Christmas trees are for sale on every corner, it seems, bringing the scent of the woods to the streets of Brooklyn. Christmas lights adorn streets and houses, and carols play in all the stores. “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” has earwormed into my head. I’m remembering last year, when my Harry Potter-loving family attended a seasonal event, the Harry Potter Yule Ball. The Yule Ball is an all-ages rock ‘n’ roll show that comes out of a movement of fans of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. The crowd was mostly people in their 20s and 30s, a few of us in our 40s or older, and some kids like mine—young teens and tweens. We didn’t go because it was Christmas-y, but because it was Harry Potter-y.
A number of years ago, some fans formed a band called Harry and the Potters, and this began a genre that is called Wizard Rock, or Wrock. It now includes quite a large number of bands, some of which performed at the ball. Their music is what I would call midrash on Harry Potter. It takes the perspective of characters in the books, exploring their thoughts and lives. One example is singer Lauren Fairweather, who writes songs like “Maybe,” which is from the perspective of character Severus Snape.
There was fan-created merchandise at the Yule Ball, and information about the Harry Potter Alliance, a social justice organization that has brought together Harry Potter fans (and, later, Hunger Games fans too) to work for equality, human rights, and literacy.
It was my first experience with Harry Potter fandom and the midrash it has generated. Among the millions of fans of J.K. Rowling’s work, there are a subset for whom the Harry Potter saga has deep resonance. They were the ones performing, and the ones who were there that night. My family had gone on a whim, but there were others for whom the evening was meaningful in a profound way.
At the end of the night, the final song Harry and the Potters performed was “The Weapon (We Have is Love).” To my surprise, the fans standing around the stage put their arms around one another as they swayed and sang passionately along.
I suddenly felt that I was witnessing the birth of a religion. It had familiar elements: a sacred scripture, interpretation of that scripture, a social action component. Its adherents are emotionally involved with it and feel a sense of community with each other. There are differences from most of the established religions, too: There’s no deity to try to figure out, and no history of oppressing others or being oppressed in the name of the religion.
The theology is very basic—at least at this point. The primary motivator is love: Harry’s mother’s love that saved him from Voldemort as a baby; Snape’s love for Harry’s mother; Harry’s love for Sirius Black and his friends, which ultimately allows him to triumph over Voldemort. Fans take the idea of this fierce, life-saving and life-altering love and apply it to their version of what many Jews would call tikkun olam, repairing the world.
I imagine that 500 years from now a deity might have developed, as well as separate denominations of Potterism—Snapians and Harrians, most likely. After all, it seems that that’s what religions do: they form, and after maybe 100 years, they split into different groups because there are different ideas of how to do it right. I don’t think that even a religion based on “the weapon that we have is love” would be different. And that’s okay. I would hope that the Harrians and Snapians would recognize one another’s Potterism as authentic, even if it’s not their preferred way of practicing their religion.
Probably I’m just making this up, and this fan movement won’t develop into a religion. I expect that many of the Harry Potter fans would be angry that I would even say that it could. But that was my feeling in that moment at the end of the Yule Ball, and it was beautiful to see the inspiration, the love and joy, the simplicity, and to imagine that the beginning of my religion, Judaism, was that way too.
During my seven years in the congregational rabbinate, I had so many people say to me, “I don’t believe in God, and I don’t feel connected to my Judaism. Instead, I believe in science.” Or they would approach me and explain that they saw Judaism and science as separate realms, with no connection between the two.
The way this was framed saddened me, but I could understand where it came from. Since the media portrays religion as anti-science, many Jews would say, “I don’t want my science and my Judaism mixed. And if religion is opposed to science, then I don’t want any part of Judaism.”
Yet are those statements representative of the Jewish community as a whole? How do Jews perceive the relationship between Judaism and science?
Recently, my organization Sinai and Synapses partnered with the Dialogue on Science, Ethics and Religion (DoSER), a part of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), to run a workshop exploring those questions. DoSER had joined with Rice University to create the Perceptions Project, an initiative to increase understanding between religious and scientific communities. They ran a comprehensive survey of 10,000 Americans — Jews, Evangelical Christians, Catholics and more — to provide a snapshot of religious communities’ views on science, and how we can create a healthier relationship between the two.
Last month, DoSER and Sinai and Synapses ran a workshop for the Jewish community, bringing together rabbis and scientists to delve into the data, so that we could uncover both the challenges and opportunities surrounding Jewish responses to science.
The first finding that surprised me is that I had always thought that Jews didn’t feel the same conflict between religion and science that, say, the evangelical Christian community feels. But in fact, about 25% of Jews do see religion and science as being in opposition — about the same number as the American population as a whole.
Yet while most of the Christians who see religion and science as being in opposition view themselves as on the side of religion, those Jews who see science and religion in conflict come down on the side of science — and by a huge, huge margin. For those “conflicted Christians,” about 3 out of 4 opt for religion, and about 1 out of 4 choose science. But for that 25% of conflicted Jews, 15 out of 16(!) would see themselves on the side of science — and therefore, anti-religion.
Now, on one level, that number is a real positive. Jews are clearly deeply in favor of science. But just as religious fervor and opposition to science can thwart scientific research, scientific fervor and opposition to religion can hinder religious living.
So that’s the first challenge for the Jewish community when it comes to science — while the Christian community grapples with how to embrace science, the Jewish community has to figure out how to relate to Judaism.
But there’s a second, more subtle, challenge for the Jewish community. Besides “conflict,” the Perceptions Project also offered respondents two other frameworks to describe the relationship between science and religion. People also had the option to say that these two realms were “independent (referring to different aspects of reality)” or “collaborative (they can help support each other).”
And that led to the second finding that surprised me — among all religious groups, Jews were both most likely to pick “independent” and least likely to pick “collaborative” to describe the relationship between religion and science.
In other words, every other religious group was more likely to find that science could enhance their religious outlook than the Jewish community. Instead, Jews were much more likely to separate their religious and their scientific outlooks and keep them siloed off.
Here, then, is a great opportunity — after all, if Jews tend to have a positive outlook on science, why not use science to help people enhance their connection to Judaism?
That’s the inspiration for Sinai and Synapses, and how we are striving to bridge the religious and scientific worlds. We want to look at questions using the best of science and the best of Judaism in the service of making people’s lives more meaningful and our world more just.
We want people to understand how memory actually works in our brains, and what that means for how we observe Passover. We want to study the role of online activism in effecting real social justice change. We want to use science to teach us about how to act more compassionately.
And so that’s why, when people ask me, “Do you accept science, or Judaism?” my answer is, “Yes.” Because not only can science and Judaism co-exist, they can help us bring out the best in each other — and in ourselves.
Almost any article I’ve ever seen to do with Judaism, any religious critique of a political event, and even in promotional materials for Jewish spaces such as synagogues and JCCs, in fact, nearly everything we speak about in the Jewish community, makes some reference to Jewish values. Sometimes we speak of these values specifically: Jewish justice, tzedaka, “tikkun olam,” and so on – but more often we speak in vague generalities – as if Jewish values were a fixed and known set of items, like making a reference to the works of Shakespeare.
But I sometimes find myself troubled by these references. Not because I think it’s wrong to improve the world, or to seek justice – quite the contrary – I’ve dedicated my life to these values, and to doing them Jewishly. But just as in all periods of Jewish history, the American Jewish community has adopted the outlook of the society in which we live, and with it, we have -just as in all periods of Jewish history- adopted many if not most of that society’s values as well.
And in many ways, we are the richer for it: the American secular values of autonomy and self-reliance, assertiveness, diversity, love of novelty and innovation, pluralism and more have been blessings to us and to many groups that have found refuge here – and we have also contributed to the lexicon of values that we share as well. Jews have made outsized contributions to American culture – we are home here, and we are blessed in a way that has probably never existed anywhere else at any time.
I wonder though: perhaps I spent too much time hanging out with the medieval re-creationists in college, but I often muse about the values that we have abandoned, and that we even often disparage: constancy, duty, continence, honor. These are values that we rarely hear about, and are not, at least that I’ve seen, values that are held in high regard in our society.
I don’t know why our society has chosen to emphasize this set of values rather than that, but it would probably enrich us to think about whether we may have lost something when we set them aside. We often associate these “old-fashioned values” with the hierarchies and unequal power – and I don’t necessarily think that’s incorrect – but we live in a world where there are still imbalances of power, and these values were ways that societies chose to ameliorate them. They also contributed to maintaining long-term relationships, partnerships, and societal stability. Perhaps we might want to reconsider whether they have something to teach us.
“Thank you for visiting our website. We are a vibrant congregation with daily and Shabbat services. We offer young adult programming, empty nesters and seniors groups, adult Jewish learning opportunities and many other exciting programs. Please contact our membership director to schedule a time to visit our congregation.”
This is a fictional welcome message on a synagogue website. However, messages like this can be found all over the Internet. They can be found in introductory pamphlets and can be found printed in weekly and quarterly newsletters. This fictional message expresses WHAT the synagogue does. It offers services and a lot of programming. Yet, it fails to express WHY the synagogue does what it does.
In the well regarded book Start with Why by Simon Sanek (watch a TED talk Simon delivered on the topic) the point is made that all too often our businesses and organizations sell themselves to the wider community with primarily what they do or what they produce. Apple makes excellent computers but that is not why they are the industry leader in personal electronic devices. They don’t market their iPhones as simply great phones or their Macbooks as simply great computers but rather they invite the consumer to “think differently” and to join them in fighting against the status quo. Their first and primary message is why they do what they do and only after conveying “the why” do they tell you “the what” it is they actually produce.
What would it looks like for our synagogues to put forth their why before their what. Why do you exist as a synagogue? What is it that you believe as an institution? Why do you have daily services and adult educational programming and Bnai Mitzvah lessons? Imagine a welcome message that looked something like this:
“Thank you for visiting our website. We are a congregation that believes in the vitality of the Jewish people. We believe in working towards a better world and cultivating personalities that are deep with spiritual intention and Jewish wisdom. We do that by offering daily services and adult educational opportunities. We offer empty nesters and seniors groups because we are committed to building the fabric of community that connects one person to another and breaks down the walls of loneliness and isolation. We would love for you to visit our community. Please stop by or send an email to our staff to schedule a time to come by for a conversation on how you can join us in impassioned Jewish living.”
Jewish communal life organized around the why can be a powerful vehicle for Jewish engagement and revitalization of our synagogue and institutional Jewish world.
My boys are getting psyched for the upcoming release of the blockbuster Exodus: Gods And Kings. Exodus promises to be this generation’s The Ten Commandments or The Prince of Egypt, a theatrical rendition of the biblical exodus from Egypt that will resonate for years, if not decades. And, like any depiction of biblical material, it is already sparking controversy: both for its failure to include non-Caucasians in leading roles and for its depiction of God as a moody and demanding child. For eight and 11- year-old boys who attend Jewish day school, though, Exodus is a dream come true: matching the biblical narrative of yetziat Mitzrayim (redemption from slavery in Egypt) they have studied at length with a Hollywood director’s imagination and 3D special effects. Though both the plot and the acting are reported to be somewhat shaky, the digital cinematography will surely be breathtaking.
I plan to return to a discussion of the substance of this movie in my next blog, after I have had a chance to see and analyze it. But there is an aspect of the movie, and its relationship to the biblical narrative, that I want to discuss today because I think it addresses many of the most pressing social and racial issues of our times. Simply put, I hope the movie Exodus spends a good deal of time depicting the horrors of slavery that the Israelites endured before it moves on to the heroic tale of Moses and Aaron standing up to Pharaoh and the climactic battle at the Red Sea. One of the central tenants of Passover, in which Jews commemorate the exodus story, is that we are supposed to feel as if we, personally, were slaves in Egypt. The Torah, too, returns again and again (Exodus 12, Exodus 13, Deuteronomy 5, Deuteronomy 15, and Deuteronomy 24) to the injunction that we remember the experience of slavery in Egypt. Why? Why such a fixation on the bad part of the story of redemption, rather than just the celebration of God’s deliverance? I believe the answer is that we are compelled to feel empathy. We, as Jews, are not allowed to forget what it feels like to suffer, to feel powerless, to be subject to the whims of others.
As a society, we are suffering from a paucity of empathy. The story of Ferguson, I believe, is largely about this inability to experience empathy with what it feels like to be a young African-American in an urban environment. Lost in the cacophony over whether Officer Darren Wilson was justified in killing Michael Brown is this larger narrative of the persistent, systemic racism that results in young black males being seen as threats to law enforcement and thereby justifies their disproportionate incarceration and killing by police. As my colleague Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz recently put it, any effort to move forward after Ferguson requires us “to ask the difficult questions about what kinds of systemic or cultural biases lead to the taking of some lives more often than others.” The exodus story compels us to listen to the pain, the humiliation, and the anger of those of us who are enslaved to this system of injustice.
The same is true when it comes to the issue of President Obama’s recent executive action on undocumented immigrants. Most of the debate in the media and on Capitol Hill revolves around whether or not President Obama overstepped his constitutional authority in deciding not to deport approximately five million undocumented immigrants. But where is the discussion about what it feels like to live under the constant stress and duress of being forcibly removed from one’s family? To put down roots in a community, day after day, year after year, while knowing that these roots can be torn apart at a moment’s notice? About having to decide between reporting an abusive spouse and risking arousing the attention of law enforcement versus keeping silent to remain under the radar? The exodus story compels us to listen to the fear, the frustration, and the suffering of those enslaved to an intransigent, unjust, and nonsensical immigration system.
Today is #Giving Tuesday, a day dedicated to giving back to our communities following the gluttonous consumption of Black Friday and Cyber Monday. Donating one’s resources to charities is, of course, a wonderful mitzvah. But, as my colleague Rabbi Amy Small recently wrote, writing checks of offering other financial support is not enough. “The real impact on our world and on our life’s purpose comes through generous acts of doing.” Doing generates empathy. You can’t click your way to experiencing what it is like to go hungry by dropping off a can of soup to your synagogue’s food pantry collection, but you can if you participate in the Food Stamp Challenge, spending a week (or even just today) trying to live on the $29.40 per week that those receiving food stamps (SNAP benefits) have to spend on food. Or you can spend time working at a food pantry, talking to those who are recipients, hearing their stories.
Judaism commands us to remember, to experience anew, so that we can empathize with those who are still struggling. May we be leaders in urging our society to experience what it feels like for those of us who are marginalized; for those who suffer through the systemic injustices of our current society. And in doing so to defeat the Pharaohs of our own day and to help us transform our own society into something a little bit more holy. Now that’s a message I want to teach my boys.
Thanksgiving beckons loved ones together to count blessings and honor journeys toward freedom and plenty. Whether our ancestors traveled to these shores from afar or already resided here, our forebears began new lives somewhere else. They placed foundation stones in new worlds, and their dreams for the future fueled them up and down new ladders of social and economic mobility.
Perhaps Plymouth Rock doesn’t mark their exact landing spot, but the Pilgrims who reached the Massachusetts coast in 1620 still personify Thanksgiving’s legacy of dream and journey. Much the same legacy of dream and journey also descends to us from the Bible’s Jacob, whose story of foundation stone and ladder anchor this week’s Torah portion (Vayetzei). The synergies between the two – between the Pilgrims and Jacob, between Plymouth Rock and Jacob’s rock – invite us to reflect on how dreams, journeys, foundations and gratitude shape us on this Thanksgiving day.
No doubt the Pilgrims identified with Jacob’s story. Jacob left his home, journeyed to a new place and stopped there for the night. His story continues (Gen. 28:12-19):
Taking one of the stones of that place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. He had a dream; a stairway was set on the ground and its top reached to the sky, and angels of God were ascending and descending on it. God was beside him and said, ‘I am the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac: the ground on which you are lying I will assign to you and your offspring.…’ Jacob woke from his sleep and said, ‘Surely God is present in this place, and I did not know it!’ Shaken, he said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than Beth El (House of God), the gateway to heaven.’ Early in the morning, Jacob took the stone that he had put under his head, set it up as a pillar and poured oil on it.
Like Jacob, the Pilgrims journeyed to a new world and landed when and where nature brought them. They believed that God brought them to that place and gifted them land where others resided. They imagined this land to be holy, a gateway to a new heaven. In this new land, they would climb a new ladder of freedom and opportunity. For their children, the Pilgrims even created a Jacob’s Ladder toy to honor a Biblical reference that undoubtedly resonated with their own narrative.
The marker stone that moderns call Plymouth Rock, like the marker stone Jacob raised in tribute to his ladder dream, is not only symbolic but also theurgic – evoking God, memory and meaning. The stone pillow under Jacob’s head became a stone pillar of prayer and foundation stone for what Jacob called “Beth El” – House of God. The place we call the Mayflower’s landing site in Plymouth became “Plymouth Rock” and the foundation stone for a whole new civilization – what John Winthrop would call in 1630 a “City Upon a Hill” to shine as a beacon of hope and light for all humanity.
Fast forward to modern-day America. Today’s dreams and markers perhaps are less heady than the days of Pilgrim’s Progress and Jacob’s first Beth El. Even so, it it too much to hope that anywhere we lay our heads or lay a stone marker can be Beth El – a House of God? Is it too much to hope that everywhere can be a landing place for dreams and ascents, no less than for Jacob and the Pilgrims? Is it too much to hope that our own cities can become beacons of hope and light as much as Winthrop’s “City Upon a Hill”?
Thanksgiving celebrates and ignites these hopes – and also reminds us that hope isn’t enough. As families gather for Thanksgiving, many millions live amidst poverty, hunger, war and disease. As long as freedom and prosperity are blessings only for some, the shared dream of Jacob and the Pilgrims will remain unfulfilled. As long as want and fear continue by our own hands, both our civic foundation and our spiritual foundation – the proverbial rock of Beth El – will remain shaky beneath our feet.
Only when we roll up our sleeves and make universal the blessings we honor on Thanksgiving will the true meaning of Plymouth Rock and Jacob’s Rock become fully real for us. Only then will Beth El – the House of God – truly be uplifted as a “house … for all peoples” (Isaiah 56:7).
Two Israelis were stabbed last week, Israeli military and police response has continued, and leaders within Fatah have begun talking about a third intifada. There’s no rational response to the heartbreak and fear the Jewish people are feeling right now toward circumstances that threaten our connection to a place we call home. Indeed, we are a people who has historically been forced, in a state of fear, to flee from land to land, deprived of the luxury to think of any place as home.
Today in the US, not only the Jewish friends I have, but also most people I am in contact with, no longer move from place to place out of fear, but propelled by promises of prosperity, or perhaps by the force of history. Whether I am in Israel, or in the US, I feel the pain of being uprooted again, and again. Of not being indigenous to any of the lands I’ve lived on, nor knowing any longer what “home” means. Having just moved to a new city, I am grieving the people and places I will forget as I depart for a new place and meet new people.
This week, in Parashat Toldot, we read that Isaac is thriving, despite losing contact with his father after Abraham attempts to sacrifice him on a mountain. The Torah says, “Isaac sowed in [the] land and reaped a hundredfold the same year” (Gen 26:12). But one day, as Isaac tries to get water for his household, he finds that “the wells which his father’s servants had dug in the days of his father Abraham” have been stopped up with earth. Then king Abimelech tells him to go away (26:15-16). This, according to commentator Nehama Leibowitz, is “the first expulsion” of the Jewish people, foreshadowing millennia of exile, persecution and wandering. Our feelings of uprootedness start here.
Powerfully, however, Isaac does not flee. Instead, he settles there and “dug anew the wells which had been dug in the days of his father Abraham.” A midrash sees Isaac’s act of uncovering the wells as representative of yishuv ha’olam, settling more deeply into his world. Not only does he redig these wells, but “he gave them the same names that his father had given them” (Gen 26:18). In his act of naming, Isaac places himself in relationship with his estranged father, and the history of his family in that particular land.
According to psychological research, “The more children [know] about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned.” Despite all our displacement, this research tells us that in order to thrive, we need to reclaim our sense of belonging – wherever we are. Can we, like Isaac, begin to uncover the wells of our ancestors? How do we settle more deeply into the feeling that we belong, whether we consider ourselves to be living in a promised land, diaspora, or exile?
As we drink the water from these wells, the stories of our ancestors give us perspective on our daily experience. Learning these stories, we become more resilient. For me the water is the book of midrash my great-great grandfather wrote, the journal my great-aunt kept, and the family tree my mother has been assembling. As I open the covers of these wells, I prepare to nourish my roots, and ground myself more deeply in the soil of this moment of my life.
Today likely is going to be a rough day for liberals. Election prognosticators are predicting that Republicans will win enough Senate elections to re-take majority control of the Senate. This will give the Republican Party control of both houses of Congress for the first time since the Bush Administration.
This result will be painful to many liberals because it is based not on an ideological change in the electorate, as occurred in 1994, but on the success of Republican obstinacy and effective ineffectiveness over the past two years. This Congress is on pace to become the least effective Congress, in terms of bills passed, in U.S. history! The Republican Party has been transparent in its desire to block any Democratic domestic legislative proposals, even those that hold strong support nationally. As Senator Mitch McConnell, who is poised to become the new Majority Leader of the Senate, famously remarked in 2010, “the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” There is little effort to pass constructive, pro-active legislation. Instead, the Republican Party has been fixated on events of political theater such as the House of Representatives voting 54 times to repeal, defund, or otherwise thwart the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”).
It can feel dispiriting to see obstinacy and ineptitude rewarded with more power when there are so many critical issues in need of resolution. Competent governance, isolated from petty politics, would come up with a way to pass middle-of-the-road measures such as gun control laws requiring that anyone who purchases a gun first passes a background check; comprehensive immigration reform that includes a slow but transparent path to citizenship for the eleven million undocumented residents currently living in America; climate change legislation, whether via a cap and trade program or a carbon tax, to make a significant reduction in our carbon emissions; funding to update our crumbling infrastructure and our archaic electronic grid. These (and countless others) are issues that ought not be liberal or conservative issues. They are the type of progressive, moderate legislation that is necessary to keep our country safe and vibrant. And they are all pipe dreams in a Republican Congress.
So what is a despondent progressive to do today? I was thinking about this last night as I attended a lecture by the Israeli journalist Ari Shavit, author of the bestseller My Promised Land. Shavit was discussing the events of this past summer in Israel and what his vision is for Israel’s future. One thing he said, in particular, struck me. Shavit declared that Zionism is all about being active. Zionism rejects apathy and passivity. It is based on the premise of making the impossible possible. It is about dreaming the dream and then grounding that dream in reality through blood, sweat, and tears. The miracle of Israel’s creation, and its continued existence, is testament to what Zionism can achieve.
I do not mean to suggest that a midterm election is on the same par as the 2000 year struggle to reclaim the Jewish homeland. The political and theological impact of the creation of Israel is incomparable. But I do believe there are instructive lessons from Shavit’s depiction of the modern Zionist struggle that those who are in political mourning would do well to learn. First and foremost, to those who are feeling despondent,don’t give up. Don’t feel defensive about the Affordable Care Act, income inequality, or the need for enhanced environmental regulation.Don’t take this election as a repudiation of your values and aspirations. Continue to dream and hope. Come up with a vision for the society you want to create, and then go about the hard work of realizing this vision pragmatically and skillfully. After all, starting tomorrow, the battle for 2016 begins anew!
Election Day in the U.S. is coming. How will being Jewish shape your choice whether to vote?
This November, Americans will elect a new 435-member House of Representatives, a third of the Senate, 36 governors and 6,057 lawmakers comprising 82% of all state legislators. Like paying taxes, serving on juries and registering for the draft, voting is a civic calling critical to any democracy. Unlike other civic callings, however, voting is optional. Whatever the stakes, no law compels Americans to vote. In some elections, only a minority of eligible voters cast ballots – challenging democracy’s core ideal that “majority rules.”
In the “land of the free,” U.S. citizens have a right not to vote. Society advances by collective actions that democratically accountable governments make possible, but American law and society limit government’s power against potential intrusions on personal liberty. A law like Australia’s, which fines citizens who don’t vote, probably wouldn’t wash in the U.S.
While not compelled by civil law, Jewish Americans tend to vote in large numbers – and the political world knows it. In areas with strong Jewish presence, the “Jewish vote” is carefully tracked, highly prized and overtly courted. Groups like AIPAC and J-Street exist to influence Jewish votes and harness Jewish political power. So-called “Jewish issues” (often including Israel, Mideast policy and social programs) rise high on campaign platforms. In New York’s 2014 gubernatorial primary, Gov. Andrew Cuomo campaigned with pictures of himself at the Western Wall, while challenger Zephyr Teachout ran Yiddish campaign ads.
Most pundits and political scientists attribute high Jewish voting rates to higher income, educational attainment and commitment to social justice. Now a new reason is emerging: Orthodox rabbinic mandates to vote for specified candidates. Examples abound: in 2012, 49 rabbis issued a proclamation mandating votes for a Senate candidate opposed to same-sex marriage. In 2013, some rabbis directed followers to support a mayoral candidate adverse to same-sex marriage. Socially conservative rabbis increasingly hold that halacha (Jewish law) mandates votes for what they call “Torah values” in government. This trend is so strong that the New York Times asks, “Are Liberal Jewish Voters a Thing of the Past?”
This narrative begs key questions: does Jewish law require Jewish citizens to vote? Can rabbis tell congregants whom to vote for? What issues should shape the “Jewish vote”?
These questions aren’t new. After the 1948 founding of the modern State of Israel, some Israeli Jews asked if they should vote in elections for the new government. The Lubavitcher Rebbe answered (in Hebrew) that eligible voters must vote to install the most religious parties electable to office. The religious vote was so vital that rabbis told voters to sell their tefillin (ritual phylacteries) for money to reach the polls and cast ballots. At least one rabbi wouldn’t receive congregants on election day until they voted. Apparently, to rabbis it was obvious that Jews must vote.
These rabbis’ approach, however, is circular: it assumes rather than justify a duty to vote. It also fixates on the (ir)religious character of candidates and policies, not the act of voting. Worse, their approach is impossibly subjective and ripe for abuse. An rabbi opposing same-sex marriage (calling it “sacrilege”), and another opposing military intervention (calling it “murder”), each can wield rabbinic authority as a political bludgeon under the guise of “Torah values” on opposing ends of the electoral spectrum. As Joseph Soloveitchik (1908-1993) wrote, rabbis no longer can “be relied on to direct the people in ever-changing political issues: only a political system can [do that].” Thus, Soloveitchik held, Jews mustn’t inject religious dogma into the “shared public square” they cohabit with others.
Were Soloveitchik a constitutional scholar, he might have used the phrase “separation of shul and state” in telling rabbis that they have no authority to mandate voting preferences. His point, however, is clear: rabbis must stay out of the voting booth. That said, I believe that Jewish citizens must vote as a matter of Jewish law. Here’s why.
First, government is important. As in ancient days, we “pray for government’s welfare, for without fear of it [we] would swallow each other alive” (M. Avot 3:2). The duty to create and support government is one of the few duties that Jewish law recognizes for all, Jew and non-Jew alike (B.T. Sanhedrin 56a). To Maimonides (1135-1204), the purpose is to ensure public order (Mishneh Torah, Melachim 9:14); to Nachmanides (1194-1270), the purpose extends to include all social welfare (comm. B.T. Avodah Zara 4a). Public safety, health, social equity, the rule of law – the very fabric of modern life in an interdependent world –today require wise, effective and democratically accountable government as never before.
Second, Jewish tradition views government as a human partnership with God. Where Torah predicts that Israelites would want civil rulers instead of priests and prophets, Moses told the people: “[B]e sure to place over yourselves the king that God elects for you” (Deut. 17:14-15). The canon records that God chose the first king, Saul (1 Sam. 9:16-17). The second king, David, was chosen by God but confirmed by “all of Israel’s elders” (2 Sam. 5:3). The third king, his son Solomon, ruled in David’s bloodline but “all the people” together ratified his accession (1 Kings 1:39). Given this democratic shift, Talmud opined that not even God could select rulers without consulting the people (B.T. Berachot 55a). By medieval days, when Jews elected tax collectors to remit Jewish taxes to Christian realms, Moses Isserles (1520-1572) held that all taxpayers were to assemble and vote “for the sake of heaven” (Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 163:1). Declining to vote means ignoring Torah’s notion of human partnership in the “heavenly” work of government. On the other hand, the Chatam Sofer (1762-1839) held that taxpayers who didn’t vote faced no compulsion: their only penalty was to forfeit rights to shape election outcomes.
What the Chatam Sofer didn’t seem to understand is the third and most important reason Jews must vote: Jews value collective action so highly that the public interest can compel individual behavior. The Chatam Sofer didn’t understand the political notion of a social compact: by choosing to live somewhere as citizens, we bind ourselves to contract with that society. As Shlomo ben Meiri (1080-1174, “Rashbam”) held, this social compact obliges Jews to honor the realm’s civil laws in exchange for the realm’s benefits and protection (comm. B.T. Bava Batra 54b). Jewish choice of residency also triggers a duty to help provide the benefits of society, lest anyone’s non-participation cause what economists call free riding. (If anyone could take a public good without giving, then all would have the same incentive – and the public good itself could disappear.) For this reason, Jews must not only pay for public benefits they receive (B.T. Bava Batra 8a) but also directly help as needed to serve the public (B.T. Bava Metzia 108a).
While Talmud’s day the main concerns for collective action were flood control, public transportation, civil defense and public health, in our day these concerns depend mainly on government. It is via government that Jews fulfill their civic duty to communities where they maintain residence and citizenship – not only by paying taxes, but also through public service and especially by voting.The implications are profound. Most pundits and rabbis describe the so-called “Jewish vote” in terms of Israel and Mideast policy, but the real “Jewish issue” is government’s effectiveness to perform its public duties. Understood properly, government’s whole agenda – public health and safety, social policy, criminal justice, environmental protection and more – is a “Jewish issue.” All are necessary concerns of Jewish voters as Jewish voters. That is the Jewish commitment to our nation, tradition and values – whatever our personal politics and partisanship may be.
Judaism’s wisdom tradition teaches that “You do not need to finish the work, but you are not free to desist from it” (M. Avot 2:16). Maybe no single election will fix the nation’s fate, but every election is important – and Judaism’s value of collective action mandates Jews to pitch in. If you’re a citizen, you are not free to stay home on Election Day. You are not free to free-ride on the votes of others. Get to the polls. Vote.
This post summarizes a rabbinic teshuvah (halachic dissertation) I wrote in partial fulfillment of requirements for rabbinic ordination from ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal. This post is dedicated to Rabbi Daniel Siegel, my dissertation advisor and co-author of Integral Halacha with Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi zt”l (1924-2014).
Earlier this month in The New York Times, Reza Aslan continued an ongoing argument against Bill Maher’s blanket condemnation of Islam, and also criticized those who insist that Muslim extremists are simply practicing Islam wrong. His op-ed says we need to recognize the complexity of any religion’s relationship with the good or bad behavior of its adherents.
He then goes a step further, saying, “It is a fallacy to believe that people of faith derive their values primarily from their Scriptures. The opposite is true. People of faith insert their values into their Scriptures, reading them through the lens of their own cultural, ethnic, nationalistic and even political perspectives.”
When I lead Torah study weekly at Temple Beth Emeth in Brooklyn, NY, I teach that our Torah remains vital and relevant because we bring our own experiences and ideas to it, combining the text with our lives to find new ways to think about both. While I think Aslan might be overstating his case a bit, it is quite true that interpretations of our sacred texts evolve with the times, as do our religious practice and our sense of which passages speak most to us, based on the perspectives we bring to the text. It has always been so.
At our Torah study, then, more than once, this question has arisen: How do we know that we’re not using the Torah, or the Bible, to just tell us what we want to hear? To put a finer point on it, how do we know that we’re not using the Torah simply to justify our own bad behavior?
It’s a tough question. One classic example of the Bible being used to support injustice is when pre-Civil War slaveholders used it to justify slavery. Today we find slavery abhorrent (though it continues to exist), and recognize that it is wrong even though the Christian and Jewish Bibles, as well as the Quran, are uncritical of it. A different, current example is the use of the Bible, usually Leviticus 18:22, to condemn homosexuality. I and many others believe this is using the Bible to support injustice. (A fascinating alternate interpretation of that verse is in the article “Pit`hu Li Sha`arei Tzedeq” by Rabbi David Greenstein.)
In Pirkei Avot, we read that Ben Bag-Bag said of the Torah, “Turn it and turn it again, for everything is in it.” That means we can find everything in there—good and evil, and justification for both.
So how do we know that we aren’t supporting injustice when we use the Torah to help us make choices? My answer is that we might not always be able to be sure, but we have to do the best we can. Here’s how to do that: Study the Torah, study the Bible, study whatever your sacred scriptures are, and study them some more. Do it with other people. Study what people before us have thought about it. Bring your own best sense of right and wrong. Pay attention to when you’re supporting something that causes harm to people—that’s a sign of injustice. Wrestle with the text and argue about it, and listen to what others think. Don’t expect black and white answers, and don’t settle for them. Don’t be so sure you’re right. Expect it to be hard.
And have faith. Faith in ourselves, in our study companions, and in our scriptures, faith that we’ll find a way for ourselves, and that we can bring more good into the world.