The “Open Letter:” Commendation and Reservations

Readers of Cross-Currents aren’t surprised when they find two of its writers disagreeing about important issues. Simply put, that is one of the reasons we exist. We remind people that Torah thought is not monolithic; there are sharp differences between the way its members look at the world and its events, and some parts of the community allow this and even celebrate it. In regard to the “Open Letter” that appeared last week in Mishpacha (as well as on Cross-Currents), our readers are going to get at least three points of view. My brief contribution will lie somewhere between that of Rabbi Shafran and Rabbi Gordimer.

First – publishing the letter took courage and conviction. I am proud that the owners of a number of the signatures belong to good friends of mine. Its authors saw what they considered to be a falsifying of Torah, and undertook to correct it. They understood that they would be met with harsh criticism and derision, and accepted it as the price to pay for emes/truth. Even those who disagree should commend them for their commitment to principle. (Mishpacha as well should be commended for taking the risk of offending some irate subscribers whose beliefs came under fire in the letter.)

I am entirely on board with the single point that I hope the authors agree is the most important that they’ve raised: that it is both wrong and unhealthy for the Torah community to appear to have accepted the gospel of any particular party. It is wrong, because it cheapens Torah, that expects us to look at all questions through the lens of Torah morality, not the expectations of party loyalty.[1] And the Torah does expect us to champion certain principles, even when they are not convenient.

A few lines by R. Yosef Dov Soloveitchik zt”l eloquently make the point. They address themselves to l linked to the lines in last week’s parshah that speak of what we must do to be viewed favorably by the nations – which apparently is important:

And which great nation is it that has just statutes and ordinances, as this entire Torah. A goy gadol (Devarim 4:7) also distinguishes itself in the area of righteousness. The people as a whole, as well as the individuals who comprise it, possess a developed sense of and fine sensitivity to justice. Instinctively, they cannot tolerate evil; they hate discriminatory practices and chicanery. If a nation is emotionally capable of approving of injustice, it cannot lay claim to greatness, no matter how powerful it is militarily and economically, or however ingenious it is in matters of science and technology. Real greatness is found the innate quality of fairness and righteousness, in the spontaneous indignation whenever one is confronted with hypocrisy and selfishness. (Festival of Freedom, p. 131)

None of this should be sacrificed for political expediency. Nor should we insist on hard-nosed pragmatism when it obscures real issues of fairness and justice.

Appearing to be ideologically linked to one party – as if we are all Republicans with tzitzis – is also unhealthy. It drives away Jews who are attracted to a Torah life style, but uncomfortable with conservative discourse. We place enough restrictions on people’s lives without subjecting them to party affiliation tests.

Still, I begged off when I was shown a copy of the letter and asked if I would sign. I had two reservations that prevented me from joining my friends.

The letter seemed aimed at a particular candidate. The authors insisted to me that this was not their intent – that they were more interest in the point developed above. If that was their intent, I didn’t see it in the execution. Smarter people than me all took the piece to be, at least in part, an attack on the President. Given the enormous uncertainty about who Joe Biden will select as his running mate – someone expected by many to slip into the presidency not long after the election – I believe that it is short-sighted to compromise any support for Donald Trump that may be needed come November.

This is neither an endorsement, nor a papering over the less attractive parts of the President’s persona. It is simply a reflection of our need to be flexible and to safeguard our interests. I was not going to be party to that. We have to be prepared to speak truth to power, and refuse to become part of a see-no-evil, hear-no-evil cheering section. Whatever decision we make at the ballot box, we must be prepared afterwards to speak up for principle. If our backing of and loyalty to a candidate mean that we succeed in getting his/her ear, we must be willing and able to whisper, at times, words they do not entirely want to hear.[2] This does not mean that we cannot support the candidate who will do the most for America, and the most for our needs.

I also could not get completely behind this sentence in the letter: “The integrity and impact of what we convey to our children and students about kedusha, tzni’us, emes, kavod habriyos and middos tovos are rendered hollow when contradicted by our admiration for, or even absence of revulsion at, politicians and media figures whose words and deeds stand opposed to what we Jews are called upon to embrace and exemplify.” These words imply that unless we distance ourselves from those politicians and media figures, we send the wrong message to our children, as well as the rest of the world.

I used to believe that. No longer. It was true in an age in which we expected political leaders to exhibit some quantity of virtue, or at least cover up their lack of it. That is not true in a world in which there is no privacy, and unvirtue-signalling (about the figures they scrutinize) is a large part of journalistic reportage. Hardly anyone emerges with an admirable record. That means that there are never going to be heroes found in their precincts.

Not that we cease to believe in virtue. Rather, we must tell ourselves and our children that the last place to look for paragons of virtue is among politicians, sports figures, and entertainment personalities. The utter, absolute, last place. In the Orthodox community, we need to keep on doing what have done in our popular press from Day One. We’ve found our heroes – without even trying very hard – in Torah personalities, and in the righteousness of ordinary people in our community, whose accomplishments we showcase. We don’t think for a second of looking for moral cynosures in the wrong places – even high places. Warped midos in politicians is no more of a threat to our children than the billboards for McDonalds they pass on the way to school. Neither is part of our universe.[3]

My small quibble with my friend Rabbi Gordimer is about this point. He argues in his response to Rabbi Shafran that the alternatives to the President are hardly people who have scaled R. Pinchas ben Yair’ ladder of spiritual elevation.[4] They are all bad influences. My point is that we should stop looking at anyone in their starting lineup. Our roster has better players. That way, none of them are influences.

Upon reflection, it is not such a small point. It is a crucial one for hundreds of millions of Americans – especially parents – who are appalled by what is now taking place in the United States. A remarkable contribution to their well-being would be understanding that they should have zero expectation of moral leadership from politicians and celebrities. Zero. And at the same time, that heroes are still to be found walking the streets of America.

  1. Would I say the same about the voting record of religious parties in Knesset? Of course I would!

  2. Contrary to the way they are treated in the media, I know of people on the Christian right who are in the “inner circle,” and yet speak their minds and souls to the President. We should be able to do it just as well.

  3. For the record, I try to convince my conservative Christian friends of the same thing. They would be getting less exercised about the behavior of the President if they would be offering their children a constant stream of wholesome, positive, inspiring personalities

  4. See Mesilas Yesharim, beginning

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38 Responses

  1. Bob Miller says:

    I’ve noticed a basic problem with Orthodox news publications that try to present enough news on timely topics so readers won’t need to go to the general press. That is, that none of them can ever have enough reporters to cover all this ground, so they must rely on wire services (AP, Reuters, etc.) and other syndicated news and opinion (New York Times, Washington Post, etc.) for general news.

    Of late, these sources have been bending and selecting facts to fit their own leftist political outlooks. The burden then falls on the Orthodox publications to sift through this material and really vet it to properly select what to publish. I doubt they have the time and staff to do much of this, either.

    In the 1950s and 1960s , my father A”H used to buy an assortment of daily newspapers with different viewpoints (NY Herald Tribune, NY Post, SI Advance) to give some perspective. Nowadays, nearly all the papers have one perspective, and it’s not ours.

  2. dr. bill says:

    In both halakha and non-halakhic contexts, I am a firm believer in legitimate disagreement where arguments on both sides of an issue exhibit both strengths and weaknesses. What is not advisable is creating a meaningless compromise appearing to bridge what in reality remains a significant gap. That approach often is just a method that allows the can to be merely kicked down the road, to rear its head at a later date.

  3. mb says:

    As of now, I’m abstaining(again!). I’m thinking of writing in Yitzchok Adlerstein! Thoughts?

  4. joel i rich says:

    Would I say the same about the voting record of religious parties in Knesset? Of course I would!
    could you clarify what this footnote refers back to

    • Sure. “…Torah, that expects us to look at all questions through the lens of Torah morality, not the expectations of party loyalty.[1]” Outside of the haredi community here, haredi politicians are seen as loyal to whatever party has bought them by promising them more money. Specifically, that they will vote along party lines regardless of what they should feel is proper for the rest of the country. They will vote the way their coalition partners demand, even though their Torah sensitivities would and should tell them otherwise in regard to security, or the financial well being of the country, etc. The example that comes to mind first is their going along with the Sharon decision to expel the Jewish communities of Gaza. It will be a long time before the DL community forgives them, or takes their Torah judgment seriously

      • Cvmay says:

        As do some in the Charedi community!!
        & can be noted by the increasing number of Charedi voters while Knesset MK # remain the same,
        (IOW those voters have found a different party to support )

      • dr. bill says:

        Halevi, that was the most significant example. Prospectively, like Oslo, matters could legitimately have been seen differently. If one goes back to the 70’s and 80’s, there were events that can never be justified IMHO. In fact, when historians write the final chapter on the split of Degel HaTorah from the Agudah, our sense of some of the principal actors in that story will be etched in stone.

      • Bob Miller says:

        Until Knesset members are elected by district, the basic problem of party dominance over voters will persist. Even that is no panacea.

  5. Arnie Lustiger says:

    R. Yitzchok, your article reflects my own confusion about the open letter. Your “quibble” very well reflects the political paralysis of many people like me. The moment I vote for either of the candidates I will be filled with charata that I didn’t vote against him.

    • Robert Lebovits says:

      Choices come in three varieties:
      1. Good vs. Bad – Pretty easy.
      2. Good vs. Good – Still fairly easy. Only hard if you’re an Optimizer.
      3. Bad vs. Worse – Hardest, trying to figure out which is which.
      Once you do your due diligence and come to a determination, accept your conclusion. That’s all we’re given to do.

    • Cvmay says:

      Why charata?

      Study the policies of the parties, whether it’s tax concerns, Foreign policy (with emphasis on Middle East/Israel), Iranian nuclear deal, domestic law & order, “green deal”, justice & Federal court system, patriotism, government budget, etc……..
      Decide what works best for the health/survival of the country and then
      VOTE & encourage others too!

  6. Bob Miller says:

    As President, you could have a bigger blog.

  7. Bob Miller says:

    In 1976, my boss and I weren’t thrilled with the choice of Presidential candidates (Carter and Ford) , so we sent the NY Times a letter to propose a third option. Surprisingly, they found it unfit to print.
    It went like this:
    1. Voters could pick “none of the above” and these votes would be tallied along with the rest.
    2. Percentage thresholds of “none of the above” would dictate the consequences.
    3. Lowest rung – the candidates would restart their campaigns from scratch.
    4. Next rung – the party conventions would reconvene and select new candidates.
    5. Highest rung (indicating massive disgust) – the candidates would go to jail for the 4 years they had sought.

    • Schmerel says:

      Presumably the letter was facetious. How could anyone be voted into jail without a fair trial ?

      But it does bring up an important point.Politics are like everything else in life.

      You don’t have the choice to opt out of bad external circumstances by choosing “none of the above” with a new set of eternal circumstances being handed to you.

      • Bob Miller says:

        Something like it is very appealing today in view of recent DNC meddling with their candidate selection process.
        Voters cheated out of picking candidates by rigging of primaries or conventions would have recourse. Yes, it was and is a fantasy.

  8. MK says:

    “The integrity and impact of what we convey to our children and students about kedusha, tzni’us, emes, kavod habriyos and middos tovos are rendered hollow when contradicted by our admiration for, or even absence of revulsion at, politicians …”
    I agree with Rabbi Adlerstein that our children should be taught not to look towards politicians for role models.
    I think that the integrity of what we teach our children regarding the above, is more likely to be undermined by what they see in “our world” (Often in the same publications in which the Open Letter appeared), regarding over the top materialism, lack of condemnation of financial improprieties and even admiration of some who have committed them. A very respected Yeshiva principal told me that every time a teacher of Torah says something dismissive of “goyim” , showing a lack of kavod habrios, we “lose a kid”!

    • Cvmay says:

      As you who has been engaged in Torah/Jewish education for almost 50 years, when/where/who has been educating our children to look upon our political leaders as heroes, menschim or stars?
      (Perhaps the late PM Menechem Begin a”h was given due & deserved honor)

      • Bob Miller says:

        In 1960, when I was in Jewish day school, our English teacher often proselytized in class for JFK. Her husband was active in the NY Liberal Party.

      • Bob Miller says:

        I just found on the Web that her husband was a local co-chairman of JFK’s campaign, so maybe his real affiliation was Democratic.

  9. Lee says:

    To my friends on the right I say: Rush Limbaugh is not a Rebbe. To my friends on the left I say: The New York Times Op-Ed page is not the Torah. The idea that Jews are beholden to one political party based on our religion confuses me. Our religion is big enough to contain ideas of leniencies and strictness; of unyielding justice and of giving someone the benefit of any doubt. Pirke Avos 2:3 paraphrased, adjures us to stay away from politics and politicians, that they will discard you as soon as they have no use for you. Me? I hold my nose and vote.

  10. YEA says:

    The authors of the open letter aside, most of those who express disgust at the president’s lack of moral character also express disgust at the vice president’s abundance of moral character.

    As Jonah Goldberg noted, “Mike Pence apparently doesn’t dine alone with women or attend events where alcohol is served if his wife doesn’t accompany him…In response, there’s been a lot of cheap mockery from prominent liberal writers and activists. It’s an affront to working women! He’s a Christian weirdo! He thinks a meal with any woman will lead to sex!..It’s a very strange place we’ve found ourselves in when elites say we have no right to judge adultery, but we have every right to judge couples who take steps to avoid it.”

    • Bob Miller says:

      These elites want to have their cake, eat it, and feel very good about their perfect selves. Intrusions of actual morality, as opposed to their convenient substitute, really bother them. And, if Trump was on their political side, they’d be his biggest fawning admirers.

  11. YEA says:

    “It drives away Jews who are attracted to a Torah life style, but uncomfortable with conservative discourse.”

    I do wonder if there’s more room in Orthodoxy for those who are left of center than there is in Reform for those who are right of center. My social media feeds are full of Orthodox Jews expressing left-wing views (including one prominent Orthodox rabbi who said he had been contemplating a vote for Bernie Sanders “because I have an affinity for socialism.”) These views range from moderate left wing to all out crazy radical left wing lunacy.
    How many Jews affiliated with the Reform movement have and express conservative beliefs? How many Reform rabbis have an affinity for free market capitalism?

    • tzippi says:

      We in the Orthodox world know we’re not voting for a Messiah, and don’t expect the president to repair the world. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that. And it would be nice.)

  12. YEA says:

    Unlike so many political commentators for whom the president can either do no wrong or can do no right, Ben Shapiro actually does a great job in judging everything that the president does on its own merits. He regularly calls out the president with very strong criticism, but he praises whatever he sees as good. In fact, he often refers to “Good Trump” and “Bad Trump”.
    Yet to my left wing Orthodox friends, no such subtleties exist. Everything the president does is evil. (In fact, they think Ben Shapiro is also evil, though that may to some extent be due to the fact that they don’t actually listen to him. The socialist Orthodox rabbi I referenced in a different comment has written, “Isn’t Ben Shapiro a Trump hack?”)

  13. Schmerel says:

    Those who signed the letter should either rewrite or revise it.

    Bottom line point of it was true: Our values come from Torah and not political parties and figures.

    The letter, however, was so widely perceived as being a partisan letter due to the obvious criticism of Trump and the fact it went so out of it’s way to downplay the current growing hostility to Israel among many factions of the Democrat party that it lost much of its credibility. Quite ironically to a certain degree it seemed like another “Jews have to support …because….” ad.

    It should be rewritten along the following lines:

    As Jews the Torah is our guide. Unfortunately many politicians including those we support do not lives in accordance to the Torah values or push ideas diametrically opposed to the Torah. We are in Golus and do not have and never will have politicians who align 100% with our values. Even if we support a given politician we must be wary of forgetting that his values and goals do not align 100% with ours. We don’t accept their moral positions or behavior just because we would like to see him reelected. Conversely there are many politicians who we vehemently oppose due their moral positions or behavior but we no choice other than trying to work with them .etc.

    • Bob Miller says:

      Some Orthodox leaders have flattered Democratic officials of demonstrably low character, such as both Clintons. Did the signatories ever protest that?

  14. Steven Brizel says:

    Ben Shapiro is a conservative but is hardly aTrump flack on any issue His columns and books are excellent introductions to serious thinking about American history and why the Founding Fathers who wrote the Declaration if Independence the Constitution the Bill of Rights and the Federalist Papers as well as America has progessed from its earliest evolving views on slavery to today If you have been brainwashed by Zinn read Wilford McClays Land of Hope for a great one volume history of the US

  15. Michoel Halberstam says:

    Thank you as always for a sensible point of view. I have come to expect it. Your quote from the Rav is very significant and enlightening as it seems to imply the Netzivs view that there is a reason why the Avos are called Yesharim and not just tzadikim. The Torah is commanding us to do mitzvos, but is clearly assuming that will will be , above all things, conditioned to know what is right. The advent of many religious groups, of all stripes is that they seek to become the Torah, instead of just organizing those who follow the Torah. Far too many of us have fallen into this trap. I am sure that I will be criticized for this, but my age, and the fact that I have no stake in seeing that any particular group needs to be right, allows me to simply say what I think.
    It is clear from Nehemiah’s Tefila at the beginning of Nehemiah, when he asks HKBH to let him find favor in the yes of “that man” namely Cyrus. He, like all Jews, recognized the importance of Cyrus for all of Jewish posterity because he encouraged us to return to Zion and rebuild the Bais Hamikdosh. But he was still “that man” who may sometimes not do the wrong thing. I believe that there is a lot to be learned from this

  16. Natan Slifkin says:

    Even given that politicians have no moral standards, is there not still a difference between those who at least pretend to have such standards – i.e., who agree that there is such a value – and those who don’t even pretend or care?

    • Nachum says:

      Well, sure, if you’re going to believe all the negative propaganda about one side and all the positive propaganda about the other, then you’ve already settled the argument that you yourself created.

      Newsflash: Trump is, by most accounts, a very decent person once you get to know him. And Biden is a nasty, nasty piece of work. But you’d never know that reading, well, only the things you’ve been reading.

  17. Micah Segelman says:

    The CC discussion about the political orientation of our community is so important and I am heartened by the agreement of all of the writers that fully aligning oneself with “Team Trump” is inappropriate, and depending on how it is done, bordering on ziyuf ha-Torah. We all agree that sporting MAGA hats just ain’t the Torah way, regardless of how we may vote in November. The parallel could be true with other political figures or movements.

    The open letter, written by individuals for whom I have great respect, focuses on the President’s personal moral transgressions and his style. While “kedusha, tzni’us, emes, kavod habriyos and middos tovos,” are extremely important, other fundamental principles are at stake as well. And they touch not just on personal conduct and style but on the substance of his leadership. 

    I wish I heard more outrage at the President’s attempts to pervert the judicial system in order to reward his loyalists and punish his enemies, undermining the rule of law. Where is the revulsion at his adoption of whatever “facts” and “truth” serve his purposes? His bullying? His abuses of power? Where is the recognition that right and wrong are not meaningful concepts to him? That he values loyalty to a person (himself) over loyalty to principle? I don’t see acknowledgement of his attempts to deligitimize his critics, stifle dissent, and cast blame in order to avoid accountability? His willingness to take credit and unwillingness to take responsibility? It seems hard to deny that the level of corruption and lack of moral compass of this President are outliers.

    I’m not advocating seeing only the negative about Trump’s presidency and perhaps a case can be made to support him based on pragmatic reasons. That’s a topic for a different discussion. But if one recognizes that Trump’s  failings transcend style and personal morality and instead go to the heart of what it is supposed to mean to be an American President, then voting for Trump, albeit with reservations, is harder to justify. Fundamentally, I feel we need to reckon with whether we as Torah Jews believe that  “Right matters here.”

    • Bob Miller says:

      Sad to say, a lot of this was made up and believed by the politically gullible. A cursory review would show how much more of it applies to his political enemies.

  18. nt says:

    When the authors said the article was not aimed at Trump, did they mean it was not aimed with any particular politician in mind, or that they meant Trump and anyone else who fits the description? The former seems hard to believe, and the latter seems like not such an improvement.

    As someone who grew up during the Clinton years, the idea that presidents MUST have strong character seems amusingly quaint.

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