Voting and Values 5781 (Yom Kippur Morning 5781, Rabbi David S. Widzer; 9/28/2020)
I imagine many rabbis in the United States will be talking about the upcoming election during the High Holy Days. It’s kind of hard not to, given its importance in our national life and its prominence at this season of the year. Our role is to draw out the Jewish values that come to bear on this important event, not to make political prognostications or sway you to one side or another. In fact, let me share with you two short stories about why I truly have no pretense of being, nor valid credentials as, an election commentator.
My first exposure to the world of politics came in 6th grade. I had a friend named Rufus who was running for a position on the middle school student council. I forget if it was treasurer or class representative, but I volunteered to help him out. I proposed what I thought would be an excellent campaign slogan: “Don’t be a doofus. Vote for Rufus.” I’m pretty sure we didn’t actually adopt that slogan. And I am completely certain that Rufus didn’t win. My involvement in politics was off to a poor start.
My only other electoral adventure came in college. One of my roommates, Teddy, had been involved in student government starting in our first year. By the spring of our junior year, Teddy had made his way through the ranks, working with many different student groups and communities on campus, and he decided to run for student body president. My roommates and I hung Teddy’s campaign posters everywhere and left slips of paper with pithy explanations of his policy positions on the tables in the different cafeterias and dining halls. In the voting, Teddy came out on top. But he didn’t have a clear majority, so he was forced into a one-week run-off election against his next-closest competitor. We sprang into action, our apartment common room transformed into a campaign command center. We contacted all the student groups he had helped over the years to get out the vote and plastered the campus with “Vote Teddy” posters. He won in a landslide.
I tell you all of this as a precursor to sharing my thoughts today. Given that my track record as a political operative is both limited and mixed, with only one win and one loss under my belt, I’m going to leave the pontificating about the political aspects of the election itself to those pundits with greater success and deeper talent. Do not worry. I am not going to tell you who to vote for. That’s not my role, not to mention the fact that doing so would jeopardize our congregation’s non-profit status. You are all intelligent, thoughtful, well-intentioned people who, with integrity, will make a choice that you feel is in the best interest of our country. But there are three teachings in particular from Jewish tradition that come to bear on this election that are important to raise up today. And so I’ll stick to what my rabbinic training better prepares me for: exploring how we might apply Jewish teachings and Jewish values to our lives.
Our tradition makes it very clear. It is a Jewish responsibility to vote. Not voting is not an option. The great sage, Rabbi Hillel, taught, “Al tifrosh min hatzibur,” “Do not separate yourself from the community.” No person can live completely on their own. Human beings are social creatures – we need one another. And for a community to succeed, for a community to be strong, it must have the active participation of all of its members. Abstaining, refraining, or disengaging from making group decisions robs the community of your input.
The rabbis of the Talmudic period recognized the importance of communal engagement in choosing a leader. In a prescient foreshadowing of democratic principles, they taught, “A ruler is not to be appointed unless the community is first consulted.” If you aren’t part of the community, if you aren’t participating, if your voice and values aren’t part of the conversation, you aren’t being consulted or, frankly, represented. If you aren’t engaged in making the choice of leadership, someone else is, and it will be their interests represented, not yours.
If you haven’t yet registered to vote in this election, there is still time. You have until October 13. Our non-partisan Civic Engagement Campaign, TBS Votes 2020, is working hard to mobilize 100% of our eligible members to vote in the upcoming election. We recently sent an email with everything you might need to participate fully, including questions and answers about ways to vote and important dates. If you have any questions, I urge you to find that email or be in touch.
If we take seriously this obligation to vote, then we also must recognize that voting is important for everyone to do. Every person who is legally eligible to vote has the responsibility to vote. And they should also have the unfettered right to fulfill that responsibility. The Reform Movement’s non-partisan Civic Engagement Campaign encourages all U.S. citizens to exercise their right to vote and is working to ensure that obstacles that shut some eligible voters out of the voting booth are broken down. Some of our TBS members have already been involved in this area of the campaign. If you’d like more information about it, please let me know.
But it’s not just a matter of filling out a ballot. Judaism must play a role in HOW we vote, as well. A number of years ago, the term “values voter” came into the political lexicon. The etymology of the word is unclear; no one can quite trace where the term came from. Some groups that embrace more conservative political ideology gladly claim the term, like the yearly “Values Voter Summit,” using it to describe those voters who make their electoral choices primarily based on their conservative views on social issues like reproductive rights and marriage equality. But that’s not the only definition of the term. In truth, Judaism calls us all to be “values voters,” in that Judaism expects us to strive to live by our values in everything that we do each and every day. Voting is no different.
So what would it mean to be a “values voter” in the election this year? Our tradition is clear about what our values are. Genesis declares that all human beings are created betzelem Elohim, in God’s image, from one first set of human beings, demonstrating the equality and inherent worth of every person. The Passover story highlights the values of liberty and freedom. We are commanded to love our neighbors as ourselves. And countless times we are commanded to care for the orphan, the widow, the poor, the stranger in our midst  We are not to lie, not to steal, not to murder, not to commit adultery, not to covet. We are to honor our parents, respect the elderly, treat the disabled with dignity, and judge people by their merits. We are to pursue justice. We are to pursue peace. Years ago, Rabbi Perlin assembled a “Jewish Values Handbook” for our Bar and Bat Mitzvah students that includes these values I just mentioned and more. I’m happy to share my copy. Or if you are looking for a concise encapsulation of our values, look no further than the 19th chapter of Leviticus, known as the “Holiness Code,” which is the Torah portion we read on the afternoon of Yom Kippur. You have a copy of it right in your High Holy Day prayerbook. My colleague, Rabbi Daniel Gropper, suggests taking it with you into the voting booth on November 3 as a guide.
The ultimate “values voters” from our people’s past were the prophets. They were not afraid to speak up when they saw society veering from the values that God had imparted. They spoke up against injustice and exploitation. They were fierce advocates for those in need. They proclaimed an exalted vision of our world. Amos declared, “Let justice well up like water, righteousness like an unfailing stream!” Isaiah exhorted us, “Cease to do evil, learn to do good. Devote yourselves to justice!”
I have said many times before: Amos and Isaiah were neither Democrats nor Republicans. Hosea and Micah were not Libertarians or Greens. The prophets are not the province of one party or another. Their words certainly are political, in that they wanted society to be ordered in a certain way, but they are not partisan. Isaiah proclaims, “Share your bread with the hungry,” but makes no determination of the best way to do that. He doesn’t mandate soup kitchens or food stamps, block grants or any specific government programs. That we must care for one another is clear. How we care for one another is up to us to decide.
And so there are those who vote Republican because of their understanding of Jewish values. There are those who interpret our values and vote Democratic. There are those who interpret Jewish values and vote Libertarian, or Green, or for other parties. That decision rests on how we answer these questions for ourselves: Will voting for a particular candidate or ballot question help further our Jewish values? Are the various positions a candidate takes on the pressing issues of today reflective of our personal understanding of Jewish values? I believe that reasonable people can disagree on what the correct policies or programs are to best translate our values into actions, and I believe that Jews can disagree on how Jewish values can shape society. But I think it is incumbent upon each one of us to keep Jewish values in mind when we are in the voting booth.
During these High Holy Days, we are encouraged to engage in cheshbon hanefesh, an accounting of our soul. It is a time of inner examination, reflection, and introspection. It is a time to consider, for ourselves, what are our values? What is most important to us? How will we express those values in the year ahead? We can also consider, how will we make those values manifest when we vote?
In addition to the Jewish obligation to vote, and the mandate to vote our values, a third principle from our tradition compels our attention. This has been a divisive election and tremendously negative. The language has felt coarser, the attacks sharper, the denigration of those who disagree more severe. (It has been much worse than my middle school days when we would just call a political opponent a “doofus.”) I feel like we continually hear belittling comments and personal insults. I worry about the abundance of lashon hara, literally “the evil tongue” or “negative talk.” I fear for the damage to our national sense of civility and community.
When the election is over, we may have a president that large numbers of people did not support. And yet, we all will need to find a way to live together. Here, perhaps, our High Holy Day practice will stand us in good stead. At this season of the year, we are taught to make amends with one another. Our tradition requires that we reconcile with others with whom we have differed over the past year. Otherwise we cannot enter into the new year with a clean slate and a fresh start. In the aftermath of the election, I pray we will begin this process as Americans. We will need to heal our civic discourse. We will need to repair our respect for each other. We will need to make amends and reconcile with those who voted differently than we did. We will need to find ways to disagree without being disagreeable. Only then, as at the High Holy Days, will we be able to make a new beginning.
I do not pretend that this will be easy. Teshuvah never is. I also don’t believe that it will require that we cease to work passionately for our ideals and values. Just because one party wins an election does not mean everyone must fall in line behind its ideology. Spirited debate and principled dissent is fundamental to American democracy. It is also a hallmark of Jewish tradition. The Talmud records the debates and discussions of generations of sages, including in its deliberations both the prevailing rulings in Jewish law and the minority opinions. In the aftermath of this election, I fully expect proponents of the losing parties to vigorously defend their ideals. But we must do so respectfully. We must do so within the integrity of the political system. We can continue to fight for what we believe in. But we must also continue to search for the common ground of decency.
There are 36 days remaining until Election Day. There is no telling what twists and turns still await us in this campaign. We cannot anticipate what is still to come or how the American electorate will respond to whatever occurs. But as we come into the home stretch of this quadrennial quintessential expression of American identity, let us not forget the values imparted by a tradition that is thousands of years older:
the value of engaging fully in the concerns of the community by ensuring that we vote;
the value of making moral teachings manifest by being “values voters,” who do not shed our Jewish heritage at the curtain of the voting booth, but bring it inside with us and let it be an instrument of measurement in making our choices; and
the value of recognizing this season’s focus on making amends and pursuing reconciliation, preparing for the time after the election, for how we will come together as a community and as a nation.
I may not have a future in political consulting, although I do think I’ve grown from my early campaign exploits. But I hope these thoughts will guide us through the remainder of the election season.
On this Yom Kippur day, we pray: May God bless and watch over the United States of America and her citizens. May God grant each of us the wisdom to make discerning choices about how we will lead our lives and whom we will choose to lead us. And may all of our choices lead us to a good new year ahead.
And let us say: Amen Pirkei Avot 2:5.  Babylonian Talmud, B’rachot 55a.  Rabbi David Saperstein teaches this in explaining advocacy work. If you aren’t communicating with your elected officials about the values that are important to you and their policy ramifications, be assured that someone else is doing that, and that their opinions will carry the day.  https://rac.org/take-action/congregations-communities/rac-civic-engagement-campaign-2020  https://www.valuesvotersummit.org/about  Genesis 1:27; Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5.  Leviticus 19:18.  For example, Exodus 22:21-22; Leviticus 19:10, 34; Deuteronomy 10:19, 27:19.  Exodus 20: 13-14.  Exodus 20:12; Leviticus 19: 14, 15, 32.  Deuteronomy 16:20.  Psalm 34:15  Amos 5:24  Isaiah 1:16-17  Isaiah 58:7.  Rabbi Daniel Stein makes a similar point in http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/3-reasons-rabbis-should-not-endorse-candidates-and-3-things-they-could-do-ins