I wonder sometimes whether I just deplaned from some Twilight Zone-like inter-dimensional transport, having lived in an alternate universe lo these many years and finally returning to the “real world.” How else can I explain the fascination many Jews today have for the political right?
Certainly, the Torah is no “suicide pact” (credit for the phrase apparently belongs to the late Justice Robert Jackson, although he was referring to the U.S. Constitution). There is no “turn-the-other-cheek” or “give away the store” mindset in it. It is not some ancient version of the Communist Manifesto. It does not forbid people from making comfortable livings and even being able to squirrel away resources to meet future needs.
Keeping the faith: One religious perspective on issues of the day No, the Torah-in the narrow sense and in the broadest sense, meaning the entire corpus of Jewish law-is not a fan of the extremism of the far left, but it also is not a fan of the extremism of the far right. Rather, the Torah takes a middle path: It encourages us, and at times even helps us by its laws, to be as successful as we can be and to earn as much as we can earn. Yet it also requires-requires, not suggests-that we use part of whatever we earn to assure that there are “no needy among you,” as we read in last week’s Torah portion. “If, however, there is a needy person among youâ€¦, do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needyâ€¦.” (See Deuteronomy 15:4-7.)
Do not tell that to a “fiscal conservative” (which nowadays is a euphemism for Tea Party activist).
We are Jews before we are anything else, which means we are obligated to take seriously the notion that we are God’s “kingdom of priests and holy nation.” (See Exodus 19:6.)
This designation carries with it a tremendous burden. The bottom line is that we are supposed to live every waking moment of our lives according to God’s rules of morality and ethics. We must do this in order to help create a better, more just, more equitable, more caring world by setting a good example.
Whatever ritual laws exist in Judaism exist solely to keep us on that track; in and of themselves, they serve no purpose.
So central is this to Judaism that the clearest statement of it in the Bible is read aloud in the synagogue on the most sacred day of our year, Yom Kippur. In it, God wants Isaiah “to show My people their transgression, and the house of Jacob its sins.”
“‘Why have we fasted,’ [the Israelites say to God], ‘and You see not? Why have we afflicted our soul, and You take no notice…?'”
“Is this the fast that I have chosen?” God responds; “a day for a man to afflict his soul? Is it to bow down his head as a bulrush, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? Will you call this a fast, and an acceptable day to the Lord?
“Is not this rather the fast that I have chosen? To loose the chains of wickedness, to undo the chains of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and that you give shelter to the poor, who are homeless? That when you see the naked, you should clothe him; and that you should not hide yourself from [the needs of those who are] your flesh?”
Isaiah was not talking about elections, but about how life should be lived by God’s kingdom of priests. Because the political process offers an effective way to achieve these goals, it follows that Jews need to take such matters into consideration in casting their ballots. This helps to explain why Judaism has always placed a premium on communal involvement and have so high a voter-participation rate.
This does not mean we must vote for one political party over another. Rather, each of us must vote for those candidates who we believe in our hearts are best-suited to help us carry out God’s program of creating a better, more just, more equitable, more caring world.
And how are “we priests” supposed to act? Chapter 19 of Leviticus (which is read in some synagogues on Yom Kippur rather than the traditional Leviticus 18) provides several important standards of conduct.
“You shall be holy,” Leviticus 19 begins, “for I the Lord your God am holy.”
The chapter tells us, among many other things, that we may not stand idly by when a person’s life is in danger, regardless of who that person is. Moreover, it is not enough to “help” in such situations; you “shall not stand idly by your neighbor’s blood.” Your help must truly be of help. The classic Rabbinic commentary to Leviticus, the Sifra, says this includes such things as providing evidence in court to save someone from being wronged. It follows that this also applies to people suffering from natural disasters and failed economics. (Ron Paul, for one, would eliminate the Federal Emergency Management Agency, as he made clear after Hurricane Irene left disaster in its wake.)
Chapter 19 reminds us of our obligations to the elderly and to the poor. It mandates that we give the laborer his or her due. “The wages of he who is hired shall not remain with you all night until the morning,” it says.
It warns us against supporting laws that are unfair, that give preferential treatment to one group over another, that whittle away at a defendant’s civil rights or watering down laws designed to protect minorities and women. “You shall not hate your brother in your heart…,” it commands; “you shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am the Lord….”
To continue one more time: “And if a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. But the stranger who dwells with you shall be to you as one born among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God.”
This tells us that we may not deny basic services to the foreigners among us.
Chapter 19 of Leviticus, a part of what is known as the Torah’s “Holiness Code,” is a bird’s eye view of the message we have to deliver through our deeds, not our words. And it is a message we must deliver by how and for whom we vote at the polls.