The Red Sox ought to be punished.
They broke the rules of baseball by using technology to steal the other team’s signs. Initially, they even admitted to it. Then, they backtracked and denied it, refusing to take responsibility. You might argue, “everybody does it.” If so, everyone should be punished. Or no one. But our beloved team did it and got caught. There should be consequences.
We live in a time when people feel emboldened to cross what used to be iron-clad boundaries of behavior. We live in a time when public figures feel no shame and offer no regrets when they lie, cheat, steal or vilify others. When public figures are perceived as “getting away” with unacceptable behavior, everyone takes it into account.
Those who hate Boston teams—and who can blame them?—take notice. Our victories are tarnished.
Those who support our teams—and who can blame them?—take notice. Our ardent defenses diminish our integrity.
Those who believe in fairness—and who can blame them?—take notice. When accepted norms are upended, the moral foundations of our lives are shaken.
I do not believe that punishment in itself prevents transgressions. Only true teshuva, recognition of our wrongdoing, honest apology, and fervent commitment to changing behavior can stop us from wrongdoing. In this season of repentance, that is our guiding light: we are accountable for our behavior, past, present and future. If we truly take time to admit our mistakes and make an effort to change, we are capable of improving ourselves and improving the lives of everyone we touch.
The public pronouncements by Red Sox management and players, proclaiming that “everybody does it” or “I don’t know anything about it” don’t indicate a desire to change. What, then, is the value of punishment?
Punishment does send a message, if not to teams that cheat, then to the fans. Most important it tells the children who are fans that cheating is wrong.
Since the election, our world and its norms have been turned on their head. We can’t tell serious journalism from fake news. Appointed secretaries are working to dismantle departments rather than “mantle” them. After each outrage we imagine “this time a line has been crossed” and expect someone in power will voice our outrage. We live with moral uncertainty at best and moral corruption at worst.
Social scientists have learned that those who are not held to account for wrong behavior give others permission to copy them, and even to take more liberties. In his research on prejudice, Chris Crandall at the University of Kansas examined how the prevalence of hate speech affects others’ behavior. He concluded: "It's not so much what's in your head and heart, as it is you looking around and seeing what's acceptable, seeing what's okay, seeing what people will tolerate. And the election changed people's notion of what was tolerable," Crandall says.
None of us are saints, always acting from pure desires and altruistic motivations. We make poor judgments. We harbor thoughts we might be embarrassed to admit. Morality is not about purity of intention. Morality depends on knowing what we desire to say or do and choosing to restrain ourselves. But if someone else crosses that line without consequences, we learn that restraint is no longer necessary. We might even claim that the speaker should be praised for being “authentic.”
Our most sacred institutions, including our beloved Red Sox, need to stand for moral integrity. Our children need to see that such behavior is not tolerated in a society governed by laws.
The Talmud tells the story of the great leader, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai. As he lay on his deathbed, his pupils visited him and asked him for a blessing. With his last breath, the Rabbi said, "I pray that you may fear God as you fear human beings." "What!" exclaimed his pupils, "should we not fear God more than a mortal?"
"If only that were true," answered the sage. “Consider, when you do wrong, first you make sure that no human eyes see you. Imagine if you were to show the same fear of God, who sees everywhere, and everything, at all times."
The point of the story is not whether one believes that God is watching us. The story asks the question, how can we be true to our best selves when outside forces are not calling us to account? That is the moral question, whether it’s the Red Sox trying to learn the other team’s signs, or in our myriad moral decisions every day. That is the task of this Season of Repentance, to examine our own souls and hold ourselves to account—no matter who is watching.