Shalom. As many of you know, my brother Steve passed away quite suddenly two weeks ago. It’s been a whirlwind of emotions, which I will share before long as I try to sort them out and analyze why it’s been so difficult. Making it easier has been all your love and support, for which I am most appreciative.
I had started devoting this blog to High Holiday thoughts that won’t make it to the big time. That was interrupted. Now, with Rosh Hashanah coming so soon (even if it’s as late as I can remember), and the presidential candidate debate fresh in the mind, let me tell you why I am not going to speak about the election in my sermons. Many rabbis are debating whether to speak and/or what to say; this wise counsel is based on writings from my colleague Michael Gold.
I believe that a rabbi should not become embroiled in election politics. First, it is clearly against the law for a rabbi serving a non-profit organization to appear to endorse a candidate. Synagogues must remain neutral. Second, I have passionate supporters in both my synagogues for both parties, each trying to convince me that their party is better for the Jewish people. But alas, there is not one clear Jewish view on any of the major political issues from immigration to fighting poverty, from religious rights to taxes, from gun rights to abortion. Judaism is far too subtle and complex to be a one issue religion. And, last time I checked, God is neither a Democrat or a Republican.
Of course, I do have opinions and thoughts about the election, the issues, and the candidates. I watched the conventions and I am watching the debates. I want to know where the candidates stand, not just on Israel but on everything. But having said that, there is one standard that is particularly important to me. It comes out of the Torah reading for Shoftim, read just a few weeks back.
The Torah portion speaks about politics. It talks about the desire of the people to appoint a king over them. Ideally there should be no king; God is the only king who will predictably do justice. But the people want a king; eventually they would appoint Saul and then David as kings. David’s line would stay in power through the entire history of the southern kingdom of Judah. Now there are rules for the appointment of this king. Look at Deuteronomy 17:15ff to see them. And it says that the king should not multiply gold and silver, nor have too many horses, nor have too many wives. (King Solomon ignored this and his kingdom fell apart.)
The central law regarding the king is an interesting one, that he should have a copy of the Torah with him at all times. The Torah teaches that he should read from the Torah in order to learn to revere the Lord and to observe the commandments. The Torah is well aware that power corrupts. The copy of the Torah serves to limit the king’s power. It gives him a vision to better understand his role as political leader. And it gives him ethical laws to discipline every action.
That brings me to our election. Obviously I do not expect our president, our senators and congress people, other elected officials, to keep a copy of the Torah with them. But I do expect them to have those two qualities that the Torah requires. I expect them to have a vision. And I expect them to have ethics.
So, I want to know about a candidate’s vision for our country, our state, our municipality. The Bible teaches, “When there no vision the people perish, but he that keeps the law, happy is he.” (Proverbs 29:18) A king cannot simply rule because he wants to rule, he must have a vision of the direction to which he wants to lead the nation. As I listen to the presidential candidates, I try to sift through the personal attacks to see if they can articulate a vision.
Second, I want to know about a candidate’s ethics. Is s/he trustworthy? Is he or she careful about their words? Are they truthful? Are they kind? Do they uphold the dignity of all people? I look for examples of ethical and non-ethical behavior.
I will be looking at both vision and ethics as I decide how to cast my vote. I will not endorse a candidate. But I will ask, which candidate is most likely to have holy scripture next to their bed and exhibit a sense that they are being judged by God?
Ponder this. I wish for you all a good and sweet new year, one with hopefully at least a little more peace and calm in the world than we have been seeing of late. Bill Rudolph