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Politics and Religion - Let's Talk About it

 

Unfortunately, politics in America has devolved into a _________ (you fill in the blank). Both sides of the political divide have become hyper-partisan and as a result, it has become harder and harder for Congress to do the work of the people. This sorry state of affairs has penetrated the Orthodox community as well, with people taking sides and strongly advocating opposing political ideologies. The situation has reached a point that a group of highly respected Orthodox writers and journalists have penned the following letter below. In my opinion, the purpose of the letter is an attempt to have our community recalibrate its approach to political involvement irrespective of political affiliation. Here’s what they said:           

Sinai, Not Washington

An Open Letter to the Torah Community

The unhealthy confusion of Torah values with politics brings disrepute to Torah and harm to Torah Jews.

No party platform can substitute for our mesorah.

As a community, we ought to clearly and proudly stand up for the Torah’s stance on societal issues, embracing a worldview that identifies with no party or political orientation. Our interests may dovetail with a particular party or politician in one or another situation, but our values must remain those of Sinai, not Washington.

Moral degradation infects a broad swath of the American political spectrum. In the camps of both liberals and conservatives, many political players are on a hyper-partisan quest for victory at all costs.

Good character and benevolent governance are devalued, contrition is seen as weakness and humility is confused with humiliation. Many politicians and media figures revel in dividing rather than uniting the citizens of our country. Others legitimize conspiracy theories. None of this is good for America, and certainly not for us Jews.

Shameless dissembling and personal indecency acted out in public before the entire country are, in the end, no less morally corrosive than the embrace of abortion-on-demand or the normalization of same-gender relationships. The integrity and impact of what we convey to our children and students about kedusha, tzni’us, emes, kavod habriyos and middos tovos are rendered hollow when contradicted by our admiration for, or even absence of revulsion at, politicians and media figures whose words and deeds stand opposed to what we Jews are called upon to embrace and exemplify.

These are not new problems. But the challenge seems to grow worse with time. If we don’t stop to seriously consider the negative impact of our community’s unhealthy relationship with the current political style, we risk further erosion of our ability to live lives dedicated to truly Jewish ideals.

We Jews are charged to be an example for all Americans.

Serious moral issues — truth, loyalty, contrition, vengeance, tolerance — are at the heart of much of today’s political discourse. Whether we realize it or not, many of us have come to be guided in such matters, at least in part, by politicians and media figures with whom we share neither values nor worldview.

We are a people charged with modeling and teaching ethical behavior and morality to others. It should be inconceivable for us to be, and be seen as, willing disciples of deeply flawed people who are now the de facto arbiters of what is morally acceptable. We should be ashamed when Torah leaders seem to have been replaced as our ethical guides by people of low character and alien values.

As Orthodox Jews, we live in a benevolent host society to which we have rightly given our loyalty. It is thus important that we not be regarded by the American public as turning a blind eye to the degradation of our moral climate in exchange for political support for parochial interests.

We must not allow ourselves to be co-opted by any party.

There are issues of great importance to us, like education funding, anti-discrimination laws and the affordability and safety of our neighborhoods, and we rightly advocate for our positions.

But we must reject the efforts of those who, for self-serving electoral gain, seek to turn Jews against any party or faction. Our practical focus should be on recruiting allies and building alliances, and we ought to shun partisan posturing that only alienates us from those who govern us.

We must ensure that Israel is not used as a political weapon.

We must oppose efforts to turn support for Israel from a broad consensus into a wedge issue. Although we may rightly be concerned about trends regarding Israel in some corners, indicting an entire party as anti-Israel is not only inaccurate but has the potential of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. Nor should any party’s strong support for Israel become a justification to blindly support its politicians in every other matter. We should advocate for Israel’s security and other needs without painting ourselves into a partisan corner.

We should vote as Jews, not partisans.

Nothing stated above is intended to address anyone’s voting choices. We write simply to caution against the reflexive identification of Orthodox communal interests with any particular party or political philosophy.

To that end, let us commit to being guided only by Torah perspectives and strive to insulate ourselves, our families, students and congregants from being influenced by the objectionable speech and conduct that have come to infect many parts of the political spectrum.

When we vote, let us do so as Torah Jews, with deliberation and seriousness, not as part of any partisan bandwagon. We are not inherently Democrats or Republicans, conservatives or liberals. We are Jews – in the voting booth no less than in our homes – who are committed, in the end, only to Torah.

Rabbi Emanuel Feldman

Rabbi Hillel Goldberg

Jeff Jacoby

Eytan Kobre

Yosef Rapaport

Rabbi Avi Shafran

Dr. Aviva Weisbord

 

Blog #2:

The above letter was the cause for a lot of discussion and debate this past week in the Orthodox community. In my opinion, one of the best takes on the letter was articulated by Harry Maryles in his blog Emes Ve-munah titled “Rav Shmuel, Rabbi Shafran, and the President.”

An important Open Letter regarding Orthodox Jewish involvement with politics (or perhaps more precisely – support for certain politicians) was issued by Rabbi Avi Shafran. It was signed by the following prominent Orthodox Jewish personalities: Rabbi Emanuel Feldman, Rabbi Hillel Goldberg, Jeff Jacoby, Eytan Kobre, Yosef Rapaport, Rabbi Avi Shafran, and Dr. Aviva Weisbord. Based on this, I doubt that any one of them will vote for the President in the 2020 election.

The gist of that letter warns against religious Jews endorsing political figures whose values are the antithesis of Torah. Although it did not mention any particular party or individual and said this applied to either political party, it was pretty much a thinly veiled rebuke of those among us that enthusiastically endorse the President - even though (for example) his support of Israel has been so strong. 

In pertinent part it said: 

As a community, we ought to clearly and proudly stand up for the Torah’s stance on societal issues, embracing a worldview that identifies with no party or political orientation. Our interests may dovetail with a particular party or politician in one or another situation, but our values must remain those of Sinai, not Washington.

Moral degradation infects a broad swath of the American political spectrum. In the camps of both liberals and conservatives, many political players are on a hyper-partisan quest for victory at all costs.

Good character and benevolent governance are devalued, contrition is seen as weakness and humility is confused with humiliation. Many politicians and media figures revel in dividing rather than uniting the citizens of our country. Others legitimize conspiracy theories. None of this is good for America, and certainly not for us Jews.

Shameless dissembling and personal indecency acted out in public before the entire country are, in the end, no less morally corrosive than the embrace of abortion-on-demand or the normalization of same-gender relationships.

The integrity and impact of what we convey to our children and students about kedusha, tzni’us, emes, kavod habriyos and middos tovos are rendered hollow when contradicted by our admiration for, or even absence of revulsion at, politicians and media figures whose words and deeds stand opposed to what we Jews are called upon to embrace and exemplify. 

I of course agree with this perspective. How can I not? The Torah should be our moral guide. Not political philosophies. To that end we must be consistent in who we support and why. And for the same reason, make clear what is objectionable about them from a Torah perspective even if we support some of their policies 

But there is another perspective to be heard. It was articulated by no less a rabbinic figure than Agudah Moetzes senior member, Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky. (One might argue that since Rabbi Shafran is Agudah’s long time spokesman, that Rav Kamenetsky is his boss!) R’ Shmuel was interviewed by Mishpacha Magazine columnist Yisroel Besser for last week’s cover story. 

Here is the pertinent excerpt: 

(R’ Shmuel): “You see the matzav, the anarchy… it’s frightening. G-d has become a dirty word in much of America, religion and religious institutions are their enemy — we need rachamei Shamayim (heavenly mercy). If Trump doesn’t win in November, it’s worrisome.”

(Besser): I hear what seems to be an endorsement, and I push.    

(R’ Shmuel): “Yes, I think people should vote for him. He’s done a good job. It’s hakaras hatov, (gratitude)” Rav Shmuel reiterates.

(Besser): But what about the fact that the current president is sometimes less than a positive role model?

(R’ Shmuel): “That has nothing to do with politics,” 

There is no doubt in my mind that R’ Shmuel is as Ehrlich as they come. Aside from being a senior member of the Agudah Moetzes, he is the long time Rosh HaYeshiva of ‘Philly’ one of the most respected Charedi Yeshiva high schools in the America. I am equally sure that he inherited all the traits of his illustrious father, R’ Yaakov.

Does Rabbi Shafran’s Open Letter contradict R’ Shmuel?

It would seem so on the surface. But I don’t really think it does. I’m sure that R’ Shmuel would agree entirely with the principles expressed by Rabbi Shafran. The Torah should be our guide. And that as Orthodox Jews we should never identify with one party no matter how pro-Israel it is; no matter how much closer its values are to our own. 

What R’ Shmuel is saying is that we should vote for the person whose polices more closely favor our interests without identifying with the party that person represents and surely not in any way endorse that individuals character, or worse defending every word he says as though it was Torah MiSinai. I have to wonder how God sees defending and sometimes even praising a man like that, no matter how ‘good he is for the Jews’.

Rabbi Avrohom Gordimer ‘s response to the Open Letter was along the same lines. But I think he went a ‘bridge too far’ by saying: 

(T)here is a major difference between idolatrous devotion to a political candidate and robust support of the candidate for important practical reasons. 

I don’t think that ‘robust support’ is the right approach. If one votes for the President it ought to be made clear that it is not the man they support but his policies. And that perhaps one should vote for him with more than an ounce of regret about voting for a man whose personal behavior is so alien to Jewish values.

That said, I want to once again reiterate that this is not an endorsement. I just wanted to point out that Rabbi Shafran’s open letter and R’ Shmuel’s support for the President expresses my internal conflict.

My belief in Torah values is also why I so often say that I ‘lean’ politically conservative rather than just declaring myself to be a conservative. The Torah is my guide. Most often these days I firmly believe that politically conservative values reflect my own Torah based values. But in some cases, I am decidedly liberal for the same reason.

I remain conflicted because even though I support and appreciate the President’s strong support for Israel and religious values, I’m just not sure that is enough to endorse a man whose character is the antithesis of the Torah.