This year is the kind of exceptional year in which a rabbis sermon is virtually dictated by circumstance. Like Yom Kippur after 9/11, or the High Holidays the year of Israel’s declaration of independence in 1948, the realities of the impending election on November 8, 2016 stand before us like the proverbial elephant in the room. Every rabbi in America is either giving this sermon, or willfully and intentionally not giving this sermon. Believe me, I know. I’ve emailed with colleagues and talked with them and seen their Facebook posts and tweets.
However. The question that is before each and everyone of us in the upcoming presidential election is not the reductive and simplistic question of ‘who are you going to vote for.’ Firstly, because it’s none of my business, specifically, who you are going to vote for. And secondly, because, as dramatic as this election is, it is but one election in a lifetime of elections. If the average American lives 78.4 years, and turns 18 in an election year, it means that a person will vote 15 times for president in their lifetime, not to mention the intermediate years in which a person votes for congress, or county supervisor, or for judicial appointments.
The question is bigger than one election. The question is this:
When a Jew steps into a voting booth to pull a level, or, as is more likely the case here in Colorado, sits down at their dining room with a pen and our mail-in ballot, what does it mean? What values and principles does Judaism mandate they carry with them into their vote? What expectations or obligations does Judaism place upon a American Jewish voter, if any? What are the core issues a Jew should turn their attention to in this election?
I need to begin, again, like on Rosh Hashanah, with a disclaimer. The federal tax code prohibits tax-exempt organizations, including churches and synagogues, from intervening in political campaigns and elections. I will do no such thing in this Dvar Torah. However, Judaism is a religion of beliefs put into action, of morals made real by the things that we do. The Torah tells us what we should value and what is expected of us by our God. If that isn’t compelling enough, it is at least the book that has served as the guiding principles of our great-grandparents and our ancestors for thousands of years: ignoring its advice, is a betrayal of who we are and what has carried us forward to this point.
This isn’t a political speech. It’s a speech about Torah values, and whether they follow you into the voting box or not. I won’t tell you who to vote for. I will, however, tell you what the Torah thinks you should be looking for in a presidential candidate.
I will add an additional thought. I hesitate to give this sermon on another account: that you’re all so sick of the awfulness of this campaign that to hear about it, in the safe space of a synagogue, is just too much. This is true. And yet, we must face it. We must talk about it. It needs to be said very carefully and very clearly, regardless of your politics, where Judaism draws the line between moral and immoral, between capable leadership and dangerous demagoguery.
But before that, let me make the case for why you should even listen to Jewish values when voting in an American election, because one could very easily make the case that while Jewish values should influence the decisions made in a Jewish state like Israel, they aren’t critical for an American Jewish voter. That’s wrong. Jewish values can and should factor into the vote of an American Jew.
There are a myriad of issues in which Christian voters use their religious tradition to dictate in which direction their moral compass should point. Abortion, capital punishment, torture, war and diplomacy, end-of-life directives, religious freedom, care for the poor, homelessness, universal health care; these are all issues that the Jewish tradition has strong opinions of what we as individuals and society as a whole. One Jew can serve soup at a shelter or donate 10% of their income to the homeless. One vote, or ten or a thousand, can mean the difference between funding for the homeless that can affect thousands of lives. Voting, then, is like a moral multiplier; it takes the good deeds that an individual is capable of and expands them exponentially.
Jews have known this for generations; our strong moral grounding, coupled with a strong tradition of literacy, civic engagement, and family tradition of voting, means we turn out to vote like no other minority group. Jews make up only 2% of the American population. Yet while voter turnout among the general population hovers around 50% in a good year, studies show that Jews vote at much higher rates: between 80 and 85% of eligible Jewish voters submit a ballot in presidential elections. Jewish donors have an outsized impact on both parties in the US. Some estimate that 50% of the money to the Democratic party come from Jews. And the nine states with the largest populations of Jews in the US represent 212 of the 270 electoral votes need to win an election. Jews matter in elections because Jews know voting matters.
So then. How does a Jew vote? While not an exhaustive list, here are three good questions our tradition wants us to ask when we sit down to vote:
- How does the candidate view the weakest individuals in our society?
- What is the candidate’s sense of justice and creating a just society?
- Is the candidate a moral person?
I think, in terms of our presidential election this year, we have the unprecedented occurrence that a fairly clear choice has presented itself, over and over again, throughout the past year. Several candidates on the ballot seem to be able to fulfill basic Jewish expectations for someone to lead the country. One candidate, however, is clearly unfit by Jewish standards to be president.
The Hebrew Bible regards three categories of individual as the weakest; those that require special regard and compassion by Israelite society. They are: the Ger, the Yetom, and the Almanah; The immigrant, the orphan, and the widow. In Israelite society, the immigrant was a person not of Israelite birth that came into the land, seeking protection. They lacked the regular citizenship rights of a normal Israelite, and were clearly fleeing conditions that were less than ideal, otherwise they would never have deemed to have left their home society. The orphan and the widow were in a weakened state because, in the era of a patriarchal society, a husbandless or fatherless individual was without a means of even the most basic economic support. These, the immigrant, the orphan and the widow, are the most desperate of peoples.
In Exodus 22, the Torah tells us ‘Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in the land of Egypt. In Deuteronomy 10, we are told ‘Love the stranger, for your were strangers in the land of Egypt. In Leviticus 19 we learn ‘The immigrant that is amongst you should be treated as one of your home-born, and you shall love him as yourself, because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.’ That verse concludes with ‘I am the Lord your God,’ a line the biblical commentators often note is appended to a line to indicate emphasis. Here, the pre-eminent biblical commentator Rashi adds that it means ‘I’m your God, but I’m also his God’, meaning, I’m the compassionate God of the immigrant too. Finally, in Ezekiel 47 we read ‘This land you shall divide for yourselves among the tribes of Israel. You shall allot it as an inheritance for yourselves and for the immigrants who reside among you, who have begotten children among you. You shall treat them as Israelite citizens; they shall receive allotments along with you among the tribes of Israel.’
In other words, Israelite policy towards non-resident aliens was to accept them freely into society as long as they were productive members of society. Moreover, they were to be loved, and treated with compassion, and given land or aid in the same manner as an Israelite was.
This line of thinking is a far cry from the rhetoric of one of the candidates for president in this election. The Torah doesn’t call Moabite nomads in the state of Judah “rapists and murderers”; the Torah doesn’t say to “build a wall, and make the Jebusites pay for it”. The Torah doesn’t caution against accepting war refugees from Egypt or Assyria or Edom because they might be terrorists. There is no blanket call for the banning of an entire group of faith believers to be excluded from this country, as one candidate has done regarding Muslims that desire entry.
The Torah only speaks of compassion for those who are stateless and defenseless. There are an estimated 11.1 million undocumented immigrants in the United States according to the Pew Research Center. 66% of adult immigrants have been in the US for 10 years or longer. They are the very definition the Torah gives of a ‘Ger Toshav’ ; a ‘resident alien’. They share the same God as we do, and deserve equal treatment. They are not to be demonized, or abused, mistreated, or expelled. Granted, Israelite society did not have complex laws around citizenship or national boundaries or visa paperwork. And surely the United States is within its right to create an orderly system for those who want to be citizens. Nonetheless, no matter how someone got here, they deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, and afforded the opportunity to become citizens. Punishing immigrants or economically oppressing them for fleeing difficult and even life-threatening situations and sending them back is the kind of cruel injustice befitting of Sodomite society. Remember the verse repeats every-time ‘for you were strangers in the land of Egypt’, leaving off the part where we were eventually regarded as second-class citizens and enslaved. Anything less than full dignity for immigrants takes us in the direction of the Egyptian slave masters we are commanded not to be.
That compassion should extend to war refugees as well. The US has admitted 10,000 Syrian refugees this year, which is a laudable act of looking out for the widow and the orphan and the stranger in the words of our tradition. But compared to the past, when the US admitted 120,000 Cubans in 1980, and over 300,000 Vietnamese in 1978 and 79. Between 1944 and 1952 the United States admitted 137,450 Jewish refugees from Europe into the United States. Our history as strangers in Egypt and refugees in Poland means that we are the inheritors of a legacy of obligation for others that have been wandering in a land not their own. One candidate clearly doesn’t agree with this position, and sees outsiders as job-takers, moochers, and undesirables. He sees carefully vetted refugees from war-torn nations as potential threats, not strangers in need of help. I wonder what he would have said about my grandmother’s application for refuge in the United States 70 years ago.
The second issue that our tradition seeks in a leader is a sense of justice and fairness. All of you know that Judaism has 613 commandments. Those laws apply to Jews. But there are seven laws according to the Torah that apply even to non-Jews; mostly obvious ones like don’t murder, don’t steal, and don’t have illicit sexual relations. But the final law is interesting: the obligation to establish just courts of law. The assumption should be made that the Torah expects Jews to be active in picking leaders, Jewish or non, that know what justice is.
One candidate does not. He has criticized whether a judge in a pending legal case can be un-biased because the judge is of Mexican descent. On the topic of whether he supported the interrogation tactic known as waterboarding, the candidate has say ‘I love it, I think it’s terrific.’ Meanwhile the United Nations and the International Red Cross have declare it is an illegal form of torture, and the CIA and the State Department have ceased the practice because it is ethically questionable and has also been ruled ineffective. This same candidate has advocated defeating ISIS by finding the terrorist families, their wives and parents and children, and killing them. This same candidate, when confronted with protesters at his rallies, suggested that his supporters commit violence against them. This same candidate vowed to put the other candidate in jail if he was elected. Despite the fact that multiple congressional ethics panels have taken no action for any possible misstep Secretary Clinton make in Libya; despite the FBI’s determination that while the Secretary was irresponsible for deleting emails from her private server, she had not broken the law. No, this candidate’s sense of justice is that judges and congressional investigations are invalid, and true justice will only be achieved when he can wave a magic wand and imprison those who seem suspicious, evidence or no.
The Torah, the prophets, and biblical commentators were opposed to injustice and torture and extrajudicial killing, and in favor of fairness and due process. The prophet Job tells us (ch4)
‘God puts no trust in angels, the heavens are not clean in God’s sight. How much less one who is abominable and corrupt, a man who drinks iniquity like water!’
The prophet Amos tells us (ch5) ‘Hate evil, love good, and establish justice in the gate.’ And later ‘Let justice well up like waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream.’
Justice is closely tied in all societies with the desire to both seek and speak the truth, in others, and in your own conversation. As Isaiah said (ch28)
‘I will make justice the line and righteousness the plummet. Hail will sweep away the
refuge of lies, water overwhelming the shelter of liars.’
All politicians are dishonest. They tell voters what they want to hear, or fail to make good on a promise because it becomes politically expedient in circumstances to do so. The candidate with his name on all the hotels in Atlantic City, however, is really something else. The independent website politifact rated 285 of the candidates’ statements on the campaign trail, in debates and in TV interviews. They rated 200 of them, or 70%, either mostly false, false, or pants on fire false, including claims that Muslims in New Jersey celebrated on 9/11, that the Obama administration supported ISIS in Iraq, that Blacks kill 81 percent of white homicide victims, and that there is a conspiracy to misrepresent US unemployment numbers and the real unemployment number could be 42%. Those were all rated as ‘pants-on-fire’ dishonest.
The other candidate has been rated on 266 statements she made. 72% were found to be half-true, mostly true, or true. Mr. Trump’s statements were statistically more likely to be dishonest fictions than every other candidate that he ran against in the Republican primary. A person with that fungible a relationship with honest cannot fulfill the Torah commandment to establish just courts.
Third and finally, Jews seek leaders who are moral and upstanding. From the Torah telling us that Moses was ‘a humble man’, that Abraham was chosen because he was righteous and just, that Jacob was patient and long-suffering, that Joseph was chaste before women and boundless in his forgiveness. King Solomon is praised for his wisdom, while his father David, a good leader in his own right, was punished fiercely by God for acquiring a wife through deceit and iniquity. Judaism expects leaders to be symbolic exemplars.
This man, in contrast, is well off the mark of the moral example the Torah lays out for us. He has insulted US military personnel; by mocking John McCain for having been a POW; and by entering into an ugly twitter feud with the family of Captain Humayan Khan, decorated war hero that died in the service of his country. He mocked a disabled reporter at a rally. He has slandered the immigrant community and Latinos. He thinks a blanket ban on Muslims entering the country should be considered, nevermind that it’s a blatant violation of the first amendment and endangers the rights of every other religious minority in America to paint with such a broad brush, including Jews. And his comments on women are perhaps the most appalling, from the way he mocked Megyn Kelly to some of his fat-shaming body-comments towards a former Miss Universe to his consistent and frequent comments relating to a woman being unattractive or a dog or ‘no longer a 10’ to his most recent, and most vulgar, revelation of intending to have extra-marital relations to a TV reporter while the two were aboard a bus. That conversation, which I’m sure you heard, transpired in the most crude and awful way.
Simply put, the candidate does not see the divinity in his fellow man and woman that our Torah compels us to. He sees women as objects of beauty, or as physical failures. He sees millions of poor minorities as either parasites or threats. His support for a person or disdain for a person is entirely dependent on whether that person is deemed a ‘winner’ or a ‘loser’. Just recounting all these myriad moral failings and dishonesties make me want to take a shower, quite honestly.
The point of all this, in spite of how yucky reciting this whole litany of morally indefensible acts is to remind us of how lucky we are to have an unshakable moral code of our tradition. When a Jew votes, they are not divorced from their Judaism. Our moral code has preserved us as a people from Sinai to this moment. We do not cease to be Jews, or cease to be righteous, when it comes time to vote.
Let me be clear: a Jew can 100% be a democrat or republican, or an advocate for military interventionism or relative isolationism, or a supply-side or a Keynesian, or pro-life or pro-choice, and still be a good Jew. In any other election year, with any other candidates, this Dvar Torah would make no sense whatsoever; it’d wouldn’t be my place. This election is so different ; and this candidate so toxic to the Jewish worldview of what an appropriate leader is, that it demands we take a firm stand as a people.
A Jew walks through the world as a partner with God in making it just and righteous everyday. They are commanded to treat their fellow human beings, brown or black or Muslim or Jewish or powerful or weak or a winner or a loser, as if they were created in the image of God God’s self. Our vote is our affirmation of our partnership in that endeavor. We do not cast it lightly. We cast it, for whoever, knowing that it stands for us as individuals, our community as a largely immigrant people and a tiny religious minority, and for our values that we receive from the Torah.
God bless us that our leaders embody and reflect the values of the Torah. We may not have perfect leaders to select from in this election. But let us not be a nation that abandons our values when the pen is in our hand and the vote is before us. Let us remain a great nation under your influence, forever indivisible.