November 5, 2012

Voting as a Jew

Rabbi Haber

It's election season!  Personally, over the next few months, I expect to have the privilege of voting in two separate elections. I have already cast my absentee ballot for this Tuesday's US election [1], and then we will also have elections for the Knesset here in Israel, scheduled for January 22.

I use the word "privilege" because that's exactly how I think of it, in both cases. The United States of America is one of the most powerful (and I believe also one of the most morally great) nations on earth, so I consider it an honor to be asked for my opinion in deciding who should run that great country. And even more so, as a Jew who is constantly amazed and inspired to take part in the fulfillment of prophecies of redemption, I view it as a privilege to be able to have a real say in the direction that our nation will take in the future.

Apparently, a number of great rabbis also viewed voting as a privilege. For example, I just read in a Yeshiva University publication that Rabbi Moshe Feinstein wrote about how extraordinarily grateful he was to be able to vote in US elections. In Israel as well, rabbis of all streams – including non-Zionist haredim – strongly encourage their followers to vote. This is true even though it is not at all clear exactly how compatible the concept of democracy is with the Torah [2].

But with privilege also comes responsibility. Any serious person who casts a ballot ought to view it as a weighty matter; his vote will help determine how his entire country will be run. But for us, members of the nation called "Am Levadad Yishkon", there is an additional layer to this responsibility.

I believe that when it comes to voting – just as when it comes to any other activity – a Jew's actions must be determined by the Torah. This is equally true whether voting in an Israeli election to determine who will lead the Nation of Israel, or whether voting in a foreign election in the Diaspora. Nevertheless, the two situations are different.

For now, I would like to now briefly consider a few of the issues related to Jews living in the Diaspora, such as those who will be voting in this week's American election. In a future post closer to the Israeli elections, I'll discuss some additional angles particularly relevant to those.

Let's ask the question in a very direct way: should a Diaspora Jew vote as a Jew, or as a citizen of the country in which he lives?

I think the answer depends on how you understand the question. There are at least three different ways you can look at this:

First of all, we can question where a Diaspora Jew's loyalty should lie. For example, if there is a candidate in an American election who is openly hostile to Israel, should Jews feel obligated to vote against that candidate? What if they believe that although hostile to Israel, he is the better choice for America?

If you think about it, this question is only a small version of the predicament faced by any Jew who holds a position in a foreign government, even one very friendly to Israel. After all, the two countries' interests will never be 100% compatible, and when there is a clash between what is best for Israel and what is best for the country he serves, the Jew in government faces a real dilemma. A famous anecdote tells of a conversation between Golda Meir and Henry Kissinger, when the former was Israeli Prime Minister and the latter was American Secretary of State. Golda told Kissinger that as a Jew, he should work to increase American support for Israel. Kissinger rebuked her, explaining that in his mind, he was first an American, second Secretary of State and only after that, a Jew. Reportedly without missing a beat, Golda retorted "That's OK – in Israel we read from right to left!" [3].

Is Kissinger's position acceptable? Should a Jew ever say that his primary loyalty is to another nation, and not to his own people? Personally, I can't accept that. To me it is clear (from my knowledge of history no less than my understanding of Torah) that while Diaspora countries can sometimes provide a very benevolent and comfortable environment for Jews, we must make sure to never believe that we are actually at home there. Our first priority has to be our brothers and sisters.

But what about a situation that is less dramatic? What if neither candidate is actually an enemy of Israel or an anti-Semite, but one of them holds positions that would benefit the Jewish community? For example, let's say one candidate in an American election supports a voucher system that would allow government money to partially subsidize Yeshiva day school tuitions. Must all committed Jews feel obligated to vote for that candidate? What if someone feels that the other candidate would be better for America?  Should our vote reflect our own concerns as a community, or our opinion on what is good for the entire country? On that question, I can personally see both sides.

However, there is an entirely different dimension to all of this as well.   If the term "voting as a Jew" means thinking about our own narrow sectarian interests vs the good of the country, then that is one thing. But I believe that even a Jew who votes with the good of the entire country in mind, needs to base his decision on the Torah. This is because the concept of "Am Levadad Yishkon" teaches us that it is our mission to lead the rest of the world on spiritual and moral matters.

I had an interesting conversation with a student a few weeks ago. She was about to cast her absentee ballot in the State of Maryland, and there is currently a referendum there asking whether to legalize same-sex marriage. She told me that although as a believing Jew she views homosexual relations as sinful, she believes that the best thing for American society would be to legalize gay marriage. She asked me if I thought she was obligated to vote against the proposition.

I told her that I thought she was, in fact, obligated to vote against it. But a different rabbi who was sitting at the table disagreed with me. The discussion that ensued concerned the concept of the Noahide Laws, and the fact that we are obligated to attempt to spread the observance of these universal principles – one of which is a prohibition against homosexual relationships. While the other rabbi disagreed with my interpretation of this obligation as including a requirement to vote against the proposition, he agreed that one needs to make decisions on how to vote by asking "What does the Torah demand"?  I'm not sure, however, that all committed Jews think that way.

Elections are the highest expression of modern democracy. And we Jews are among the greatest beneficiaries of that democracy – our ancestors in fairly recent memory would have been astounded at the very thought of Jews being given this right.

To my fellow American citizens who will be going to the polls on Tuesday, I encourage you to treasure the opportunity, and to consider carefully the heavy responsibility that it includes. I can't tell you who to vote for – that depends on your own political views and interpretations. But whoever you do decide to support, make sure you are doing so as a Jew, and that your vote promotes the values that our great nation represents.

Here in Israel, of course, the privilege of voting takes on an entirely different dimension. Israeli elections should be of great concern to all Jews, even those who don't yet have the right to vote here. But since the campaign here is just getting started, we'll leave that discussion for a future post!

[1] I was assisted in this effort by the organization iVoteIsrael, which says they managed to increase the number of absentee ballots filed from Israel from 20,000 in the last election to 80,000 this time.

[2] For different views about democracy and halacha, you can listen to a shiur I gave on this topic in New Jersey a number of years ago.

[3] See

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