Jewish Political Values for Troubled Times
“Faith on the Hill,” a recent study by the Pew Research Center, reports that the 115th Congress’s freshman class boasts by far the largest percentage of Jewish members in recorded history: 8%. This is a striking number, given that Jews comprise only about 2% of the U.S. population. Also striking is the party affiliation of Jewish members of Congress. Of the 30 Jews currently serving (8 in the Senate, 22 in the House of Representatives), 28 are Democrats. Nationally, by about two-to-one, Jewish voters identify with or lean toward the Democratic Party (67% vs. 31% who identify with or lean Republican). This proportion has changed little over the past decade. [see: bit.ly/PeoplePress]
Beth Am’s education theme for 5778 explored “Jews and Politics” – an appropriate topic for this politically fraught year, in which tensions ran high and political discourse was marked by an exceptional level of rancor. Our Jewish community was not immune to this strife. Clearly Jews take diverse and passionately-felt positions on issues such as tax policy, public assistance, immigration, health care and especially our relationship with Israel. But I’ve often wondered if there are fundamental principles of a Jewish political philosophy that transcend partisan divisions – values and concepts that Jewish Democrats, Republicans and Independents could all affirm.
The first of these principles, I think, is set forth in Genesis: the idea that all human beings are made in the Divine image, possessing irreducible value. American legal historian Melvin Urofsky describes Louis D. Brandeis' reaction to his first serious encounter with Eastern European Jewish immigrants when he served as mediator of the 1910 New York garment workers' strike [Melvin I. Urofsky, "On Louis D. Brandeis," in Midstream (January 1975): 42-58]. While going through the lofts, Brandeis witnessed many quarrels between workers and their bosses, and was amazed that they treated each other more as equals than as inferiors and superiors. In one argument, an employee shouted at the owner, "Ihr darft zich shemen! Past dos far a Yid?" ("You should be ashamed! Is this worthy of a Jew?"). Another time a machine operator lectured his employer with a quotation from Isaiah (3:14-15): "It is you who have devoured the vineyard; the spoil of the poor is in your houses! What do you mean by crushing My people, by grinding the face of the poor? says the Lord, God of hosts.”
Brandeis’ experience still characterizes most Jewish environments today. As Daniel J. Elazar writes, “Jews do not ‘obey orders.’ They can be brought to act in a certain way either on the basis of understanding or trade-offs, but not on the basis of commands….It is highly significant that classical Hebrew has no word for ‘obey’ (there is a modern word created for use in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF)). Classical Hebrew uses shamoa, a term which embraces hearing before acting and implicitly involves the principle of consent. That is to say, an individual ….hears, considers and decides. He cannot be ordered to do something, but must consent to it. …Thus a kind of partnership attitude is a basic datum of Jewish existence. Anyone who attempts to lead, govern or even work with Jews comes up against it every day in every way.” [See: Daniel J. Elazar, “Covenant as the Basis of the Jewish Political Tradition,” Jewish Center for Public Affairs http://bit.ly/JewishPT].
Much is derived from this Jewish commitment to human equality and the value of all persons: our characteristic questioning of authority, our resistance to coercion, and our propensity to engage in vigorous debate on any and all topics.
Our commitment to equality is also reflected in our ongoing struggle to create a world that offers justice and opportunity to all. We might call this the messianic principle of Judaism – our sense that we are here to fulfill the biblical vision of a better world; a vision that began with Abraham. For God says, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do? ….For I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children and his descendants to keep the way of God by doing what is just and right…” [Gen.18:17,19]. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points out that “Jews have tended to become, out of all proportion to their numbers, lawyers fighting injustice, doctors fighting disease, teachers fighting ignorance, economists fighting poverty and (especially in modern Israel) agricultural technologists finding new ways to grow food in environments where it has never grown before” [bit.ly/RabbiSacksMik].
One final principle I hope we can all agree on, regardless of party affiliation: the value of setting a personal example. This is embodied in the credo of the IDF which demands that officers lead from the front, rather than sending those of lower rank to take the highest casualties. The famous cry of the officer is “acharai -- after me!” Ours is a tradition grounded in the importance of action and personal responsibility, calling each of us to step forward, to do our part in creating the better world for which we all yearn.
Beth Am takes up a new education theme this summer, but the challenges of constructive political engagement remain. May all of us bring the highest teachings of our tradition to the fray!