How Jews Should Vote

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Yes, Varda, there is a Jewish way to vote – or at least a genuine Jewish perspective to bring to political races like the current one for the American presidency.

Some Jews would assert that “voting Jewish” consists only of analyzing the respective candidates’ positions or pronouncements on the Israel-Palestinian conflict, or any of a number of domestic social issues, or on Iran, Darfur or the environment.

Such analyses are certainly proper. But there is a larger context in which to place them here, an overarching Jewish principle.

A June 6 New York Sun editorial rejected attempts to link Senator Obama with odious people he has known. The editorialist noted that even American presidents who had espoused repugnant views before their elections, came afterward to act very differently from what their erstwhile views would have led anyone to expect.

Before he ascended to the presidency, for example, Harry Truman expressed deeply negative opinions about blacks, Asians, Italians and Jews; yet, once in office he greatly energized the cause of civil rights and confounded his State and Defense Departments by recognizing Israel within minutes of the Jewish State’s declaration of independence. And – like Richard Nixon, another man with seemingly strong personal feelings of ill will toward Jews – he supported Israel with military supplies at a crucial juncture in the Jewish State’s history.

Thus, when it comes to world leadership, it seems, it is not unreasonable to expect the unexpected. The Sun editorialized its explanation of the phenomenon: “…once a man accedes to the presidency, reality has a way of asserting itself.”

The Jewish take on the unpredictability of world leaders, however, lies less in reality’s self-assertion than in the upshot of a verse in Proverbs: “Like streams of water is the heart of a king in the hand of G-d” (21:1).

The traditional understanding of those words is that while all human beings are gifted with free will, there are times when Divine guidance – even Divine coercion – can play a decisive role in the actions of mortals, and in particular those of national leaders.

That is not, of course, necessarily to say that by virtue of their exalted positions such people are mere automatons, or that they are never responsible for choices they make. “Merits are brought through the meritorious,” says the Talmud, “and iniquity through the iniquitous.”

What it is to say, though, is that some element of Divine intercession can sometimes be at play in a far-reaching royal – or Presidential – decision.

Thus, the Torah tells us, G-d “hardened the heart” of the Egyptian Pharaoh and, centuries later, acted through King Achashverosh to grant Esther’s wishes and rescue ancient Persia’s Jews from Haman’s hand. (The phrase “the king” in the Book of Esther, Jewish sources inform us, on one level actually means “the King,” the ultimate One). There are, similarly, many more recent examples as well of national leaders acting in ways that would never have been predictable before their rise to power. It is almost as if someone (or Someone) had reached into the leader’s heart and fiddled around with its contents.

When such Heavenly interventions take place, Jewish tradition teaches, they are the fruit of Jewish merits – or, sadly, the lack of the same. What matters in the end is not the leaders’ pasts but rather the Jews’ presents – the current state of our dedication to G-d and His will.

Which idea, of course, rather radically alters the attitude we should take, if not the calculus we should make, when we weight candidates for high office. It doesn’t obviate either the need to assess their characters or positions, or the importance itself of voting – a duty that Jewish religious authorities strongly stress. G-d’s intervention in human affairs does not absolve us humans from shouldering our ethical or civil responsibilities.

But from a truly Jewish perspective, the tipping point of how kings and presidents will in the end act regarding issues that matter most is the relationship of the Jewish People to the Creator. Whoever happens to be elected is of considerably less import than the critical factor: our spiritual merits.

So, yes, Varda, while there may not be a clear candidate for the Jewish vote in November, there is a clear perspective for Jewish voters to keep in mind: What matter more than our choices in the voting booth are the ones we make in our homes and our lives.

© 2008 AM ECHAD RESOURCES

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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11 Responses

  1. Ori says:

    Raymond: The whole point of the Hirschean aproach to life is to NOT compartmentalize this way, but to spiritualize even the most mundane realms of life. Perhaps not so coincidentally, this is exactly the philosophy of Chabad as well.

    Ori: There are plenty of Mitzvot, such as writing a Sefer Torah or giving Tzedakah, that should not be performed on Shabbat. Things can be spiritual without belonging in Shabbat.

  2. Raymond says:

    Politics and business are not spiritual enough to be discussed at a Shabbat table? Wow, it sounds like this world is at odds with Jewish spirituality. But isn’t the whole point of Judaism to sanctify the secular?

    It is no accident that when we get to Heaven, the first of six questions that will be asked of us is not how many extra stringenies of Commandments between us and G-d that we followed, but rather if we were honest in all of our business dealings. I guess G-d is at odds with Jewish spirituality as well?

    As for politics, the problems in both Israel and America is that politics has become too secular. Secular, leftist Judges in both countries regularly decide court cases in a way that runs counter to Jewish law. The political enemies of the Jewish State of Israel, both in America and Israel, would love nothing better than for traditional, religious Jews to confine themselves to their homes and Torah learning centers and schools, so that the secular left can have a free hand at furthering their anti-Torah agenda in greater society.

    The whole point of the Hirschean aproach to life is to NOT compartmentalize this way, but to spiritualize even the most mundane realms of life. Perhaps not so coincidentally, this is exactly the philosophy of Chabad as well.

  3. Zach Leiner says:

    Jason Berg’s prohibition against political debate at the Shabbos table is a positive step to keep Shabbos what it should be – 24 hours of L’shem Shomayim. Could politics be L’Shem Shomayim? Theoretically perhaps, but highly improbable in practice, in my opinion.

    There are no easy and pat answers to why the Churban occured and any attempt to judge the behavior and actions of the 6 million Kedoshim prior to its onset is not only futile but too easily besmirches their memory.

    It required the combined efforts of the U.S., the UK, the USSR plus other allies to completely dismantle the German war machine.

  4. Bob Miller says:

    “Obama may be far less ready for the job but he has been running a first class campaign and raising money beyond anyone’s expectations.’

    His technically savvy campaign has not managed to prevent Obama from obfuscating and zigzagging about nearly every serious issue with a potential to embarrass him.

  5. Ori says:

    Raymond, business decisions also have a moral dimension. Does this mean it’s OK to discuss business at a Shabbat table?

  6. Raymond says:

    I do not agree with the prohibition against discussing politics at a Shabbat table. Doesn’t religion extend beyond the synagogue, and into the world? Doesn’t it matter from a purely moral perspective whether Iran has nuclear weapons, or whether a man becomes President who is by virtue of his having two moslem fathers, a moslem himself? Are we Jews part of the world, or are we completely irrelevant to the world?

    As for the main theme of the article above, that the Will of the King is in G-d’s Hands and all we can do to influence that is lead a truly religious life, I have to disagree with this. I seriously doubt that the six million Jews murdered in the Holocaust were any less religious than the vast majority of American Jews. I can list so many tragic examples of truly fine Jews specifically murdered precisely because they were such fine examples of what it means to be a Jew.

    I think that one of the main reasons that we Jews seem to always be the favorite target for hate by the antisemites of this world, is exactly the opposite reason proposed by the above article. We are not the target because we are not good enough; we are the target because we are TOO good, too gentle, too soft, too kind. After all, who would bad people be most encouraged to attack, a strong, mighty, very mean warrior with a gun in his hand, or a gentle, pious, meek, Torah scholar who gives his last penny to help poor people?

    If we Jews hope to not have still another Holocaust happen, we need to toughen up, and by that I mean, become capable of inflicting at least as much harm on our sworn enemies, that they would just love to do to us. Such intimidation may make them think twice, before striking us once again.

  7. LOberstein says:

    No one will change their mind as a result of this blog.Most voters have already decided and the expensive campaign is for the ones in the middle. I was tempted,for the first time, to actually vote for Obama when I read a newspaper story about a small town when the people are all convinced that Obama is everything evil and won’t listen to evidence, only to what their neighbors think. It was embarrasing to be in the same coungtry with such fools. Sadly, we have too many in our own orthodox community who can’t think about the issues intellilgently, only mouth slogans and racial prejudice. Our community has some of the best people but also some who are so gullible . By all means, decide who to vote for but do it for the right reasons. McCain has so far shown littled capacity for runnn\ing a winning campaign, he is a big disappointment and has squandered his opportunity to consolidate his capaign while Obama was battling Hillary. Now, he is turning his campaign over to Karl Rove’s people. Why doesn’t he have “people”. Joe Lieberman is in every picture wherever he goes,even Colombia. Can Joe save him? Obama may be far less ready for the job but he has been running a first class campaign and raising money beyond anyone’s expectations. Does running a first class campaign show that he will be a good leader after he is elected? Sat tuned.

  8. Jason Berg says:

    Well written. May I just add that discussing politics at my Shabbos table is strictly prohibited.
    We will pray for whomever is in office. Don’t ruin Shabbos over it.

  9. ClooJew says:

    My comment this November will be, lulei demistafina, the same as it is after every election: “Baruch Hashem, the Ribono Shel Olam is still running the world.” And your comments about our behavior is certainly on the mark.

  10. Magdeburger Joe says:

    I very much agree with you. I vote first for the Seven Noahide Commandments, and secondly for a righteous foreign policy in which Israel is treated fairly. My vote is an extended prayer for the welfare of America, Israel and the world.My deliberations are a prayer to G-d as well as an intellectual search for the proper decision I do not trust fully even the person for whom I vote, but try to choose someone who is more likely to evolve in the right direction. I try to distinguish between a flip flopper and a person whose world view is evolving. In Germany, I met people who proudly told me that their city voted against Hitler. This is a reminder that an electoral mandate is a collective deed by which a nation is judged. Politics is the collective level of human existence. It has the potential to be a sacred calling.I judge a candidate as I would any individual, which is by their prior actions. Thirty years of voting have taught me how little is my knowledge in the face of this awesome responsibility.Millions of people of widely varied persuasions care as passionately about the future of the country as do I.May G-d guide us

  11. Bob Miller says:

    Jewish organizations who will have to deal with the winning candidate for President have to be leery of putting all their eggs into one basket during the campaign. Nevertheless, the track records of the candidates in 2008 should be very instructive about their behavior if elected. As conscientious Jewish voters, we should do all their homework to size up the candidates and not fall victim to habikt, one-party thinking, or media distortions.

    If someone was brought up by leftists, has always sought their company, and has always voiced their thinking, that person is liable to be a leftist.