American Jews have a Jewish obligation to vote

American Jews have a Jewish obligation to vote

We are now entering into the season of Republican and Democratic primaries, meaning the November 2024 elections are on the horizon. For the following (and many other) reasons, American Jews have an obligation to cast our vote.

1. Fulfilling “Hakarat Hatov” — the concept that enjoins us to recognize and be grateful for the good in life, even in the midst of negative occurrences — includes reciprocating acts of kindness. America has been unbelievably good to Jews, collectively and as individuals. We must respond by being civically proactive — especially by going to the polls on Election Day.

The prophet Jeremiah relayed the following message from God to the Jews living in Babylonia — “Seek the welfare (shalom) of [the society] where I have sent you…. Pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare, you will find your own welfare.”

2. To embrace “Ahavat Yisrael” (love for one’s fellow Jews), we must remain concerned about the well-being of Jews both at home and abroad. At the same time, we are told, “Don’t vote for a candidate based solely on that candidate’s views on Israel.” Yes, that should not be our sole guide in choosing a candidate, but neither should American Jews ignore Israel or other partisan issues that are of great importance to the Jewish community when they enter the voting booth.

In the early 1980s, the late Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson scolded a Jewish aide who was eating a sandwich on Passover in the presence of Natan Sharansky. The senator told him to “be a good Jew,” explaining that America benefits by having its citizens authentically preserve their heritage. Elie Wiesel said that it was his commitment to Jewish issues that made him, as an American, vigilant about universal issues.

3. In Leviticus 19:16, we read, “Do not stand idly by the blood of thy neighbor,” whether Jewish or otherwise. In the current climate of isolationism, certain pundits advocate political indifference to Russia’s slaughter of civilians in Ukraine. But I embrace the message of Bradley Shavit Artson, who said that a Jew who is indifferent to human suffering is essentially denying God. And Elie Wiesel insisted: “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

4. We must avoid bigotry when we weigh our choices at the polls. Data indicate that some folks will not vote for a candidate simply because of his or her skin color, gender, faith preference, or sexual orientation.

Prejudice is at odds with Jewish values; all human beings are made “b’tzelem Elohim,” in God’s image.

The 3rd-century sage Rabbi Joshua ben Levi taught in the Talmud: “When a human being walks on the road, a troop of angels walks in front of that person shouting, ‘Make way for the image of God.’”

What a world it would be if we could train ourselves to hear those angels!

5. Observing the concept of the separation of church and state has been a key factor in Jewish acceptance and success in the United States. Religious differences aired in the political square can easily descend to delegitimizing the beliefs of minorities. Moreover, separation of an official church from the apparatus of the state is essential for religion to thrive.

Why? By and large, citizens in societies separating religion and state do not identify governmental corruption, inefficiency, and self-interest with faith traditions.

We can see the ill effects of the eschewing of this guiding principle: In Israel, the unprecedented Knesset power of ultra-Orthodox parties is pushing sizable sections of the Israeli electorate away from Judaism.

6. In our great sages’ interpretation of the biblical account of the Creation, it should be seen that humankind’s having dominion over all living things means we should be shomrei adamah, guardians of the Earth and the environment.

We are experiencing alarming changes in the atmosphere, the oceans, and the ice caps due to global warming. The melting of glaciers is causing the rise of ocean levels and creating the potential for massive coastal flooding, including in New Jersey.

Furthermore, decreased salinization of the oceans could have a catastrophic effect upon ocean life, imperiling food resources.

Doing the work to repair Planet Earth is daunting — at times immobilizing — because of the enormity of the crisis. But we should not be paralyzed by the immensity of the task. In the scope of Jewish values, inaction is deprecated; in “Pirkei Avot” (“The Ethics of the Fathers”), we are taught: “You are not required to finish your work, yet neither are you permitted to desist from it.”

7. One of the most important purposes of voting rests in its fulfillment of the core Jewish value of “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof,” “Justice, justice you shall pursue.” We must put into action our concern for folks who are the most vulnerable.

In the United States some 40 million people are living below the poverty line. Millions do not have adequate health insurance. There is a nationwide crisis in affordable housing. More than 10 percent of our citizens are food insecure.

The Torah teaches: “If there is among you a poor person…you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against them, but you shall open your hand to them….” Judaism mandates both the provision of a social welfare safety net and of systems to help people to rise out of dependency by becoming self-sufficient.

8. The injunction to “la’asot tzedekah umishpat” —enact righteousness and justice — means strengthening the judicial courts throughout the land.

For example, the Talmud warns us not to buy a home in a community or a society that is devoid of “courts of justice.”

How proud we are of the Hon. Stuart Rabner (a member and leader of Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell), the chief justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court.

At Justice Rabner’s installation in Trenton in 2007, his Harvard Law School roommate, Rabbi Wesley Gardenswartz, spoke about what drew Stuart to public service:  “As the child of Holocaust survivors, Stu had been raised acutely aware of the need for just courts to protect the vulnerable against the abuse of power by other sectors of the government or the military,” Rabbi Gardenswartz said. He concluded by reading aloud the dedication page of Stuart Rabner’s Princeton undergraduate thesis on civic justice. That dedication listed the Hebrew names of the 36 souls within his extended family who perished at the hands of the Nazis, victims of a society utterly devoid of justice.

9. We are directed to embrace the act of “ahavat hager”; we must love the stranger and welcome and care for the immigrant.

As Jews, we have cultivated empathy for the other, born of our frequent role as outsiders throughout history. The Torah warns us not to wrong the stranger (or immigrant): “You shall love him as yourself, for you were [abused as] strangers in the land of Egypt.”

Rabbi David Wolpe has said that while congregations and their leaders do not get involved in suggesting immigration policies per se, “We are [in shul] to inspire an attitude, to remind us that…if that immigrant is not like you, he or she is like your great-grandparents.”

To be in accordance with Jewish values, we ought to eschew Nativism and reject the ideas of those who say about newcomers, “We belong here and they don’t.” The measure of our soul is taken by how we treat others who are unlike us.

10. As the election season approaches, we are reminded of the nature of the Jewish New Year, which is unlike the new years of other cultures.

It is not simply a time for revelry and a Happy New Year celebration. Rather, it’s a time to put our affairs with other people in order so we can turn to God with honesty to seek forgiveness.  It’s a time “l’taken olam b’malchut Shaddai” — to be God’s partner in making this world a better place.

Gmar chatimah tovah.

Rabbi Alan Silverstein, Ph.D., became rabbi emeritus of Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell in 2020; he began there in 1979. He’s headed the Conservative movement’s International Rabbinical Assembly, the World Council of Conservative/Masorti Synagogues, the Foundation for Masorti Judaism in Israel, and Mercaz Olami.

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