Distinguishing Jewish values from political imperatives

Distinguishing Jewish values from political imperatives

Rabbi Noah Gradofsky
Rabbi Noah Gradofsky

Once upon a time, there were political issues on which there was “the” Jewish view — for instance, support for Soviet Jewry or the State of Israel. Today, for better or worse, there seem to be none.

Perhaps this comes as no surprise. Judaism has many values, some in tension with each other, and all subject to interpretation. Reference to today’s debates on immigration illustrates this point. Judaism speaks of compassion for the “other” (which might argue for welcoming immigrants or for deterring immigrants from making a dangerous trek to the U.S.). But it also suggests we prioritize our own well-being, a dichotomy famously expressed by Hillel: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me; but if I am only for myself, who am I” (Avot 1:14).

The Torah says that in order to minimize criminal behavior we may not be overly compassionate toward criminals (Deuteronomy 19:13). But Rav Nachman teaches that we are to identify even with the most heinous of criminals and therefore choose the most humane option for capital punishment per our obligation to “love our neighbor as ourselves” (BT Sanhedrin 45a). Our reverence for Holocaust memory and the moral imperative of “never again” call some to react passionately toward even the faintest resemblance to Nazi Germany, and others to decry any statement that even appears to trivialize and/or exploit the Holocaust’s memory.

Since our religious values can be validly cited as a basis for differing political conclusions, there can be no “the” Jewish view on any political issue. To the extent that there was consensus in the past, perhaps that was a function of some unusually clear issues and/or a pre-social media world that tended to give less voice to minority views.

This fractured political environment begs the question of whether Jews should organize and advocate for political goals by arguing that a certain position is consistent with Jewish values — or, if citing our sacred texts and values merely exploits our traditions for partisan political gain.

It is vitally important to continue to express how our Jewish values inform our political behavior. In order to be a vibrant and living religion, Judaism must inform and inspire our political advocacy. A Judaism that has nothing to say about immigration policy, Israel, poverty, and a host of other issues is but a stream of nostalgia rather than a vibrant fountain of inspiration. 

At the same time, we must consider whether the fractured political environment should change the ways we express the religious background of our political beliefs and activities. While we should acknowledge that our views are inspired and informed by our religious values, we should also recognize that our political conclusions are a matter of our own judgment rather than an unquestionable religious imperative. This also means that we must respect the fact that our coreligionists may cite their religious beliefs to advocate for other positions with equal passion and sincerity.

Given the political environment, we must also rethink how we articulate our Jewish-based religious opinions. Statements from Jewish umbrella organizations are woefully unsuited for the task. These organizations are primarily designed to advocate for and support the Jewish community rather than to perform political analysis and advocacy on behalf of their donors and supporters. By advocating for political positions not directly related to the well-being of the Jewish community, these organizations are reallocating resources away from the well-being of the Jewish community toward political advocacy with which a significant minority of their supporters might not agree. In addition, any statement that says that the Jewish community (or any subsection of the Jewish community) supports a certain political position is extremely alienating toward those who disagree.

Therefore, the Jewish community should consider forming more organizations that are particularly designed for political advocacy so that people can support those organizations solely based on the political positions those organizations take. If umbrella organizations choose to speak out on political issues, those organizations should consider finding methods that do not presume to speak on behalf of all their constituents, for instance, drafting statements and inviting constituents to express their support or disagreement with those statements.

The Jewish community must find ways to loudly, if cacophonously, express our conviction that Jewish values inform and inspire our political convictions while communicating an understanding of the distinction between our Jewish values and our political conclusions.

Rabbi Noah Gradofsky is a vice president of the Union for Traditional Judaism. The opinions expressed here are his own.

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