How Others See Us: Certainty and Doubt

Perhaps because of the work I do with non-Jewish communities, I find myself constantly getting a boost from the observations of religious Gentiles about authentic Judaism. A recent exchange seemed too good not to share.

A young, talented political activist sent me an opinion piece that took an exceptionally dim view regarding those who cannot bring themselves to cast a ballot for either of the two major presidential candidates. My friend, a committed evangelical, asked me what a “Jewish ethic” would say about the essay.

I responded, in part, with the paragraphs that follow. (They were not intended to be a recommendation to him or anyone else, but as justification for those who opted not to vote.)

I’ll answer the question after a caveat. In matters of law, there has to be a process whereby you weigh different competing positions and come up with a bottom line. This is not so in most matters of belief, other than genuine fundamentals of faith. People who tell you about “Judaism’s position” on most matters in terms of great certainty usually don’t know what they are talking about.

With that in place, the Jewish tool that comes to my mind in looking at the debacle we are facing is the following. A midrash speaks of a loyal servant of a king who is entrusted with the care of his master’s vast orchards. Tending to the trees, he comes across one strange one, with two different kinds of fruit growing on it. One fruit is the deadliest toxin he has ever come across. The single tree has enough poison to kill thousands. The other fruit, however, produces a life-giving elixir. What should he do? If he tends to the tree, he nurtures a potential weapon of mass destruction. If he uproots it, he destroys the source of the valuable elixir.

He ultimately hits on the answer. “It’s not my tree! The king will have to make that decision.”

There are times in life when we really cannot make a choice – where both options are equally attractive or odious. When that happens, we don’t act – and leave the outcome to the King.

I found his response delightful, and hope that some of our readers might agree.

So helpful. I love how Judaism remains comfortable in the questions and has so many tools to find a way through uncertainty.

In evangelicalism, we tend to isolate everything into binary choices and then we have no patient or capacity to deal with what is truly gray and truly uncertain.

It means we fail often as what’s complex or relinquish what’s most important to what’s expedient.

We are not comfortable in what’s uneasy, but it seems that Judaism is more than comfortable in what it unclear yet without the constraint of feeling the full weight to solve all the world’s problems.

Thanks for helping me think through this.

The beginning of Avodah Zarah contains a long passage about Hashem giving the non-Jews the mitzvah of Sukkah. At one point, HKBH calls on a number of individuals to testify that Klal Yisrael observed the Torah. Maharal explains that He had to outsource the testimony, rather than testify Himself. Because of the Father-son bond between Hashem and His people, testifying to Jewish compliance with the law would be an “inside” observation. Klal Yisrael obligated to make its avodah “real” by making it visible to the outside – externally observable.

It’s nice to see it happen sometimes.

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8 Responses

  1. joel rich says:

    that’s probably also what the guy who died thought when he waited for HKB”H to save him when he refused to get into the lifeboat or helicopter.  HKB”H gave us a brain, a torah and free will – not voting is also a decision.  Life (and halacha) is often about choosing the better of two choices each of which are somewhat deficient.


  2. lacosta says:

    fortunately, most frum jews can claim to live in places where there is no choice—states of leftist hegemony— like NY , NJ ,Mass, CA….     it only is nogeah in places like Ohio, Florida ,Az , NC —some of which the O community [which is not automatically leftist] is too small to make an impact…

    i do remember from the early sixties the public service announcement ‘vote, and the choice is yours; don’t vote , and the choice is theirs’…


  3. Shades of Gray says:

    If you live in a state where your vote won’t make a difference, it’s an easier decision  to vote for any of the 4 candidates to participate in the democratic process. See Rabbi Menken’s  CC post  “Reb Moshe on Voting” from the 2006 election.


  4. DF says:

    Yet your friend is actually the correct one here. Being comfortable with uncertainty is all well and good, but in the United States, an election IS a binary choice. In no election in history has a vote for a candidate EVER indicated full-throated approval of everything that candidate has ever done, thought, or said.  The very suggestion is absurd. Rabbi Herman Neuberger, for one example I knew well, always quietly let it be known who he was voting for, and his choices often had certain views he didn’t share, or led very questionable personal lives. He was never self-righteous enough to say, “Oh, I just can’t bring myself to vote for anyone.”

    I’m not foolish enough to try to convince anyone here, or anywhere, of whom to vote for. But the moral preening underlying the abstainers למיניהם if off-putting and causes one to seriously question their intelligence. Choosing who to vote for might be complicated (for some) but the decision to actually vote is not.


  5. Dovid says:

    Great post! Where is the midrash you quoted?

    • Tanchuma, Lech Lecha (paragraph beginning with letter )

      משל למלך שהי”ל פרדס נתנו לאריס לעבדו ולשמרו, הי’ בתוך הפרדס אילן של סם חיים ואילן של סם המות דבקים זב”ז אמר האריס מה אעשה להשקות אילן של חיים ולהניח את זה אי אפשר שמים שזה שותה זה מינק ממנו אלא אניח אותם עד שיבא בעל הפרדס ומה שירצה יעשה,

  6. David Ohsie says:

    Some of the comments above involve a false choice for two reasons:

    1) You can vote and still not select any of the Presidential candidates.  If, for example, a large enough percentage of Jewish voters don’t select a candidate, that itself is an important message to both the candidates and the parties.   To take myself as an example, I always vote Republican, but my fervent desire is for Trump to get trounced so that they don’t nominate such a horrible candidate again.  I can send that message without voting for Clinton.  They are smart enough to be able to look at the vote percentage for Trump separately from that of Clinton.

    2) Your individual vote doesn’t decide the election.  While it is important for us to vote in the aggregate, there is really nothing wrong with individual people being motivated to vote for a variety of symbolic reasons which don’t directly correlate with who should win.  If your only individual motivation to vote were to influence the result, then it would often be rational not to bother.

  7. A.S. says:

    I agree, a write-in is a better option than the two we have been given. From my perspective it is similar to a Trotsky/Lenin choice. Hopefully the country will find someone in 2020 who is a person of integrity, moral bearing, faith, and accomplishment.

    Those who think the Democrats and Republicans will forever be our “binary” choices should review the history of the Whigs, Federalists, and other parties relegated to history.

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