Orthodox Jews and the Political Process
Orthodox rabbis play a prominent role in Israeli politics and often openly support candidates in American elections. Since I question the connection between halakhic expertise and political acumen, I have refrained from expressing my political views to the students in Yeshiva. However, there is value in analyzing the basis used by many Orthodox Jews, including rabbis, in taking public political positions.
In parallel but differing nuances, the heads of government in America and Israel are facing serious charges of corruption and/or abuse of power. The Orthodox community perceives both leaders as having policies that are favorable to its interests. While differing in detail the leaders’ defense has been to claim that their enemies, political and in the media, have orchestrated a coup against them. The substance of the allegations is seen as irrelevant. The leaders have demanded loyalty from their followers.
In Israel, a prominent Rosh Yeshiva attended a rally where the attorney general and police commissioner, both Orthodox Jews appointed by the Prime Minister, were denounced. All the religious parties support legislation that would immunize the Prime Minister from any prosecution. If one reads Orthodox media in America, one gets the impression that Orthodox Jewry is totally supportive of the President. His demeaning, name-calling of opponents doesn’t even require being defended.
Support for both leaders can be justified in terms of protecting the community’s self-interest, though that would not necessarily lead to such extreme demonstrations of loyalty and attacks on opponents. What appears to be lacking is any concern about illegal, unethical and immoral behavior. Whether reflecting a cynical attitude about politicians in general or accepting that these leaders demand total loyalty and cannot handle any criticism, the impression exists that Orthodoxy doesn’t care about ethics or legality.
What has differentiated Orthodoxy from other Jewish streams is a full commitment to halakhic observance, which is most clearly reflected in ritual observances. Any differences in standards of interpersonal behavior are relatively minor. The Reform movement, having abandoned observance of Shabbat and Kashrut, focuses on quoting the statements of prophets criticizing the mistreatment of the poor and the vulnerable. No Orthodox rabbi would disagree, but functionally this focus defines only part of Orthodox Judaism. In Israel, where Jews have sovereignty over non-Jews for the first time in two thousand years, ethical standards for treating non-Jews, who are often hostile, are more complicated.
These and other factors have led to ethical concerns becoming of marginal significance in Orthodoxy. In the complex world of politics, these considerations are rarely mentioned. This is a major mistake pragmatically in promoting Orthodoxy to the broader Jewish and non-Jewish communities, and more importantly as not being true to our basic values. Traditionally one of the highest Jewish compliments was that one is a “yoshor,” a person who is straight and has unquestioned integrity. It is paradoxical that anti-Semites characterized Jews as cheaters and manipulators.
Maimonides, in concluding his Guide to the Perplexed, quotes and amplifies Jeremiah 9:23 “Let him who glories glory in this: that he understands and knows Me, that I am the Lord Who exercise faithful love, justice and righteousness in this earth: for in these things that I delight says Hashem.” For Maimonides, the goal of knowledge of Hashem translates into our emulating Him by pursuing faithful love, justice and righteousness.
Judaism doesn’t tolerate corruption. No political gains are worth losing ethical sensitivity. Without integrity our religious identity is hollow. Silence may seem to be a clever strategy but demonstrating ethical concerns is being authentically Jewish.