By: A. Jeff Ifrah  | 

Rabbinical Involvement in Politics: Right or Wrong? (Vol. 54, Issue 8)

Sporadically, at this time of year, upcoming Student Council elections have encouraged certain Rabbinic faculty members, almost exclusively in MYP, to endorse or oppose candidates for student offices. YC senior Behnam Dayanim remembers his unsuccessful bid for YCSC Junior Class President of 1987-88. “I recall when I was running for Junior Class President certain rebbeim, one in particular, would both denounce events and issues with which I had been associated and would urge their students, usually by implication, not to vote for me.”

Although students in the shiurim related several stories of such occurrences, Mr. Dayanim asserts that the overall impact was minimal. “I don't think anyone who was going to vote for or against me changed their minds, but it probably made those who hadn’t intended to  vote come out and vote against me.”

During last fall’s presidential campaigns, students again heard the voices of their rebbeim instructing them for whom to vote and sometimes for whom not to vote. One YC Senior told of his rabbi. “He assured us as follows, ‘I’m not telling you who to vote for, I'm telling you not to vote for Jackson.”

Such rebbeim told of their prophetic visions of what a man like Jackson would do to the Jewish Community and Israel. They, therefore, felt obligated to come out and endorse Bush, or not endorse Dukakis.

In late September, the dilemma of who to vote for was complicated yet further. The Jewish Press released an endorsement of then Vice President Bush for the presidency, as did a long list of prestigious American rabbis, many of them from YU.

Mr. Liebb, the editor of The Jewish Press, would not comment on how the paper received the names of Yeshiva University rabbis, but did mention why he felt compelled to endorse Bush despite a more popular journalistic trend of non-endorsement,

“Considering the issues, people expected us to take a viewpoint, and, in the interest of the Jewish people, Bush, while not the ideal candidate was...closer to our causes than Dukakis.” Mr. Liebb admits that Rev. Jackson was very influential in The Press’ endorsement, while he belittles the importance of John Sununu, the current White House chief of staff.

For the readers, it might have appeared as if Yeshiva University actually endorsed Mr. Bush. However, the endorsement by Yeshiva University rabbinic faculty, according to Dr. Efrem Nulman, Dean of Students, was not an official Yeshiva University endorsement, rather a personal opinion of the individual rabbis. 

Dean Nulman asserted, “Part of the function of the rebbe is to have an influence over his students.” While Dean Nulman won't personally endorse a candidate and would admonish one of his employees for doing so, he believes in academic freedom and the putting forth of important opinions by Yeshiva University faculty. He notes, however, that a faculty member's endorsement cannot be issued as equivalent to that of YU's merely by association.

“Nobody can represent Yeshiva University [but] the President of Yeshiva University; anyone else who wants to must receive his permission,” he declared. Officially Dr. Lamm, and/or Yeshiva University, did not endorse either candidate.

While Dean Nulman has been asked to speak on behalf of candidates, he has consistently replied, “No, my personal viewpoints are irrelevant.”

Director of MYP Rabbi Zebulon Charlop replied similarly yet felt his rabbinic faculty had not acted incorrectly. “My own personal style would dictate for me, anyway, not to endorse candidates. I don’t believe I've ever endorsed any candidates,” except one in a local election with whom the rabbi was close. “I think most, if not all, rebbeim from my recall, very rarely endorsed anybody unless they felt very strongly” about the issues and thus acted as an exception. “It's hard to put a ban on this — something may come up which” the rabbi feels compelled to endorse, Rabbi Charlop stressed. 

Rabbi Charlop agrees with Dean Nulman’s view of the unique rebbe/talmid relationship which allows for such endorsements. “Rabbi Charlop explained, “Because a rebbe is more than a professor in terms of the [role model] he constitutes vis-a-vis Jews generally who are observant, [students] look to the rebbe for a view that is refined by his learning and piety.”

These students, according to Rabbi Charlop, are obliged at the very least to act with extreme caution and serious consideration. After all, if the learned rabbi comes to a decision, and he feels it warrants public expression, he has the right, according to Rabbi Charlop, to express that opinion.

Does a rebbe constitute an all knowing figure whose word must meet fruition by his students?

Rabbi Charlop answered, “I can imagine in some circles this would be the view, but I think that our rebbeim have a sense of what democracy is and what free will means in elections and how central the concept of free choice is in our democracy. They're certainly not unmindful of constitutional rights that when they tell their students what candidate they're for, and even cause them to follow their example, implicit is, we hope you follow us, we think even you ought to follow us, because of our experience, knowledge of Torah, etc.; but equally implicit is that we understand that you might not follow us. We don't really place our electoral endorsement on the same level as a p'sak din or Hilchot Shabbat.

“Finally,” Rabbi Charlop concluded, “I think that it can fall into the category of ‘Talmid Haham Sheh'makhal Al Kodo, K'vodo Makhul. The rebbe certainly expects the student to exercise his free judgment in these areas.”

Rabbi Aaron Soloveichick, one of the few rabbinic faculty who did not come out and endorse a candidate views things ambivalently. Rabbi Soloveichik refused a Jewish Week correspondent’s request for an endorsement, nor did he at any time make his voting intentions public.

The venerable rosh hayeshiva tells his co-religionists that for them to persuade others how to vote is both “unjust and un-American.”

Rabbi Soloveichik asserts that choice at the ballot box is a constitutional right which no rabbi may retract from his student. The rabbi also states that it is an erroneous view held by some students who believe “Kavod HaRav,” respect for one’s rabbi, necessitates one to vote as his rabbi instructs, or as the rabbi votes himself.

The rabbi points out that while there are some examples of hero worship in Hasidic movements, nowhere is it inherent in the tradition of those who observe Torah who aren't Hasidic. It follows, therefore, that a talmid should not be led to think that because of an obligation to“Kavod HaRav” he must vote as does his revered rabbi.

Rabbi Soloveichik quoted from his great relative, Rabbi Chaim Volozhin zt”l, the greatest student of the Vilna Gaon zt”l, to illustrate his point. From Pirkei Avot we learn “to stay at the dust of our rabbis’ feet.” The word “Me’avek” is used for “dust.” Similarly, we find the word with Yaacov. He wrestled with the angel, The word there for “wrestled” is “VaYe’avek” (Genesis 32:25). Rashi explains that they kicked up a storm of dust as they wrestled.

Reb Chaim reminds us to always remain at the dust of the feet of our rebbe; however, sometimes because there's this dust, the rebbe’s eyes may become fogged so that he errs, perhaps endorsing the wrong candidate. So the opposed student chooses to wrestle with his rebbe. But, Rabbi Soloveichik reminds us that the student must do so “with reverence and respect.”

Rabbi Soloveichik revealed that he voted for Michael Dukakis in the recent presidential elections, but wishes to mention that he did so not because of the Jewish issues involved, but because of the American issues. He asserted that he voted “as an American.”