“Who am I to place my head between these two mountains?” – Talmud
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks was recently interviewed by the Jewish Telegraph Agency about his new book, Morality, however, the conversation, like all conversations these days, quickly shifted to politics. Rabbi Sacks shared that no matter how close he became to politicians during his time as chief rabbi of the UK, he was careful not only to not endorse any candidates but also stayed away from any form of political advocacy. When asked about American rabbis who seem to take a different approach, he responded: “I’m afraid American Jewry is making a big, big, big mistake. This is not a small thing. It’s a very, very big thing.”
According to the JTA, he was specifically referring to Rabbi Shmuel Kamenetzky, one of the most widely known and respected Chareidi rabbis in America. In a recent interview with Mishpacha magazine, Rabbi Kamenetzky gave a full-throated endorsement of President Donald Trump, stating, “I think people should vote for him. He’s done a good job. It’s hakaras hatov.” Rabbi Kamenetzky is not alone in endorsing politicians or mixing Judaism with politics. “On the left,” the article continued, “rabbis frequently wade into partisan political issues and even argue for specific political candidates in their personal capacity.”
Before I continue, I feel the need to make clear that I have the utmost respect for both Rabbi Kamenetzky and Rabbi Sacks. Rabbi Sacks is one of the most compelling and compassionate writers on values in our day and Rabbi Kamenetzky is both a Torah scholar of the highest order and from watching him up close, possibly one of the gentlest souls I have ever met.
I hesitate questioning either of them, but I have a problem. Rabbi Sacks went on to say, “If you mix religion and politics, you get terrible politics and even worse religion.” It’s a good quote, but I struggle to understand it. Is he suggesting that our moral code, i.e., the Torah, should not impact public policy? This week’s parsha alone weighs in on inheritance laws, issues of gender identification, capital punishment and more. While there is an argument to be made that we are under no obligation to ensure that the laws of our land reflect the laws of the Torah, shouldn’t the Torah at least have a voice at the table? Did the prophets not challenge the kings of Israel to live by the values of our tradition? Did Moshe not lead a rebellion against the political status quo? Do we not believe our Torah to be a Toras Chaim, an ever-relevant set of ethics that guide our every action?
And yet, to endorse a candidate, to stand behind a single party, not only is it alienating to those who don’t identify with that party or politician, but it sends a very difficult message to swallow. Although, an endorsement of a politician should be interpreted to be an endorsement of their platform alone, in our culture, especially in America, where the president – Obama or Biden for Democrats, Trump for Republicans – is painted as a savior, it is hard to distinguish between politics and the politician.
Rabbi Moshe Feinstein dedicates a responsa to the question of a shul honoring a donor who openly flouts Jewish law. Rabbi Feinstein threads a thin line between praising the individual for their good qualities and ensuring that it is not perceived as praising them for the bad. Recently, a video surfaced from an Orthodox sleepaway camp where a Jewish music star led the campers in a rousing song praising the President. It is a very difficult needle to thread.
Rabbis across the country face this dilemma constantly. Ignore politics and current events and provide no direction in a realm in which people feel especially lost? Embrace politics and politicians despite having positions or personalities antithetical to the Torah? Where do we go from here?
Perhaps we can answer our questions by reframing them as guiding principles that can help us navigate this challenge:
- Judaism IS political. Judaism has what to say about every part of life, from our most personal emotions to the most public mechanisms of governance. We cannot afford to shy away from sharing the Torah view on contemporary issues. More than ever, the Torah’s viewpoint is needed.
- The Torah’s value system is void of hero-worship. Our greatest leaders were fallible, and the Torah makes sure we know about it. We respect our governments, we pray for our political leaders, but we never worship them. Comments in support of a politician or party cannot, in good faith, be unqualified.
There is a Republican case for Joe Biden like there is a Democratic case for Donald Trump, but neither of them are self-evident. Similarly, one can make a Torah argument for both parties. But to understand these views, one needs to slow down, absorb, and reorient oneself to a line of thinking that doesn’t come naturally. Though I quite recently spoke in favor of distilling every message into a Tweet, it doesn’t work for everything. According to Jewish law one may not judge a case of a capital crime in one day; the judges need to sleep on it in order to ensure that they have examined every side of the case. As the first Mishna in Pirkei Avos states, be deliberate in judgment. This advice is widely understood to be relevant not only to judges, but to us all.
Ultimately, we have to choose a candidate. Ultimately, one candidate and one party is better than the next. There may not be a party of God, but Godly people must choose a party. And so, the challenge is not for rabbis alone; it is a challenge for us all: Do we have the patience to think critically, appreciate the good and call out the bad? Do we have the bravery to speak openly even when our opinions are unpopular? And do we have the knowledge to allow our faith to guide our politics and the humility to acknowledge when our politics guides our faith?
May God bless America and may He grant us the patience, bravery, knowledge, and humility to do our part in allowing that blessing to materialize.