For the sin of voting—and of not voting

For the sin of voting—and of not voting

Those intrusive, outrageous, and mean-spirited productions we euphemistically label "campaign commercials" will soon vanish from our television screens and our radio speakers, at least until the next campaign season begins.

Also disappearing will be the halachic nightmare that these commercials and the elections they promote represent.

In a column four years ago, I described the commercials this way: "By and large …, political advertising of all stripes belongs to the ‘trash and burn’ school. The truth has little or no place here, and issues are irrelevant."

Much has changed since then, and not for the better. Today’s commercials, judging especially by the ones in the New Jersey Senate race, are more contemptible than ever, with neither candidate having any claim on the moral high ground.

On the stump, things are no different. A recent Washington Post article on the campaign style of State Sen. Tom Kean Jr., for example, maintained that he cannot go for more than ‘8 seconds at a time without uttering the words "under federal criminal investigation."

In fact, wrote the Post’s David Segal, "If there were a drinking game whose rules required a swig each time [Kean] asserted that his Senate race opponent is ‘under federal criminal investigation,’ you would be drooling drunk 10 minutes after meeting the guy."

Kean, of course, can say whatever he pleases, as can Menendez. Neither has to worry much about halacha. You and I do, however (or we should), and merely listening to this stuff is hazardous to our spiritual health.

"Whoever relates slander, and whoever accepts slander, and whoever gives false testimony against his neighbor deserves to be thrown to the dogs, for it is said [Exodus ”:30], ‘You shall throw it to the dogs,’ which is [immediately] followed by ‘you shall not raise a false report….’" (See Babylonian Talmud tractate Pesachim 118a.)

In other words, it is not merely those who engage in verbal wrongs who "deserve to be thrown to the dogs," but also those who listen to them and even condone such wrongs by voting for the people who mouth them.

And then there is Yom Kippur.

It was barely one month ago when we declared: "For the sin we have committed before You with the utterance of the lips….; in speech…; by deliberate lying…; by slander…; by tale-bearing…; by wronging our neighbor."

We mouthed these words so meaningfully — and so anxiously — that day. Now, we are faced with the first real test of how sincere we were as a community in reciting these words (they are in the plural, after all). To break our word would make a mockery of Yom Kippur.

And there is the rub. Nowadays, the only way to not to break our word in this way is to not vote — and that would seem to be just as unacceptable from a halachic standpoint. So important is voting, according to the Chazon Ish [the late Rabbi Avraham Yishayahu Karelitz], that if the law requires that a person be paid up on his tax bill before he can vote, he should sell his tefillin, if necessary, to get the needed money.

There is a reason why Bob Menendez rose to the No. 3 spot in the Democratic Party leadership in the House of Representatives and it had nothing to do with Hudson County politicians strong-arming anyone. He was hard-working and effective. By all accounts, he has continued to be so in the U.S. Senate.

Tom Kean Jr. built up a record in the State Senate that led his peers to consider him a perfect pick for the U.S. Senate.

Neither candidate, however, focuses on what he has accomplished. They are too busy trashing each other.

As the Great Confessional of Yom Kippur helps demonstrate, there is a huge category of misdeeds under Jewish law that involves our lips and our ears. Overall, these misdeeds are classified as ona’at devarim, verbal wrongs. Under this rubric are found subcategories. These include two specifically relevant to political campaigns: lashon hara, or "bad speech" (technically speaking, the spreading of true information about someone for derogatory purposes); and motzi shem ra (defaming someone’s character by spreading false information intended to belittle him or her).

Another principle that stands out in campaigns is lifnei iver, or the placing of a stumbling block before the blind. This principle and the category of sinful behavior it spawned derive from Leviticus 19:14: "You shall not … put a stumbling block before the blind," which is a general principle that goes beyond its simple meaning. As the Babylonian sage Samuel stated, one application of the verse is that "it is forbidden to deceive people, even if they are worshippers of the stars" (see BT tractate Chulin 94a). In addition to violating bad speech rules, using truth to distort the truth is putting a stumbling block before the blind.

For example, while it is true that the Virginia Senate candidate James Webb, a Democrat, wrote Vietnam-era novels that have steamy scenes in them, to claim that his fiction is a harbinger of how he would govern is, aside from a reach, misleading.

Most candidates (if not all) are also guilty of the halachic principle of geneivat da’at, or the stealing of knowledge, which also derives from Leviticus 19:14. Traditionally an economic crime in halachic eyes, it includes false and misleading advertising, and deceptive packaging. These are the staples of virtually every candidate’s campaign armory these days.

To be sure, there is an element of "the need to know" in elections. All too often, though, there is no way for us to get the information we need without being at least passive participants in the commission of halachic wrongs. This then is the halachic nightmare that faces those of us who want to live within the bounds of Jewish law.

As I have suggested in the past, perhaps the best way halachically to approach an election comes from the Torah itself (Leviticus 19:15). "In righteousness shall you judge your neighbor," it commands us. Look at a person’s record; study a person’s programs; consider the person’s past performance on campaign promises. On the other hand, ignore innuendo, dismiss dirty tricks, and disregard any information that is clearly irrelevant to the issue. If a candidate blatantly engages in character assassination, do not vote for that candidate even if you cannot bring yourself to vote for the candidate’s maligned opponent.

We may not be able to avoid violating halacha when we vote, but at least the choices we will make will be better informed and soundly based.