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Politics, Politicians, and Judaism Parshas Vayera

This Wednesday, November 8, will mark the one-year anniversary of Donald Trump being elected as president of the United States of America. I’ve shied away from even mentioning politics for the past little while as I thought we all needed a break – I certainly did. But today, I’d like to take a few moments to reflect on this one-year anniversary and share some thoughts that have been bouncing around my head for quite some time now.

I’ll begin by quoting Rabbi David Wolpe, a rabbi of a conservative synagogue in California, because I think he really nails it:

“Einstein often is credited with saying that there are two ways to live your life — as though everything is a miracle or as though nothing is a miracle. I’m tempted to believe the same thing about Judaism. There are two ways to be Jewish — as though everything is politics or as though nothing is politics.

I am endlessly besieged by requests to take on this or that political or social issue. After all, does not Judaism take a stand on virtually every aspect of life?  If it is a left-wing cause, I will be rebuked for neglecting prophetic ethics, which is the guardian of the widow and the orphan (and the climate and the transgendered). If it is a right-wing cause, I will be reminded of the primacy of peoplehood and objective moral law (and the sanctity of unborn life and the free market). When the Torah counsels against being a talebearer, it is reminding us not to spread nasty rumors about Barack Obama. Or about Donald Trump. I have yet to hear that it prohibits both.

And when it comes to Israel — oy, when it comes to Israel. If you oppose the settlements, you are a self-hating denier of the triumph of Jewish history. If you support the settlements, you are a brutalizing occupier unconcerned with the rights of others. If you see merit in both sides of the argument, you are a spineless equivocator.

With each new presidential administration, the pressure grows greater. There was a time when a rabbi’s heart would quake at the prospect of a Talmudic challenge… But today the question is far more likely to be “What do you think of Trump?” … The litmus test for religious legitimacy has become political opinion.”

Concludes Rabbi Wolpe: “I know outstanding rabbis on the left of the political spectrum and others on the right. You can love Torah and vote for Trump. You can love Torah and think Trump is a blot on the American system. What you may not do, if you are intellectually honest, is say that the Torah points in only one political direction.”

And this is point #1 – The Torah cannot be painted in red or blue.

Take abortion as an example: Is Judaism pro-life or pro-choice? The answer is neither. It is certainly more in line with the pro-life camp, but Judaism has certain allowances for abortion that make it an awkward fit in either group.

Or take gun control – what does the Torah say about the right to bear firearms? It says nothing.

The Torah does endorse the castle doctrine – one is allowed to kill an intruder. On the other hand, the rabbis in the Talmud forbade owning a dangerous animal because of the potential harm it could cause (Bava Kamma, 79a) and it even outlawed selling firearms to criminals (Avodah Zarah, 15b). Does any of this tell us in definitive terms what Judaism’s perspective is regarding the Second Amendment?!  Absolutely not.

Or take immigration – “And don’t oppress the stranger nor pressure him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 22:20) or, “Don’t pressure the stranger; and you know the feelings of a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 23:9)

The Torah even relates specifically to a refugee who is fleeing persecution: “Don’t turn in a slave to his master, when he flees to you from his master. Let him dwell with you in your midst… don’t oppress him.”

And yet, the Torah also makes it clear that if a non-Jew, a foreigner wanted to live in Israel, they had to accept the Noahide laws. That means they had to accept the G-d of Israel as their G-d as well as a number of other religious laws. So what does that say about the immigration laws being debated? Is G-d a Republican or is G-d a Democrat?

To quote Rabbi Wolpe once more:

“Every rabbi should preach values, of course. Values are not policies and not embodied in politicians. This past Shabbat,” he writes, “I spoke about Judaism and the sin of racism. Policies to combat racism are a more complex matter. There are studies, statistics, successes, failures — in other words, solutions best left to those who master the field and know something, and to our capacity to argue as citizens. I’ve spoken and written about immigration, war, poverty and other issues to clarify values but not to endorse policies. Congregants often know more about specific policy issues than I. Rabbinic training does not provide the gavel to judge between the economic contentions of John Kenneth Galbraith and Milton Friedman. Gun control measures, however much I may favor them,” he concludes, “were not outlined in the story of Korach or the Book of Proverbs.”

There are issues that Jewish law is clear and unambiguous and there are issues, like immigration legislation, gun control, taxes, health care, where it’s not; there are values that can be gleaned, but where and how to draw the lines of legislation, it’s simply not there. And so to say that Judaism is in line with conservative or liberal politics is a stretch at best, and more likely a farce.

The Torah cannot be painted in red or blue.

But there’s a second point, one which may sound heretical to some of you here and that is that the Torah allows for and actually calls for a notion of morality outside and independent of the Torah.

Think about it – In this week’s Parsha, Avraham calls out King Avimelech for being immoral – even though the Torah was not yet given. G-d brings a great flood in the times of Noach because of the thievery and sexual immorality of the people, G-d punishes Cain for murder. Who told them these things are wrong?!

You see, there is an expectation for us to intuit right from wrong, and although that may allow for a difference of opinion, so be it. Morality, at least a baseline of morality, is intuitive and G-d expects us to act on that intuition.

With the giving of the Torah, some aspects of morality became defined while some of it was left open. We were given a general sense of direction and it is incumbent upon us to listen closely to those values and apply them as best as we can.

And so when I say the Torah does not weigh in definitively on gun control or on immigration, that’s not to say that we should shrug our shoulders and live and let live. Not at all. That’s moral laziness. The Torah demands of us to apply the values it teaches us, to use our G-d-given seichel and our G-d-given ability to discern right from wrong, and to do something with it.

And that’s thought # 2- the Torah may not be red or blue, but you, as an individual and as a Jew, should be. To flippantly throw your hands up and say that Judaism doesn’t weigh in on this is a cop-out. Judaism may not answer all the questions facing society – but you, as a thoughtful, caring, member of society should. You should research them, you should debate them, and you should come to your own conclusions – and maybe even change them a few times along the way.

In other words, don’t misrepresent the Torah, don’t quote scripture or take a ruling out of context and say this is what the Torah says. That’s a distortion of the truth and the Torah is unambiguous about the immorality of lying. Learn the Torah, humble yourself to its message when it does speak, and be big enough to apply its values when it’s silent.

Thought #3 – (And I apologize ahead of time as this really has nothing to do with the first two points but I really don’t want to bring up politics for a while, so here we go:)

This past week, Republican Jeff Flake took the Senate floor and announced his retirement from politics. In the process, he took the opportunity to lambast President Trump, stating, “Reckless, outrageous, and undignified behavior has become excused and countenanced as ‘telling it like it is,’ when it is actually just reckless, outrageous, and undignified.” He went on to criticize, and I quote, “The personal attacks, the threats against principles, freedoms, and institutions, and the flagrant disregard for truth and decency, the reckless provocations, most often for the pettiest and most personal reasons, reasons having nothing whatsoever to do with the fortunes of the people that we have been elected to serve.”

Aside from Mr. Trump, there has not been much of a response debating any of those criticisms. Mr. Flake’s fellow Republicans choose to stay on board because they believe in the Republican party even if they do not believe in the President himself. So his criticism is undisputed but I believe it’s also based on the following fallacy.

You see, it would be nice if politicians would be role models, paragons of virtue, and people we could look up to. It would also be nice if movie directors, people like Harvey Weinstein would be role models, paragons of virtue, and people we look up to. It would be great if popular TV personalities, like Bill Cosby would be role models, paragons of virtue, and people we look up to. And it would be really nice if great athletes, like I don’t know, Tiger Woods would be role models, paragons of virtue, and people we look up to.

Not only are politicians, movie directors, actors, and athletes not our heroes, but we are mistaken for even thinking that they should be. The role of politicians is to represent us in Washington or at home, the role of movie directors and actors is to produce quality entertainment, and the role of athletes is to play sports. Now please don’t misunderstand me, I am NOT excusing their behavior – they must be held accountable for everything they’ve done not only in spite of who they are but because of who they are. What I am suggesting though is that we stop expecting greatness and heroism to emanate from these people and instead look to those who are supposed to be the role models of society instead.

So who are they? Who are the ones that should be role models for the rest of society?

That would be you.

“V’atem tihyu li mamleches kohanim, And you should be for me a kingdom of priests.” Explains the Seforno, like Avraham and Sarah before us, our role in the world, our role as Jews is to model ethical and moral behavior. We are supposed to the heroes of society. That’s our G-d-given job description.

Again, please don’t stop calling them out for their stupidity, for their vulgarity, and for their vanity. No one is above the law. But role models they are not. Let’s save some of our vigilant energy, and instead of yelling at them, let’s step up on our own, and ask ourselves some uncomfortable questions:

How do we interact with our coworkers? How do we treat those who are intimidated of our power? Do we ever take advantage of people in any way? How honest are we with others? How honest are we with our family members? How loving? Are we self-centered or selfless?

Or to put it succinctly, when others see us, when others interact with us, do we inspire or do they just walk by?

“V’atem tihyu li mamleches kohanim, And you should be for me a kingdom of priests.” No one and I mean no one should get away with any crime or deviancy, but we more than others, need to step it up and lead. That’s what it means to be a Jew.

To review, (1 -) Judaism cannot be conformed to our politics, (2 -) that does not exempt us from seeking out the position we believe to be moral because morality does exist outside of the Torah, and lastly (3 – ) let’s recognize what we were put here to do. Last week we spoke about what it means to believe in G-d, but today more than anything else I hope we walk away understanding that G-d believes in us. It’s not the presidents, it’s not the beautiful actors and actresses, and it’s not the talented athletes who are tasked with being the role models of society – it’s me and you. G-d believes in us, that’s why He created us and formed us as a nation. It’s time to start believing in ourselves.

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