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Monday, May 17, 2010

It doesn't have to be a "finders keepers losers weepers" world / Baba Metzia 58b

My husband lost his iPod at the airport in Dan Diego several months ago. It was returned within 10 minutes, even before he knew it was missing. The finder turned on the iPod, found my husband’s name and cell phone number, and called him. This is the ideal: a finder who is scrupulously honest, and a claimant who can easily identify his lost property because of its distinctive characteristics. But in truth there is much room for lies and deception in the matter of lost articles, and Mishnah seeks to find the limit to responsibility and the boundary for presumption of deception.
But first, Torah tells us it should not be a “finders keepers losers weepers” universe: If you see your fellow’s ox or sheep gone astray, do not ignore it; you must take it back to your fellow If your fellow does not live near you and you do not know who he is, you shall bring it home and it shall remain with you until your fellow claims it; then you shall give it back to him. You shall do the same with his ass; you shall do the same with his garment; and so too shall you do with anything that your fellow loses and you find: you must not remain indifferent. (Deuteronomy 22:1-3)
Torah is trying to build a societal culture of consideration in which people go out of their way to take care of one another as they would want others to do for them. But how much is it reasonable to require, and at what point is so much required that people are unwilling to comply? Mishnah seeks to examine those boundaries, and in so doing reveals the inherent danger of our assumptions about human nature.

The first half of Mishnah Baba Metzia 2:7 is found on daf 28b:
If [the claimant] said what the lost article is, but did not [describe] its identifying marks, it should not be given [to the claimant]. If he is a deceiver, even if he says what the identifying marks are, it should not be given to him, as it is written, until your fellow claims it (Deuteronomy 22:2)[meaning] “until you examine your fellow [to determine] whether or not he is a deceiver.”
If I stand out in the middle of the town square to proclaim that I have found a lost article, what should I say? Should I simple say, “I found something!” and wait to see who lost it? Should I say what I found? If I say what I found, should I describe identifying marks (e.g., “I found pitcher’s mitt with a red stain on the inside near the thumb” or “I found a Nokia cell phone with a neon-orange cover”) or should I simply say, “I found a pitcher’s mitt” or “I found a cell phone” and require the claimant to provide details – such as the red stain or the neon-orange cover – to prove he is the rightful owner? How much do we trust people to be honest and not claim items that are not theirs because the lost-and-found bin strikes them as a treasure-trove of free stuff?

Mishnah first attempts to balance the benefit of having people return found items, with the concern that false claimants may appear. Claimants are required to articulate identifying marks to establish their rightful claim. But then concern is expressed about those who would cheat and deceive the finder: how do we handle this possibility? We don’t want to hand over valuable items to such people, and thereby deprive the rightful owner from reclaiming his property. Here the amoraim of the mishnah offer us Dt. 22:2 with a new twist: “until our fellow claims it” is read “until you examine your fellow to determine whether or not he is a deceiver who claims it.”

But how do we know if someone is a deceiver and a cheat? Is this something revealed by previous experience? Or must we examine each and every claimant? Moreover, do we presume people are honest? Or do we presume a priori that their motives are suspect?

Gemara explores this conundrum. If we hand over a lost articles to someone, we might well be giving away something to a deceiver, and depriving the rightful owner of his property. Yet what is the social cost to presuming people are deceptive and should be examined as to their honesty in each and every case? Gemara offers a curious anecdote that delivers a stern warning about prejudging people:
Our Rabbis taught: At first, whoever lost an article would articulate its identifying marks and take it. When deceivers increased in number, it was enacted that he should be told, “Go and bring witnesses that you art not a deceiver, then [you may] take it.”
It once happened that Rav Pappa's father lost a donkey, which others found. When [the father of Rav Pappa] came before Rabbah bar Rav Huna, he told him, “Go and bring witnesses that you are not a deceiver, and [then you may] take it.” So he [the father of Rav Pappa] went and brought witnesses. [Rabbah bar Rav Huna] said to them, “Do you know him to be a deceiver?” “Yes,” they said. “I, a deceiver?!” [the father of Rav Pappa] exclaimed to them. “We meant that you are not a deceiver,” they answered him. “It stands to reason that one does not bring [witnesses] to his disadvantage,” said Rabbah bar Rav Huna.
When Gemara says, “When deceivers increased in number” we might think that someone had examined crime statistics and determined that there is objective truth to this observation. Perhaps in the aftermath of the destruction of the Second Temple and the impoverishment of the Jewish community in Eretz Yisrael, this was the case, but the Gemara was written in Babylonia where the Jewish community was not uniformly impoverished. Moreover, Rabbah bar Rav Huna, the early fourth century amora (d. 322 C.E.) was wealthy in his own right, the owner of fields and forests from which he made his living (Baba Metzia 108a) and he headed an academy in Sura (though, it seems, not the primary academy which his renowned father, Rav Huna, had led).

What is clear is that Rabbah bar Rav Huna assumes the worst of people: they are deceivers until proven otherwise. Hence he requires that even a well-respected man, none other than the father of Rav Pappa, bring witnesses who will attest to his character. And when Rav Pappa’s father does this, Rabbah bar Rav Huna asks his question in such a contorted and negative manner that the witnesses inadvertently testify against the character and integrity of Rav Pappa’s father. They expect Rabbah bar Rav Huna to ask, “Do you know him to be an honest man?” and so the response “Yes” rolls right off their tongues. But this is not how Rabbah bar Rav Huna formulates the question. He asks, “Do you know him to be a deceiver?” The father of Rav Pappa, listening carefully to the exchange, is astonished. He expresses his bewilderment, at which point the witnesses realize what has happened and immediately change their testimony. They have been deceived, and it turns out that Rabbah bar Rav Huna is the deceiver.

Did this happen due to the particular temperament of Rabbah bar Rav Huna? Talmud knows him as a modest man who treated those beneath him in learning and social status with consideration and respect. His treatment of the witnesses brought by Rav Pappa’s father strikes us as completely out of character. Could this be Gemara’s warning that deception is a contagion? When we perceive others as deceptive-until-proven-otherwise, as the Mishnah could be construed to suggest, then we fall into the trap of presuming everyone is a deceiver, and therefore resort to deceptive means to reveal their deceptive ways? When that happens, basic trust is undermined, and indeed “deceivers increase in number.” If, however, we presume that everyone will turn on the iPod in order to locate the owner, we spread the contagion of integrity, and build the society of decency we envision.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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