted by Justice Crouch for running to the middle of the road after taking office. In the days before the State of the Union, we hear Toby echo this sentiment (albeit with a slightly different perspective), explaining that they won and have to use their time in office as an opportunity to implement a progressive agenda. Last episode, it was C.J. who is up in arms that the president is waffling on abstinence-only sex education. And now it is Sam (and Toby to a lesser extent) that is visibly frustrated with the president and Leo’s refusal to more seriously reconsider staying the execution, asserting with dismay, “there
are times when we are absolutely nowhere.” They are all sophisticated political operatives that surely understand this balance between idealism and pragmatism, but at a certain point they all seem to be taking stock of what they gave up to take this job and why they did so, and lately it seems that not everyone likes what they see.

-- Av


Av --

I did notice the Father Cavanaugh's use of "Jed"; when anyone other than Abbey Bartlet uses that name it tends to stand out. The last person to address him by his first name was Leo when he was chastising the president for not disclosing his MS to him. In that situation it was Leo, consciously or subconsciously (I think it's the former, personally), shedding the roles of chief of staff and president, and on a very plain level asking an old friend why he didn't come to him. This case was similar. Bartlet asked to be addressed in an official capacity so that he wouldn't think personally about policy decisions. Once the execution had been carried out and there was no more decision to be made, all that was left was a former parishioner needing to confess to his priest. The office didn't need to ask forgiveness, the man did. Cavanaugh clearly got that, and addressed "Jed" accordingly.

As far as the "higher sense of idealism" is concerned, you're right it's clear why Cavanaugh and Bartlet have the jobs they have, but it's disconcerting to think that people like Cavanaugh (and to a lesser extent Toby) can appeal to the president's personal higher idealism, and use religious belief to influence policy. I understand the relationship between church and state is quite murky; officially they are supposed to be separate yet Christmas is a legal holiday. That said, the official distinction between the two is crucial in the chief executive. While it would be unpopular with the American public either way, it's a lot easier to stomach Bartlet staying the execution because he morally opposes the death penalty than because he religiously opposes it. The obvious reason is that it sets a dangerous precedent; what's to stop a more fervently religious president from making policy decisions stemming from his or her own religious viewpoints? And if you think I'm thinking about a Muslim fundamentalist in the Oval Office you're wrong; I'm actually thinking about a right-wing Orthodox rabbi.

Speaking of, I appreciate the relevant research into our faith's position on capital punishment. I, too, am familiar with the Talmud's position on the issue, and am glad it made its way into the episode. It's quite sensible that the denominations you listed, including Orthodoxy, oppose the death penalty. My issue remains not with the understanding of the Jewish stance on capital punishment, rather the willingness, near-eagerness of a rabbi to insist that he knows better than the Torah, which was simply the "best wisdom of its time." Toby's response to the Bible was to quote its scholars who used their own wisdom to interpret capital punishment as either a looming threat or last resort, to rarely, if ever, be used. Rabbi Glassman's was out and out dismissive. (And while I'm here, it was pretty interesting to hear him invoke the Haggadah to prove "vengeance isn't Jewish." Vengeance - albeit God's - is a pretty prevalent theme in the Haggadah, up to and including the passage he quoted from, Chad Gadya.)

Finally, I don't see Sam's frustration as part of a growing frustration among the staff. Given the quantity and magnitude of the issues that come across the president's desk, it's only natural that a position he - or the administration in general - stands by is going to be at odds with various individuals in his administration. I don't think Bartlet's decisions that bothered C.J. or Sam should cause concern with either of them that this is not the man they signed up to work with. The beauty of this decision is Bartlet essentially had to take a position that was at odds with himself. I think ultimately that is a point the staff can look at and respect. It would be more troublesome if Bartlet started drastically changing his political philosophy (which is what Toby brought to the forefront before the State of the Union); this would be cause for serious introspection by the staff.

-- Binny


Binny --

You don't have to sell me on the danger of a president that legislates through religion. I've been spending the last few months trying to beat a hangover that resulted from an 8-year-long drunken tirade of a born-again Christian fundamentalist whose narrow-mindedness on issues such as homosexuality and stem cell research still give me a lingering feeling of nausea.

I understand your disapproval of Rabbi Glassman's position but I think it comes from a place of a man struggling to reconcile the tenets of his faith with his own modern standards of judgment and morality, not just being dismissive for the sake of being dismissive. As for your point about his commentary on the Haggadah, yes much of the Passover story is about punishment and vengeance (and yes, as you qualified, it is God's vengeance, not man's) but I've always found one of the most uplifting parts of the Passover tale to be the story of God chastising the angels for celebrating the Egyptian's demise in the Red Sea, because as the Talmud explains, "How can one celebrate and sing joyous songs of praise while the handiwork of God is being destroyed?" The Exodus was surely a triumphant victory for the Jewish people, but we are taught that the loss of human life (even that of our enemies) makes that victory slightly less sweet.



  1. Side note first: This is the first episode of West Wing I ever watched. It made me fall in love with the Wing, and I thank Kevi for showing it to me.

    Main note second:
    I have no idea what Binny's issue with the views of the rabbi in this episode.

    Let's not even deal with whether his views are even that problematic from an Orthodox perspective (I think there is wiggle room, personally) because the rabbi does not present himself as Orthodox.

    From a Conservative perspective, his views make a lot of sense. The death penalty issue fits perfectly into what Jacob (not you, mystery Lost persona) recently called "the mantle of the Conservative Movement's human rights-initiated changes to הלכה (including issues of ממזרות, divorce, women, and homosexuals)."

    It's a sensible and logical way of approaching the halacha, and this issue falls right into its center.

    By the way, for more questionable application of human rights issues and halacha, see this recent blog post of Jacob's: That's where I lifted the above line from.

  2. Here's the thing. It's not that I don't think there's wiggle room, and it's certainly not what I believe to be a misrepresentation of Orthodox viewpoints; obviously the character is not an Orthodox rabbi.

    My problem is that the rabbi's attitude - and comments - seem to be dismissive of Biblical law for no other reason than it doesn't jive with modern morals.

    While I think there is no wiggle room in Orthodoxy (Halacha may be interpreted based on modern developments, but you'd be hard-pressed to find an Orthodox rabbi who would flat-out change a Halacha based on current popular attitudes), I understand different denominations have different positions on how to approach these things. That said, if Rabbi Glassman is articulating an official position, fine. But the almost cavalier attitude seems to indicate otherwise: For all I know, that thinking reflected the best wisdom of its time, but it’s just plain wrong by any modern standard. Granted that could be looking too much into a word choice, but then again, Sorkin writes pretty carefully.

  3. This ever continuing?

  4. At this rate, i'm gonna be 70 by the time you guys finish this show.

  5. Hey guys, I just got done finding a copy of the entire series to watch. When I was a kid, my parents would watch this show all the time, while I was too young to understand or care. But now that I'm 17 and a senior in highschool whose taken AP American History and currently taking AP Gov & Pol, I find this show incredibly fun to watch. I'm sure I miss a few things, which is why I hope I can read your blog and that it helps me understand anything I might have missed or any other angles to the story. That, and it's not exactly easy to tell my friends at school how much fun it was to stay up past midnight the night before watching the 10th episode of The West Wing.
    My only problem is're too slow! I devour these episodes, usually a show every night. Right now I'm on S1E16, but you guys are taking too long! =(

  6. Dear Student,

    Thanks for your kind words and I am glad you enjoy the show and the blog. We have been on hiatus for a while but we hope to start blogging again regularly soon. Hope you're still following us when that happens.

  7. I'm on season 2, episode 9 haha. I'll have to slow down soon.

  8. I do hope you guys will continue this blog soon - I so enjoy reading it. I (and many others, I'm sure) will be eager readers when you return!

  9. I don't know if a post on an old topic gets to you, but I have a question on this episode. The music. Always, the music. Your comments, Binny, on the "MM" opening music, and something about the original sound track cd, got me stirred up again, because I WANT THAT SONG the woman was singing in the temple when the rabbi and Toby were talking.

    The information I found googling around a couple of years ago was: Hashkiveinu Arranged by Max Helfman (source: W.G. Snuffy Walden) - Rossi: The Songs of Solomon, Volume I, 2000. Alas, I was unable to find anything resembling what I heard on iTunes. I'm guessing there are many versions of this song. Any chance of finding THIS version?
    - sloopie

  10. Sloopie -

    Fear not; we still see comments on old posts. As far as the music in this episode goes, the piece selected resonated with me both for its dramatic narrative impact, and because as someone who prays in Hebrew, I understood the words and why they were chosen for these scenes. (Lay us down to sleep, our G-d, in peace, raise us erect, our King, to life; and spread over us the shelter of Your peace. Set us aright with good counsel from before Your Presence, and save us for Your Name's sake.)

    Much like you, I did plenty of Googling when I first saw the episode and came to the same endpoint you did: it appears this is a Max Helfman composition. I think this version is on this CD: The sample Amazon lets you play is later in the prayer, and thus I assume a later part of the song that doesn't appear in the episode.

    But I'm really thrilled you commented because I haven't searched for this in awhile, and it appears in September somebody uploaded this exact version to YouTube! Enjoy:

  11. thanks so much! I've added the cd to my wish list - unfortunately, I'm on dial up (yes, I know) so YouTube doesn't work so good. But it's nice to know someone put it up.

    Yes, the song hit me right between the eyes, too, and I didn't even know the words. But Toby did, as he commented on the rabbi arranging for the woman to be "practicing" at that time, and the rabbi responded, "She's our communications director." I love this show. So many gems.

  12. The song that everyone is asking for is available in a better version on itunes.

    Searching "Max Helfman, Hashkiveinu" will bring you a result from the artist: transcontinental Music Publications, Album: Yamim Noraim: Days of Awe, Song: Hashkiveinu