When Is Something Not A Jewish Issue?

Jewish organizations, along with other faith-based and secular social justice organizations, have been ablaze with statements and action alerts during the early stages of the Trump Administration. Efforts began soon after the November election, with some Jewish groups condemning Stephen Bannon’s appointment to Chief White House Strategist and Senior Counselor. Statements have proliferated in recent months, particularly in response to President Trump’s executive orders banning refugees.  Jewish groups also have responded with alarm to President Trump’s budget proposal, both for its evisceration of foreign aid and for its “devastating impact on the most vulnerable in our communities who receive publicly-funded services.”  Jewish organizations also have been vocal in criticizing the draconian implications of the Republican “repeal and replace” health care bill.

As a rabbi who cares deeply about the intersection of Jewish values and American public policy, I applaud these efforts. I think it is important that Judaism be more than just a religious identity we put on when we enter a synagogue or a beit midrash (“study hall”); that the principles we study and pray for also be principles we are willing to assert as fully emancipated participants in the American democratic experience.  I was proud to join 14 other rabbis and cantors at the U.S. Capitol a couple weeks ago on a Global Justice Fellowship delegation with American Jewish World Service to advocate against cuts to foreign aid and to push the State Department to act to redress the denial of citizenship rights to individuals of Haitian descent within the Dominican Republic.

On issues such as access to health care, paying workers a living wage, protecting the environment, fostering humane immigration policies, and numerous other domestic fronts, Jewish legal texts bring a wealth of resources that I think should be made part of our national discourse. This is particularly so in an era where “Judeo-Christian values” are often praised without any substantive context.  And it goes without saying that Jewish voices should speak out against anti-Semitism, against efforts to deny Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish and democratic state, and in favor of robust 1st Amendment protections for Jewish expression.

But I also wonder: where is a sensible limit to this “Jewish” engagement? When do we, to borrow from the parlance of Jewish mysticism, engage in tzimtzum—a self-limitation from our potential to engage? Should Jewish voices speak out as Jewish voices on every issue, or are there some when we would be better served not weighing in? And if so, when?

A prime example of where this comes to a head is the proposed nomination of Judge Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. Gorsuch’s confirmation hearings are occurring this week (you can follow them live here), and some Jewish groups already have weighed in. The National Council of Jewish Women, an organization that I personally think does tremendous work, took the lead in drafting an interfaith letter expression “serious concerns regarding the nomination of Judge Neil Gursuch to the Supreme Court.”  Among the 19 signatories are three Jewish organizations: Keshet, Moishe Kavod House, and NCJW. The Religious Action Center of the Reform Movement likewise issued a statement expressing concern about Gorsuch’s nomination.

But is the nomination of an individual to become a Supreme Court Justice really something we can say Jewish law or tradition speak to? I think not. Gorsuch does appears to rule in ways that are anathema to Jewish positions on workers’ rights, the environment, and several other issues, and in many ways is not the type of jurist I want to see sitting on the Supreme Court for the next 30 years. I also think the Republican Senate’s 2016 refusal to allow a vote on President Obama’s pick for the seat, Merrick Garland, was an atrocious and unprecedented abuse of power and break from Senate norms of decency and bipartisanship. But the political process of nominating and confirming jurists, in and of itself, isn’t a Jewish issue (nice as it would have been to have another Jew, Judge Garland, on the Court). Which is why I don’t think Jewish organization should speak out—either in opposition or in favor—of Judge Gorsuch’s nomination.  Doing so, I fear, dilutes the significance of situations when Jewish organizations should speak with a moral voice.

What do you think? Should there be lines drawn about when and where Jewish groups engage in the political process? Where should those lines be drawn?

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