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January 27, 2012  RSS feed
Rabbinically Speaking

Text: T T T

‘And the next president is . . .’

By Rabbi Betsy Torop Cong. Beth Shalom, Brandon

I am not sure who invented the so-called “common rule of etiquette” that says that one shouldn’t discuss religion or politics at the dinner table. It was probably someone who wanted a calm, quiet, civilized (and some would say boring) conversation. If talking about religion or politics alone has the potential to be explosive, how much the more so if we mix the two and talk about the so-called “Jewish vote”! And, indeed, conversations among Jews about how we do vote, or how we should vote are always lively and often volatile. But as the political season heats up with the Republican presidential primary in Florida at the end of January, it’s an important conversation nonetheless.

While it’s a commonly acknowledged truism that Jews largely affiliate and vote Democratic, we should not overstate this reality. There have been elections in which Jews in large numbers (although not a majority) voted Republican, and Jews today (like Americans overall) are increasingly diverse politically. These differences exist between men and women, Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews, and between different regions of the countries. Jews are Democratic, Republican and Independent . . . there is Jewish support for Libertarian ideas and for the Tea Party philosophy. To suggest differently is to ignore the diversity that is the contemporary Jewish community.

Less is understood about how we as Jews arrive at our political viewpoints (although theories abound), and to what degree Judaism, and our understanding of Jewish values, influence our voting decisions. This is much trickier terrain and we can look at questions of economic justice as an example. We know that Judaism teaches that it is an obligation – not a choice – to give tzedakah. Our tradition teaches us that we are obligated to care for the poor, the sick, the needy. The Jewish philosopher Maimonides teaches that the highest value in giving tzedakah is to help someone become self-sufficient. How does that translate into decisions about things like unemployment benefits, extension of the payroll tax and what steps will create the most jobs? What does it tell us about the role of government in the creation of a just society? I am not sure that the answers to these questions are as easy as we might think. We may agree with the vision that our tradition urges us to create. We largely share a vision – a dream – of a just, fair, and peaceful society. But the means to get there, the steps we must take to make that vision possible are more complicated to define from a Jewish perspective – and politics is about steps, and means and methodologies.

As the 2012 political season continues, we have several significant obligations as Jews. One is to be involved – to embrace the freedom that America has always granted Jews by participating in the political system. Second, we must accept the diversity that exists in the American Jewish community today. And finally, while it may be challenging to connect Jewish values to specific political decisions, it isn’t hard to connect them to how we should debate those values. Respect for diversity, willingness to listen, avoiding the hostility that is the hallmark of political debate today and having the humility to acknowledge that our views may not always be right – and behaving in accordance with these values – will show the best qualities our tradition, regardless of how we vote.

Rabbinically Speaking is published as a public service by the Jewish Press in cooperation with the Tampa Rabbinical Association which assigns the column on a rotating basis.

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