A Centrist at the Shabbos Table
by Rabbi Yisrael Motzen
Imagine the scene, Moshe, the long-lost son of Amram works his way to the makeshift stage. He hasn’t been seen in over sixty years and rumor has it, he has a message from God. All of the Jewish People are gathered, eager to hear what he has to say.
“Brothers,” Moshe begins, his face radiating, “I have indeed spoken to God.” An excited murmur from the crowd.
“Hashem has instructed me to tell you that He has remembered you and He has seen your suffering!” Shouts of excitement, the elders, as if on cue, bow to the ground in gratitude, somewhere in the crowd, an elderly woman faints from joy.
“This is what will happen: Hashem will bring ten plagues upon the Egyptians, the culmination of which, will be the death of the firstborn. At that point, Pharaoh and his entire evil government will be brought down to their knees.”
A gasp from the crowd. People start shuffling their feet nervously.
Slightly perplexed at the strange response, Moshe nonetheless continues, “We will then pack our bags and leave this immoral and corrupt country behind! We will never see that tyrannical despot again!”
People hiss, someone throws a melon at Moshe, and then they all walk away, loudly grumbling and complaining to one another.
Moshe is left flabbergasted. He looks to the elders. What did I say? What did I do? They too, avoid eye contact, and slowly, shaking their heads, file away.
Finally, an elderly gentleman walks over to Moshe and explains. “Moishe, Moishe, everything was great. A message from the God of our forefathers, now that’s something special! But you’re a prophet! To talk about overthrowing the government? To talk about changing the legal system? Leaving the country? Moishe! Why’d you have to get political?!”
The notion that Judaism is apolitical is comical. Politics, defined as “the activities associated with the governance of a country or other area,” goes to the core of Judaism. Prophets, from Moshe onward, were constantly advocating for political change and the Torah’s legal system directs behavior not only in the privacy of one’s home but in the public sphere as well. The wall of separation between church and state is not a Jewish idea by any stretch of the imagination. Thus, the common refrain, that politics do not belong at the pulpit is an oxymoron. That’s what a pulpit is there for, to share the Torah’s perspective on every aspect of life.
Nonetheless, a serious and legitimate criticism of too many pulpits is that the messaging is purely political and in no way prophetic. Rabbi David Wolpe, a leading Conservative rabbi, and a vocal critic of this phenomenon, publicly challenged his colleagues to explain in what way their politics would be different without a Torah. Is it the Torah influencing one’s politics or is it the other way around? It’s not that hard to find a Biblical story or even a Talmudic statement to support any given political view. Shakespeare knew what he was talking about when he wrote, “the Devil doth quote scripture.”
As an Orthodox Jew, I used to be very smug about all this, confident that in our circles the Torah we learn and preach is never influenced by the politics of any single party. A tenet of our belief is that the Torah is unchanging; the oft-repeated adage, ‘we do not adapt the Torah to the times, we adapt the times to the Torah’ is our creed. In traditional Orthodox circles, political bias influencing our Torah worldview cannot happen!
Until I realized it does.
From the political comics in the free hemishe newspapers sent to our homes, to the week-in-review section in glossy frum magazines, and to the blog posts of leading Orthodox rabbis – if I wouldn’t know any better, seeing all this for the first time, I’d think that to be a good Jew, you must be a Republican.
And in so many ways that is true. The family values that are espoused by the conservative party are quite often in sync with Torah family values, the respect for tradition is very much a Jewish value, and the love some Republicans have for the State of Israel is on par, if not greater, than that of the average Jew. Yes, our values are often aligned.
What I am less certain about is how those values translate into public policies.
To illustrate: What Halachic model exists to guide a country in creating public policy for immigration? The closest mitzvah is that of the ger toshav, the laws governing a non-Jew who wishes to reside in the land of Israel. However, there is no obligation to let the ger toshav into the country, only permission, and even then, there are severe limitations (see Rambam, laws of Avoda Zara, 10:6). There is on the one hand the supreme value of kindness and a mitzvah to not stand idly by the blood of one’s friend, and there are competing laws such as aniyei ircha kodmim, ensuring that the poor of one’s immediate community are cared for before caring for the poor of other communities. How do we reconcile these competing values as a society? Similarly, the Jewish laws on abortion are limited to a small spectrum of views, allowing a competent poseik/ Halachic authority to confidently address such questions on a person-to-person basis. However, I imagine the same competent poseik would not be as quick to translate those views into a public policy. And so, while the Torah is decidedly political, to the question of whether Torah-Judaism is Republican or Democrat? I believe the honest answer is neither.
A lot has been written about the silent majority in America; the men and women who find themselves somewhere between the ever-growing extremism on the right and left and remain quiet on their views. In our fast-paced, hyper-sensitive society, sharing a view that does not fit neatly into a defined political box does not always end well. People stop listening five words in, armed with an assumption that you are a right or left-wing extremist. Not only are centrists afraid to talk, they also have nothing to read. There is a dearth of centrist political writing – and for good reason. The centrist talking points tend to be too pareve; nisht ahinn, nisht aherr was never a catchy slogan and doesn’t make for good journalism.
And so these Orthodox centrists, those who do not identify entirely with one political ideology, those who know how to eat the fruit and throw away the pit, those who are disturbed by some policies or personalities in our current administration and appreciate others, they never comment on the latest Facebook thread for fear of being misunderstood, they pick up the Orthodox newspaper and skip over the news and political op-eds, and they sit at the Shabbos table with their friends, listening to the heated and exciting discussions, nodding along yet disagreeing in silence.
And maybe that’s where the change will come from. Maybe at one Shabbos table somewhere, someone will look around and realize she’s not the only one remaining silent. Emboldened, maybe she will bring up a more nuanced view and it will be discussed and debated for hours on end. Maybe someone there will be inspired to start writing a column for a local publication. Maybe some readers will respond positively. Maybe it will be shared online and go viral. Maybe the silent majority will one day not be so silent.
Rabbi Yisrael Motzen is the rabbi of Ner Tamid, Baltimore, MD and serves as a member of the RCA’s executive committee.
The article is fine and not wrong in anything it says, but essentially comes to knock down a strawman position that no one holds and no one says. Does ANYONE think Torah and Judaism is wholly identifiable with any one single political party? Of course not. The Jewish papers you mention certain don’t say that. And any Christian will tell you the same thing about Christianity. Indeed, leave aside religion – most voters, period, of any stripe, do not fully subscribe to everything their party leaders do or say. The question is only which party MORE closely adheres to those items or religious issues MOST important and relevant.
In 2019 its not hard to answer that question, and to call it even “close” is dishonest. At best, died-in-the-wool democrats of a forgotten era might still argue that social legislation is featured in the Torah, that concern for the disabled is akin to the command not to put a stumbling block for the blind, etc. But the fallacy of such claims and comparison to today is obvious on its face. And of course concern for the “working man” is in any event no longer the concern of that party, if it ever was. Orthodox support for the GOP does not mean that we automatically agree with everything its leaders say or do. At the same time, we don’t need to feel compelled constantly to prove our “bona fides” by carping or criticizing, (including pointless moral bromides overtime the president tweets) just to demonstrate that we’re not in somebody’s pocket. That’s exactly what democratic strategists want us to do.
No thank you. I personally have criticized (privately and respectfully) GOP political figures at various fundraisers or meetings I’ve attended. I don’t agree with everything they do. But I’m also proud to support them, solidly. Because that party is without doubt the only correct answer to the question posed above.
Obviously the Torah is neither Republican or Democrat, it is far, far to the ‘Right’ of either. Any public figure who seriously advocated implementing ‘Torah values’ would be banned from all social media for hate speech and in most European countries would be put in prison. If they tried to do it in Israel they would be tasered in their homes by Shin Bet. If this not obvious then sit down and read Devarim from front to cover.
To take the author’s examples:
1) Abortion: Not even the most super-hardcore right wing republican suggests punishments for women who nuke their babies. Not even in the 9th month. Not even a token monetary fine. Obviously, in a state run on ‘Torah values’ women would be punished for having impermissible abortions.
2) Immigration. In the Torah, not only a ger toshav, but a ger tzedek may not hold any form of political office whatsoever, even running the wells in a small town. Who in the Republican party would suggest, even in the privacy of their own homes, that immigrants should be disenfranchised and removed from municipal office?
But, again, this is obvious. And Jews who claim that the Torah supports Democrats or Republicans or something in between plainly just don’t want to know.
(Parenthetically, it is also obvious that there is no ‘ever growing extremism’ on the Right. Trump is the 3rd most left wing president America has ever had. It is barely possible to find even a single Republican who has *any* positions to the Right of, say, JFK).
Gavriel M wrote”Trump is the 3rd most left wing president America has ever had.”
That is a major stretch indeed.
Trump is a throwback to the type of decidedly pro-American, non-socialist Eastern Democrat that is now nearly extinct. (JFK whom Gavriel cites was one in some respects. The Western version was Senator “Scoop” Jackson.) These were the people, for example, who voted for Mario Procaccino against John Lindsay in the 1969 NYC Mayoral election. The ones Norman Lear’s “All in the Family” ridiculed and caricatured. They were also the Reagan Democrats who defected to the other party. The Democrats as a group had turned hard left in stages, leaving them out in the cold.
The same coalition which has had always keen memories of Lindsay’s roles in the 1968 teachers strike and African American anti Semitism and the attempt to build scatter site housing in Forest Hills and the decline of basic municipal services and the quality of life in NYC elected Giulani in response to the Crown Heights riots for three terms and Blumberg who followed Giulani’s policies thereafter. DeBlasio is Lindsay redux
NYC elected Giulani in response to the Crown Heights riots for three terms and Blumberg who followed Giulani’s policies thereafter. DeBlasio is Lindsay redux
NYC murder rate has continued to go down during DeBlasio Administration.
2001-last year of Guiliani 649 murders-not including 9/11 murders
2013-last year of Bloomberg 332 murders
DeBlasio 2014 328 murders
2015 352 murders
2016 335 murders
2017 292 murders
2018 289 murders
WADR, the Torah )halakha and emuna) has a lot to say about concete public policies (there can be , and indeed there are, makhlokot within the beit midrash about how to pasken in this issue and that issue, but there are makhlokot in all other fields of halakha, as well).
However, this is relevant to a Jewish govt, not to the govt. of non Jews in the galut.
Even in Eretz Yisroel, if we were to have Torah-rule I am not sure how that would work out practically. The Torah is very clear about what to do when two witnesses warn someone before committing a crime. Less so when no warnings took place. We also know that the Sanhedrin stopped judging capital crimes when there “were too many murderers.” How does all this apply to a country of Jews led by Jews in which many do not subscribe to the Torah and transgress the Torah’s laws quite often? Applying this to a country that has a majority of non-Jews governed by non-Jews and the question is even more complicated. I believe the Lubavitcher Rebbe was in the minority when he said that we have an *obligation* to encourage the observance of Noahide laws.
Good questions indeed. Wrt the situation in EY today, there are some halakhic works discussing these issues and others.
When “too many murderers” or other types of mass lawlessness existed, wasn’t the equivalent of martial law imposed by the rulers, as opposed to inaction?
Not martial law, but Mishpat HaMelekh (see Drashot HaRan Drasha 11)
When these politically centrist Orthodox Jews enter that voting booth and face mostly binary choices , they may not see their ideal alternatives. At that moment, silence in the form of abstention is a poor option.
Today, picking a Democrat is usually far more socially destructive than picking a Republican. Jews in general stand accused of voting Democratic by reflex, which is often true and doesn’t exactly gain us respect, even from other Democrats. We often live in urban or suburban areas where law and order are breaking down. We should carefully investigate the causes and react accordingly, regardless of our biases and habits.
haredi voters face this dilemma— their [kollel ] lifestyle requires a generous public dole to survive. but the party that believes in redistribution of wealth downward also aligns aggressively with anti-torah social values and is openly against archaic paternalistic patriarchal religious schemes —and will appoint judges to legislate against torah positions…..
Belief that we get undeserved perks paid by tax money has caused a lot of harm, even when we have been technically within our rights.
One can argue that we do and call Chesed begins at home and is an example of why we are autonomous and efficient in our communal response to disasters of all kinds rather than await a an ineffective governmental response and or handout .Yes we are concerned about crime anti Semitism and Israel and a dep state that encroaches on free exercise of religion and our experience with socialism of the Nazi and Communist varieties should make us very wary of those who claim to be socialists and have no awareness of the human cost afflicted by socialism
The moral equivalence of condemning the audience at a rally snd misquoting the Presidents remarks at Charlottesville with the vile anti Semitic comments of Omar is political correctness as exhibited by the RCA
One can certainly question whether it is proper to equate comments made at a political rally which the President did not make or falsely attributed comments after Charlottesville with the unvarnished anti Semitic comments made by Omar and Tailib-which canniot be isolated from the perfect storm of Marcuse, Zinn and post modenism in secular culture and academia today.
responses are indicative of the problem. subtlety is no longer fashionable. if it is not a black and white absolute, it is wishy-washy. Some people are incapable of wrong; others are incapable of right.
we also tend to lump all our beliefs into one bucket where by necessity they end up in an integrated whole. there is a brilliant lecture by Prof. Halberthal discussing beliefs that talks of “belief as.” to many the “as” is lost. he tells the story of a world reknowned medical specialists who gave the gabai a list of his critically ill patients for whom to recite a mi shebeirah. he said as a doctor i treat them with the medical knowledge i have mastered; as a Jew I treat them with a prayer. the two are separate; there is no need to force all our entire set of beliefs into a single consistent rubric. i did not do a profound philosophical point remotely adequate justice.
What principles guide your political decision-making, when you have to deal with either/or?
political decision making often requires knowing how to compromise, a strong appreciation for what can be practically achieved, an understanding of relative priorities, a focus on practicality as opposed to theory, detailed understanding of the underlying cause and effect factors, appreciation of the diverse goals driving different constituencies, the need to maintain various appearances, etc.
these are not principles; political decision making based on deeply held principles or personalities are both rarely ideal. in the corporate or political world being called a consummate politician is often valuable.
August 4, 2019 at 7:06 pm
political decision making often requires knowing how to compromise, a strong appreciation for what can be practically achieved, an understanding of relative priorities, a focus on practicality as opposed to theory, detailed understanding of the underlying cause and effect factors, appreciation of the diverse goals driving different constituencies, the need to maintain various appearances, etc
I once heard RYBS compliment a Rabbi not to his face “Rabbi X knows when to fight and when not to fight”
One can argue that perhaps the medical spacialiist should daven that the Rofei Kol Basar and Rofeii Cholei Amo Yisrael grants him the proper skills , judgment and research capacity to be granted additional medical insight into how to treat his patients, as opposed to viewing treatment, healing and Tefilah as independent realms of human activity and endeavor.
Steve Brizel, your comments represent exactly what Prof. Halberthal was challenging – an attempt to put everything into one consistent and unified set of knowledge and beliefs. Those who understand the Halakhic Mind might argue that the Rav ztl’s believed in the potential independence of viewpoints intrinsic in various perspectives and the impossibility for them to always be consistently integrated. These are fundamental (and very modern) philosophic perspectives that require extensive study / background in epistemology and notions of truth (for anyone) to appreciate. the (simplistic) world you desire may simply not exist.
Before and after a neurosurgeon (and team) spent 13 hours operating in my brain, I was not concerned about him thinking about God or pausing to pray during that process. I can attribute my recovery to both God’s munificence and his world-renowned skills. How those two relate is simply above my (or any human’s) paygrade. Independantly, I remain thankful for both.
Dr. Bill what do you have in mind when you recite Somech Noflim vRofei Cholim and Rofei Cholei Amo Yisrael?
i suspect something a bit more precise than most. we can pray for God’s munificence and believe it exhibits itself despite our inability to ascribe it as the exact cause of this or that. we often pray not just for a particular result but the collective ability of those impacted to deal effectively with the situation.
it may very well be that the world operates as Rambam outlined, something quite foreign to the popular beliefs of most traditional Jews. I tend to be oriented that way. ask someone who understands Rambam’s views on such matters and your approach to prayer will be impacted.
it may very well be that the world operates as Rambam outlined, something quite foreign to the popular beliefs of most traditional Jews. I tend to be oriented that way
It is certainly an acceptable position, probably what I probably believe.
Of perhaps related interest is that the Rav stated that once one accepts as an axiom that there is a just God, then there has to be an olam haemet because this world is not just.
I wonder to what extent the lack of many Traditional Jews acceptance of the Rambams view of the world is the Kabbalist influence in much of modern day Orthodoxy.
” example of why we are autonomous and efficient in our communal response to disasters of all kinds rather than await a an ineffective governmental response”
Real disasters require government help, often international help. I have been in Israel a few times when there have been major fires, they have the help of among others Cyprus, Turkey, Russia.
All the criticisms of FEMA but in case of a major hurricane and assistance needed private sectors and gemachs can’t do the job
After Sandy, the communal response clearly surpassed that of FEMA. When Ner Yisrael lost power after a major storm, the hanhala did not wait for power to be restored. The taklmidim merely found another locale on campus or nearby for a cafteria and Beis Medrash. Hatzals exists because of the poor response time of EMS. Rabbis have and continue to speak before political conventions and be invited to meetings with politicians ranging from the national to local levels on many issues that their views are sought on. FWIW, much of R and C view the progressive ideology as defining their notion of Judaism. OTOH, many in the Orthodox world see far more afinity with conservatives on support of Israel, social and cultural issues. Like it or not, we do not live in an ivory tower on such issues
You might want to read the comment, with the word real in it. Power outage in NI is not a real disaster
Hatzals exists because of the poor response time of EMS.
Of course Hatzalah rarely has paramedics, usually EMTs compared to government EMS. Of course, Hatzalah more likely to take one to hospital that patient wants rather than hospital determined by distance and ;patient condition.
“And so, while the Torah is decidedly political, to the question of whether Torah-Judaism is Republican or Democrat? I believe the honest answer is neither.”
Agreed-too much of our discourse depends on parties. IMO the Jewish organized community including its leadership, which of course includes Rabbis should not endorse individual political candidates and parties. I have no problem of discussing an approach to an issue or multiple issues but not to become an adjunct to a political party.
One real dilemma is: what exactly should Jews do in a one-party city when they support the principles of another party that barely exists there? Sometimes, we cozy up to the corrupt city machine that is the only game in town. While we might justify this as a means of self-protection or getting our community its fair share of public funds, we can become corrupted, too. We might try to rationalize or condone what goes on. The machine might buy us off so effectively that we become reticent about major moral issues.
A tenet of our belief is that the Torah is unchanging; the oft-repeated adage, ‘we do not adapt the Torah to the times, we adapt the times to the Torah’ is our creed.
Perhaps your next piece might be on how this tenet is being reflected in an age of rampant materialism and focus on the rights of the individual (vs. communal obligation)
She-nir’eh et nehamat Yerushalayim u-binyanah bi-mherah ve-yamenu (may we see the consolation of Jerusalem and its rebuilding speedily in our days ),
I believe my blog does represent the kind of Centrism you advocate we should be more proactive about. So… even though there are not a lot of us making that kind of noise… there are some. 🙂
Your posts are centrist but as for some of the commenters, but would you agree as to the hashkafic, halachic and political POVs of more than a few of your commenters?
Thanks for writing this important article. It seems like parts of the frum community in the US are now following the Israeli model. In Israel politics and religion are intimately connected, without much nuance, and even ineffective and immoral candidates can get elected by huge blocks of people just because they are externally ‘frum’, or because Daas Torah says so.
Personally I favor a ban on assault weapons, single-payer health insurance, and am against the Trump corporate giveaway tax plan. However I am strongly pro-Israel and for fiscal responsibility, while against gender politics and the creeping anti-Semitism of some Democrats, going unchallenged by their political cohorts.
This leaves me nowhere politically, so I generally avoid discussions. I will probably write in a candidate like last time.
Alex wrote in part:
” I favor a ban on assault weapons, single-payer health insurance, and am against the Trump corporate giveaway tax plan. However I am strongly pro-Israel and for fiscal responsibility, while against gender politics and the creeping anti-Semitism of some Democrats, going unchallenged by their political cohorts”
Once upon a time Democrats were strongly pro Israel and anti Communist and pro civil rights and unions,. The party now is now becoming rapildly Corbynized not just by the Squad of Four but by the views advocated by the candidates now during the debates. FWIW, IMO, “ban on assault weapons, single-payer health insurance, and am against the Trump corporate giveaway tax plan” are classical statist liberal left solutions to problems that fail to address why inner city crimes are committed predominantly by minorities against minorities, the production of violent and misogynistic music aided and abetted by a fashion industry’s view of women as sex objects, the demise of the family , preserving the quality of medical care and the incentive to become a doctor and strangling economic growth by unwarranted regulation and a no growth economy that is championed by radical environments who may be green on the outside but are clearly red on the inside. One cannot talk about school shooti9ngs without discussing the fact that when you devalue life at its beginning and end, and Lo Tirtzach is at best a repressed message or target for repression in the public arena, the message is that life has no value and lives lost in such events are what happens
Thank you for writing this. Many of us are, quite frankly, disgusted by how political our community has become. If people spent as much time listening to Torah or Mussar shiurim as they do to Sean Hannity and Ben Shapiro, we would be in a very different place. It is even worse when “leaders” or rabbis in our communities lose the ability to think critically and with nuance about political issues. (For a good example of this, read some of the articles on https://coalitionforjewishvalues.org/). As a fellow centrist, there are fewer and fewer places I feel comfortable discussing my views and I don’t see it getting better anytime soon. That being said, I do feel blessed to have a few friends and a Rav who are also more nuanced and really try to look at the Torah perspective on issues rather than Rush Limbaugh or NPR.
Try reading Peggy Noonan in the WSJ a wonderful sane conservative columnist
Prophets, from Moshe onward, were constantly advocating for political change
Not in context of contemporary political science.
the Torah’s legal system directs behavior not only in the privacy of one’s home but in the public sphere as well
See comment above
It’s not that hard to find a Biblical story or even a Talmudic statement to support any given political view.
This doesn’t seem correct for two reasons
(1)A superficial repeating understanding of a Biblical story or a Talmudic statement in itself would not suffice to determine the current correct course of action. It would have to be understood in the proper context , the underlying principles, the parameters and applications the poskim have given etc. Only then would it be understood where it can (not) be applied to a contemporary situation. Without saying “boich sevorahs” it would not be so easy to support any given political view based on a Biblical story or Talmudic statement.
(2)When it comes to neutral issue like economic policy one can argue the Torah supports it. When it comes to moral issues it would be considerably harder to argue that the Torah takes whatever political viewpoint happens to be in vogue in your location.
What Halachic model exists to guide a country in creating public policy for immigration?
In a predominantly non-Jewish there is none. Immigration policy is not from the Shiva Mitzvos Bnei Noach. I don’t know any Frum person who believes his view on immigration is based on a Torah model(Some base it on Jewish history)
Conversely I quite frankly marvel at the irony and hypocrisy of secular Jewish groups who keep no Mitzvos and vehemently oppose any mention or influence of religion in the public sphere insisting that their “Jewish” values require them to fight for immigration rights.
This is an old cliche. It’s also very obviously wrong. The Left, or the Democrats, above all stand for certain things that are obviously anti-Torah. At the other end of the spectrum, I challenge you to tell me one conservative, or even Republican, ideal that is *anti* Torah. (And don’t start telling me that Trump is uncouth. Trump is a man, not an ideology.)
Instead of criticizing political rhetoric, one wonders why the RCA is not issuing policy papers and articles about the centrality and overarching importance of the family unit which the Torah and Chazal viewd as the primary means of transmission of shared values and ideals with the community and educational institutions providing a communal underpinning and the means to do so. Yes, we have issues within our community but we also have a very potent and powerful message on these issues as well that begins with the nuclear and extended family
Mycroft if your doctors were at NYU and EMS took you to Bellevue you would not be receiving the same quality of care Belittlimg Hatzalah and its response time and then ignoring the fact that attacks on Jews have radically increased in NY as a means of presenting DeBlasio as keeping crime down illustrate your item expressed preference and confidence in statist solutions to problems that defy simple statist solutions .i would go with Hatzalah any day over EMS due to their response time and sensitivity to the needs of the patient and family
Dr Bill show me where RYBS in his shiurim and dradhos compartmentalized secular knowledge as not being dependent on HaShem being the Chonen LAdam Daas
See the newly published volume on Brachos and the synagogue where RYBS writes that Kant lacked heart and Heidegger for all of his brilliance was a Nazi
The Nazis demonstrated what purely technological and scientific knowledge devoid of any humility imposed by the awareness of and the rule of a Borei Olam. Unfortunately too many so called ethicists such as Peter Singer and too many doctors have the same arrogant streak