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The Morning After Election Day

 

I’m writing this blog introduction Tuesday afternoon, November 3rd – Election Day. By the time you read it, each one of us will have had the opportunity to express our perspective on the candidates and the issues via the ballot box. And hopefully, there will be nationally accepted results. 

Irrespective of who wins, I have a serious concern that has been shared by many of my rabbinic colleagues, regarding the way “we the people” proceed into the future. Tragically, there is a growing schism in our country that threatens to tear us apart. I counted no less than twelve headlines from domestic and foreign newspapers asking if America is on the brink of civil war. In my opinion, a key factor is not as much differing ideologies, as it is the attitude toward people with whom we disagree. It is with this in mind that I share with you two letters written by colleagues of mine to their congregations this week:     

Blog #1: Rabbi Efrem Goldberg – Boca Raton Synagogue

Dear Friends,

Ask most people if rabbis should endorse candidates or parties and they will say no. Ask them if they want their shul to be a place that clearly supports one candidate or party over the other and they will say no. And yet, some of the same people will say that those rules apply in ordinary times, these are extraordinary circumstances, there is so much on the line and it would be inappropriate to not speak out.

Those encouraging rabbis to take positions, or the rabbis themselves, will defend weighing in on politics by saying this election is the most important of our time. 

But my question is, when wasn’t it? A quick look at news archives will show you that every single presidential election is referred to by many as “the most important election of our lifetimes.” Some will no doubt say, “but this election has enormous consequences,” to which I wonder, which election did not? Most amazingly, the same people who will bemoan or react critically if a rabbi takes a position supporting the candidate they don’t, will happily share or point to an article or quote of a rabbi who takes the position that matches their own.

Make no mistake, I appreciate as much as anyone how significant the issues of our day are. This election could shape the character of our nation, and will surely result in meaningful policy implications for the economy, healthcare, pandemic response, race relations, the threat of Iran, the US-Israel relationship, Israel’s prospects for peace and much more. Like many of you, I have strong feelings about the importance of these issues and which candidate I believe is more likely to pursue them in the ways that I feel are best. But here is the critical point – none of these are simple issues, these aren’t predictable times, and there are countless other variables at play.

If the last eight months of this pandemic have taught us anything, it should be humility: how little we know, how little we control, and how little we can even predict. While this is certainly true about coronavirus, it applies to every other issue as well. People who speak with certainty about how the next four years will go based on what candidate or party is in power would do well to keep this in mind. That isn’t to say we can’t have healthy and respectful debate, that we can’t advocate or campaign for the candidate, party, or policies we think will be best.

But what it does mean is that we should do it with a sense of humility not hubris, with concern, not overconfidence, with hope and not certitude. The issues and personalities in this election, and the intersection of the two, are sufficiently complex that it shouldn’t be hard for anyone supporting either side to be able to say this simple statement: reasonable people can come to a reasonable conclusion in either direction.

Imagine what our dialogue and debate would look like if it took place against the backdrop of subscribing to that statement as both the introduction to the conversation and the conclusion. Reasonable people can come to a reasonable conclusion in either direction. Sure, it is fair, maybe even constructive at times, to try to persuade others to see things as you do, but if you can’t, acknowledge that not only is the other person entitled to his or her perspective, their opinion is reasonable, legitimate, and fair. The fact that they come to a different conclusion, even one you are convinced is wrong, doesn’t mean they have corrupt character, less patriotism, compromised commitment to Israel, or less devotion to Torah.

I am an orthodox rabbi, and let me be clear, as an orthodox rabbi, I am not telling you who you must vote for. In politics, reasonable, thoughtful, and respectful people can come to opposing conclusions.

But this is a matter of life and death, you may say. My answer to that is you should research some of the disputes in Jewish law involving brain death, a quite literal life-and-death issue. On this sensitive, critical issue, some of our greatest Halachic decision-makers held opposing opinions, yet greatly respected each other, respected the other’s opinion, spoke of each other in the most dignified ways, and were genuinely close to one another.

While I will continue to defer to and submit to great Roshei Yeshiva and Torah scholars on matters of Jewish law and philosophy, I don’t want them, no matter how “prominent” they may be, to decree whom I must vote for, diagnose the mental status of either candidate, tell me they know with certainty who is better for the Jewish people or Israel, or to oversimplify what is a truly complicated choice.

What disturbs me most about rabbinic declarations dictating how we vote and articulating with complete confidence what will happen if we don’t is not just the unfair denial of people to think for themselves and draw their own legitimate conclusions, but I believe it is also a significant departure from an important Torah principle.

Long ago King Solomon (Proverbs 21:1) taught us, “The heart of a king is like a stream of water in the hand of God, wherever He wishes, He will direct it.” We say every single day in our prayers, “Don’t place your faith and trust in princes and diplomats.”

As believing Jews, we recognize that it is the Master of the Universe who orchestrates domestic, foreign, and of course all policies and their consequences. To be a student of Torah and of Jewish history is to recognize the Almighty’s guiding hand. His hand guided our history and ultimately, it is His hand that is guiding our destiny, no matter the outcome of an election, even “the most important one of our time.”

Our rabbis tell us (Bamidbar Rabba 18a), "God has lots of agents and messengers.” While we must make choices based on our finite and limited perspective, God's vision is limitless. We don’t know why He chooses to employ any particular person or leader in a given situation or time. When the dust settles and the final votes are counted, the candidate that wins any election not only reflects the will of the people, but much more importantly, the will of our Creator.

In this final week and perhaps even more importantly, in the aftermath of this election, I beg you to approach people with humility, to make room for those who conclude differently, and most of all, to pray and put our faith in the One who is truly the Highest of every land. Pray for a peaceful reaction to the election, for unity and civility in our community and our country and for the ability to see God's hand in this and every other part of our lives.

Blog #2: Rabbi Kalman Topp – Beth Jacob of Beverly Hills

Dear Friends,

This week, I had the opportunity to do something that many generations of Jews throughout the centuries could only have wished for, which is that I voted. To live in a democracy in which we have the right to participate as a full citizen is a great privilege we should never take for granted. There was no lever or curtain this time, no long lines which perhaps is part of the experience, but filling out and mailing my ballot was still nothing short of inspirational.

With all the divisiveness and heated rhetoric of the election campaign, we may be feeling exhausted, anxious, angry or worn-out, but now is the time to gather our energy and take the time to vote, if you haven't done so already. The teaching of Rabbi Chanina in Pirkei Avot (3:2) that we should "pray for the welfare of the government, for were it not for the fear of it, men would swallow one another alive," is just one of the sources that teach us the importance of having a strong and stable government. For that reason, it is an important Jewish value to be involved in the democratic process. Everyone in the community, age of 18 and above, should feel a responsibility to exercise their right to vote. We also need to become educated about the issues and candidates so we can vote intelligently, not only for who will be our next President, but also for US Congress, state and city officials as well as local school board members.

When it comes to the direction of our country and supporting the causes we hold dear, which Presidential candidate is the better choice? It probably won't surprise you that I won't share with you who I voted for nor will I or Beth Jacob endorse one political candidate over another. Sorry to disappoint, but endorsing would not be appropriate and it could jeopardize the Shul's 501(c)3 tax-exempt status. But I raise the question above to suggest that while members of the American Jewish community and specifically our Beth Jacob community, have diverse opinions regarding the answer to that question, what's important for us as a community is not only the opinion we have but how we express that opinion. Go ahead and argue passionately, but make sure to argue nicely.

Remember the remarkable Talmudic passage (Eruvin 13b) which declares that we follow the position of Beit Hillel over that of Beit Shammai because Beit Hillel carefully listened to the position of Beit Shammai before presenting their own. Emulate the ways of Hillel and respect the view of the other so that we can have a level of discourse that uplifts and doesn't demean.

Even the premier Torah commentator, Rashi, acknowledges at times that "I don't understand the meaning of this verse." Imagine if a political candidate would admit in a debate that he didn't have an answer or a good solution to a problem- it would be political suicide, debate over. Rashi teaches us that in Judaism we celebrate the intellectual integrity of a person who can admit lack of knowledge. When hearing an opposing point of view, saying "that's a good point, I hadn't thought of that" will rarely if ever be heard in our national discourse since it's viewed as a sign of weakness when in my view, it's a sign of strength, reflecting the person's intelligence and humility.

Let us also, at this time of partisanship and political polarization, come together as a community and focus on what we have in common and not just on what divides us. It is unfortunate when we get caught up in the cycle of charged rhetoric so prevalent in the media with talking heads who lack nuance. The members of our Kehillah may have starkly different views about how we're going to get there, but there is so much we agree on. We are patriots who hope, pray and work towards the goal of having a prosperous and moral country. We passionately support Israel and spring into action to combat BDS and anti-Semitism. We deeply value our traditional Jewish lifestyle based on Torah and mitzvot and recognize the importance of Jewish education. We strive to be kind, caring and honest people who recognize the Divinely endowed dignity of every human being, regardless of religion, race, color or creed. We all pray that there should be peace and security in the aftermath of the elections and always, both here, in Israel and around the world.

These are some of the values, goals and ideals which unite us. We can and should continue to debate the issues that divide us. But let us always remember to debate with respect, argue nicely and focus on all that brings us together because with that powerful sense of achdut, with the help of Hashem, there is nothing that we cannot overcome.